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U.S.: Gun raids show cartels at work in Arizona

Federal officials say 20 arrests show that Mexico's most violent drug cartels are exploiting U.S. gun laws to acquire massive quantities of assault rifles.
Image: District of Arizona United States Attorney Dennis Burke \speaks about recovering weapons from defendants accused of trafficking illegal firearms to Mexican drug cartels during a news conference in Phoenix
U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke, center, discusses raids that recovered weapons from defendants accused of illegally trafficking firearms to Mexican drug cartels on Tuesday at a news conference in Phoenix. Joshua Lott / Reuters
/ Source: NBC News

Federal officials say they have new evidence that Mexico's most violent drug cartels are exploiting U.S. guns laws to acquire massive quantities of assault rifles and other firearms for use in their war against the Mexican government.

In an early morning round-up in Arizona, law enforcement agents Tuesday arrested 20 people who are accused of illegally buying hundreds of AK-47s and other firearms at U.S. gun stores. The defendants allegedly acted as "straw purchasers," falsely declaring on federal forms they were purchasing the weapons for themselves, rather than their real clients: the Sinaloa Cartel and other Mexican drug trafficking organizations across the border, the officials said.

"The massive size of this operation exemplifies the magnitude of the problem — Mexican drug lords go shopping for war weapons in Arizona," said Dennis K. Burke, the U.S. attorney for Arizona, who announced the raids at a press conference in Phoenix.

The raids, along with five accompanying indictments of 34 suspects, are likely to call new attention to the state of U.S. gun laws at a time they have been the subject of mounting debate in recent weeks triggered by the Tucson shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

Jared Loughner is accused of taking advantage of those laws to acquire a Glock 19 semi-automatic pistol and at least two high-capacity magazines at an Arizona gun store despite a history of mental troubles and drug use. U.S. agents say Mexico's drug cartels have similarly exploited the laws.

In the cases announced Tuesday, officials said the alleged straw buyers managed to acquire the weapons — and pass federal background checks — without raising red flags despite the fact that in some cases they plunked down large sums of cash for multiple purchases of assault rifles. In one case, officials said, seven individuals spent $104,251 in cash at various Phoenix-area firearms dealers to acquire 140 firearms.

charges that some of the alleged gun traffickers would buy ten to twenty AK-47s per visit — sometimes just days apart and often from the same gun store, the in Glendale, Ariz.

In one instance, according to the indictment, an alleged gun trafficker named Manuel Fabian Celis-Acosta called the Lone Wolf gun store on Dec. 8, 2009, and asked how many AK-47s the store had in stock. Forty five minutes later, an alleged straw buyer and co-conspirator showed up at the store and bought 20 AK-47s, which he allegedly transported to an auto auction business in Phoenix and and then loaded into other vehicles.

Last Aug. 5, another defendant charged in the case bought 12 AK-47s from Lone Wolf that three days later were discovered concealed in a stove and a television in an attempt to smuggle them into Mexico at a border stop.

A clerk who answered the phone at the Lone Wolf gun shop Tuesday said he knew nothing about the charges against the store's former customers and referred any questions to Lone Wolf's owner, who was not available for comment. 

Many of the weapons purchased by the groups were AK-47s, which were banned under federal law in 1994, but became legal when the ban lapsed in 2004.

In addition, officials of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said the arrests point to the urgent need for White House approval of a federal rule they proposed last month that would require firearms dealers in four southwest border states — Arizona, Texas, New Mexico, and California — to report multiple sales of long guns.

Currently, firearms dealers must report to the ATF when a customer buys two or more handguns, but no such requirement exists for long guns such as AK-47s, which were described by officials as the "weapon of choice" for Mexican drug trafficking organizations.

ATF officials said such reporting would be an invaluable "intelligence tool" that would allow them identify potential straw buyers for the cartels.

But that proposal, which was published in Federal Register in December, has drawn angry protests from the National Rifle Association and firearms industry, whose spokesmen argue it would impose an unnecessary regulatory burden on the gun stores and potentially infringe on the Second Amendment rights of legitimate gun buyers.

When ATF acting director Ken Melson announced the proposal on Dec. 20, he said he expected it would be finalized and take effect in early January. But that has not happened, raising concerns within ATF that the gun lobby's opposition may have stalled it. A spokesman for the Justice Department did not return a phone call seeking comment Tuesday.