U.S. agents are armed with the secrets of a convicted
gunrunner, information that could lead them to top Mexican drug-cartel bosses and the Houston firearms dealers supplying high-powered weapons. Texas
Christian Garza was sentenced to three years in federal prison as a result of a plea agreement that offered leniency in exchange for telling
officials about his criminal contacts, according to court papers. U.S.
"Mr. Garza has also provided assistance and information related to the sale of the firearms in question to highly sought fugitives who are believed to lead one of the most violent Mexican drug cartels, the Zetas," states a paper submitted to a federal judge by his lawyer, Connie Williams.
The Zetas cartel, a crime syndicate launched by former members of the Mexican military, thrives across the border from
They are known for being gruesome, aggressive and efficient. Top leaders are dodging capture, despite multimillion-dollar rewards for their arrests by the
Garza was a member of an arms-trafficking group that sent more than 300 military-style weapons to Mexico.
As part of his agreement with the government, he described the inner-workings of his cell and provided grand-jury testimony that "may prove to be critical" in seeking criminal charges against firearms retailers where weapons were purchased, according to the paper filed by Williams.
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives contends U.S. is the No. 1 spot of origin for weapons that have been traced from Mexican organized crime scenes back to the Houston . United States
The case began in January, 2007 during a routine inspection of files at Carter's County, a firearms dealer in
, according to court papers. ATF agents noticed numerous large cash purchases for what the agency considers cartel weapons of choice. Houston
Numerous individuals had purchased large quantities of military-style firearms in a relatively short period of time. ATF later determined that 23 buyers had purchased 339 firearms – mostly AR-15 semi-automatic rifles, FN Herstal 5.7mm rifles and pistols, and Beretta pistols – worth $366,450 in a 15-month period at Carter’s County gun store.
Mexican authorities also had recovered 88 of these firearms in
Mexican authorities also found several more of these U.S.-origin firearms during narcotics related searches and at various vehicle inspection points. In total, 18 Mexican law enforcement officers and civilians died using firearms purchased from this
gun store. U.S.
Williams stressed that his client was not a member of the Zetas and did not personally meet with any Zetas, nor take guns across the border.
"They (federal agents) were more interested in the higher-ups, the people who could connect them to what was going on down in
," Williams said. "He put his two cents in. There was another layer between him and the Zetas." Mexico
Garza became a supervisor after being recruited by two cousins, including one who is a fugitive and believed to be in
He is the latest of a dozen Americans, including three brothers, who pleaded guilty in an ATF investigation that has intensified since 2006. It has included multiple indictments. It is unclear to what extent others in the case have cooperated.
The ATF and federal prosecutors declined comment.
men were convicted for their roles in deceiving firearms dealers in order to buy weapons, many of which were civilian variants of the M16 rifle favored by Houston 's drug cartels. Mexico
Garza's background and day job repairing windshields underscored part of the cartel's apparent strategy.
citizens who are both facing tougher economic times, so they may be tempted by quick cash, and have no felony convictions so they'll pass gun-buying background checks. U.S.
According to officials from ICE and ATF, individuals and groups seeking to traffic
firearms to U.S. use several different schemes to purchase and transport Mexico firearms to U.S. . In a large majority of cases, several straw purchasers and one or more intermediaries or brokers are used to traffic the firearms to Mexico . Mexico
The straw purchasers are eligible to purchase firearms in the
while the brokers are usually legally prohibited from purchasing firearms because they are convicted felons, not United States citizens or residents, or for other reasons. U.S.
Sometimes taking orders from a person in
, the U.S.-based broker may hire three or more straw purchasers, often young women, to buy a few firearms each at various locations. In a more complex scheme intended to better hide the arms trafficker’s identity and avoid prosecution, a managing broker hires additional brokers, and these brokers then hire the straw purchasers. Mexico
Sometimes taking orders from a person in
'What did he know?'
intelligence agent said a key factor is the validity of Garza's information. If he only dealt with the cartel on the U.S. side of the border, he would have limited information about what is going on in U.S. . Mexico
Still, each little piece could prove important in connecting the dots, he said.
Cartel members pay attention to how criminal prosecutions play out in the
, including who is talking. "They will do like everybody does," the ex-agent said, "assess the situation — what did he know?" U.S.