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How legally purchased guns from Texas are fueling cartel violence – and the fentanyl crisis

Gabriel C. Pérez
/
Texas Standard

Cartel violence in Mexico has been raging for years, with authorities seemingly unable to reign it in.

Complicating matters is the fact that criminal organizations are often armed with high-powered firearms. Many of those weapons originate here in the U.S. – from Texas in particular – and are then smuggled southward.

Mexican officials have long asked for America’s help in curbing gun smuggling, and a new firearms trafficking law may help. Still, thousands of US guns flow south each year, enabling cartels to terrorize communities on both sides of the border, whether it’s violent crime in Mexico or fueling the fentanyl crisis stateside.

Kevin Krause, criminal courts reporter for the Dallas Morning News, spoke with the Standard about how guns from Texas are ending up in Mexico, and how new measures hope to curb some of the weapons trafficking enabling cartel violence.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: It’s my understanding you and your colleague Alfredo Corchado have been looking at how weapons flow from Texas into Mexico via something called the Iron Pipeline. What is that?

Kevin Krause: Yeah, this is basically the flow of these high-powered weapons, rifles and handguns that are purchased in North Texas that flow essentially along the same smuggling routes used by the cartels to send drugs north into our communities.

When we talk about high-powered weapons, I presume that we are talking about semi-automatic rifles and semi-automatic pistols. Is that what you’re referring to?

Absolutely. The the AR-15 and AK-47, as well as the .50 caliber sniper rifle, are highly sought after by the cartels. And often authorities in Mexico say they’re outgunned by these cartels because of the arsenal of weapons they’re getting.

Are these commercially available weapons? You mentioned the .50 caliber, for example. 

Yeah, absolutely. You know, of course, Texas has more gun dealers than any other state. And these weapons are available all over Texas, perfectly legal. You can buy as many as you like as long as you pass the background check, and the cartels find people with clean backgrounds – they’re known as straw purchasers – and they’ll buy these weapons legally. And then when they transfer them to the cartels, that’s where it becomes illegal.

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There’s nothing really new about straw purchasing, but as I understand it, the experts you spoke with said gun smuggling to Mexico is helping fuel the fentanyl crisis in the U.S.. What’s the connection there?

So fentanyl dealers have a parallel operation we found, which is arms smuggling. And so they’ll transport fentanyl across the border north into Texas. Then they have operatives purchase these guns, and then they’ll take the proceeds of the drug sales, along with the weapons, south in vehicles. The argument is that if we want to stop the flow of drugs into the U.S. – and fentanyl in particular – we have to stop the flow of weapons to the cartels.

That’s the oversight of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. You report the Senate approved the Biden administration’s pick to run ATF; are you getting any sense of how this new director may prioritize the exchange of weapons between the U.S. and Mexico? And is Mexico putting any pressure on the new director?

Yeah, absolutely. The Biden administration has been to Mexico; President Biden himself meeting with the Mexican president to discuss this issue, because for years, Mexico has complained to the U.S. about the guns that are just flooding into the country.

And only now we’re starting to see some movement. We’re starting to see talks between the two countries, because the Biden administration is under a lot of pressure to stop fentanyl from entering the U.S. And so in order to get cooperation from Mexico on that, Biden has made it a priority to crack down on firearms trafficking. And his new ATF director – the first one in seven years – is very serious about it, has talked about firearms trafficking as, you know, really the No. 1 priority right now.

But it does seem like now that there is a firearms trafficking law, which passed last summer, as well as a director of the ATF, that progress is moving forward on measures to stop trafficking of weapons. But what we’re seeing in North Texas is kind of a smattering of indictments involving mostly straw purchasers. We’re not seeing big arms trafficking conspiracies broken up. And that’s what Mexico really wants.

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