By Dan Freedman, Hearst Newspapers
WASHINGTON — Convicted gun smuggler John Phillip Hernandez of Houston was likely not the kind of customer that Bushmaster Firearms International had in mind when he purchased 14 of the company's .223 caliber AR-15s at Houston area gun shops in 2006 and 2007.
Bushmaster describes the AR-15 rifle, a civilian version of the U.S. military's standard-issue M-16, as intended "for law enforcement, security and private consumer use." But the weapons that Hernandez and his associates purchased ended up in the hands of Mexican drug cartel pistoleros, including the Bushmaster .223 that was later used to kill four police officers and three secretaries in Acapulco
A Hearst Newspapers survey of 1,600 guns purchased mostly in Texas and Arizona — which were either shipped to Mexico or intercepted en route — shows the Bushmaster .223 AR-15 ranks second among firearms apparently used in drug warfare.
The survey — drawn from guns identified by manufacturer or importer in U.S. court documents from 44 cases involving 165 defendants in Texas, Arizona and three other states — shows the purveyors of guns to Mexican drug traffickers followed a time-honored maxim of product salesmanship: Bigger is definitely better.
In the world of assault-type weaponry, power is measured by bullet caliber, velocity and range, as well rapidity of fire and ammunition magazine capacity.
"The gun traffickers supplying Mexican drug organizations have become more selective and sophisticated in the weapons they acquire,"' said Kristen Rand, legislative director of the Washington-based Violence Policy Center, which extensively studied the issue. "Their goal is the bulk purchase of maximum firepower."
The Bushmaster .223 comes with a 30-round magazine, enabling the shooter to fire all 30 rounds, one for each pull of the trigger, in a minute or less. John Allen Muhammad, the D.C. sniper, and his youthful accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, used a Bushmaster .223 in nine of 10 sniper-style murders that terrorized the Washington area in 2002.
A spokeswoman for Bushmaster did not respond to repeated calls for comment.
The No. 1 gun in the Hearst survey was the AK-47 imported from Romania by Century International Arms of Delray Beach, Fla. Century Arms, as it's commonly known, legally circumvents a federal law stipulating that imported rifles must be suitable for "sporting purposes." Once inside the U.S., Century Arms converts the rifles into military-style AK-47s capable of holding 30-round magazines.
Among Mexican traffickers, it has earned itself the nickname "cuerno de chivo" or "goat horn" because of its distinctive banana-shaped magazine.
Worried that weapons purchases for drug cartels might fuel more calls for tougher U.S. gun control laws, gun-rights advocates insist that existing laws are sufficient to control such trafficking.
"The brand names are inconsequential — what matters is that our laws aren't being enforced," said Andrew Arulanandam, director of public affairs for the National Rifle Association. "We have adequate laws on the books. If someone is breaking the law, go after them. If not, they should be left alone. That's the NRA position."
Since the federal law banning assault weapons expired in 2004, so-called "straw purchasers" have flooded U.S. gun stores in the Southwest, mostly in Texas and Arizona, sweeping up these and other weapons. Court documents show such purchasers buying as many as 20 AK-47s at a time, paying as much as $11,000 in cash.
The weapons are sold legally but the purchasers must sign a U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives document saying they are buying the guns for themselves. Straw purchases for others are a violation of federal firearms law.
Typically, the purchaser turns the guns over to a broker who takes them across the border to Mexico, where such weapons cannot be bought legally. The weapons are sold to the cartels, often for three or four times the original price.
Top ATF officials have said in congressional testimony that 90 percent of the guns submitted for tracing by Mexican authorities are from the United States. Gun-rights advocates doubt the accuracy of that claim.
In any case, "the trace itself doesn't tell you anything,"' said Lawrence Keane, general counsel for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the Newtown, Conn.-based firearms industry trade group. "It doesn't say anything about conduct of retailer, manufacturer or purchaser."
The group decries the name "assault weapon" and refers to high-powered guns as "modern sporting rifles." An NSSF survey last year found that 44 percent of owners of these weapons are active-duty or former military or law-enforcement personnel, and the typical owner is 35, married and has some college education.
Once in the hands of cartel capos, however, the modern sporting rifle becomes very much an assault weapon.
Violence in Mexico has claimed nearly 40,000 lives since President Felipe Calderon began a military offensive aimed at overpowering drug cartels.
The Hearst survey of court cases found these weapons among the top 10:
— The Belgian-made FN Herstal Five-SeveN: Some versions of this pistol hold 10 rounds; others have a 20-round capacity. It fires 5.7X28mm cartridges, referred to as "mata policias" (cop killers) in Mexico because they can penetrate bulletproof vests.
— FN Herstal PS90 rifle: It also fires the 5.7X28mm round. Its compactness makes it easy to conceal and some versions can hold a 30-round magazine, made of lightweight polymer.
— Colt Super .38 pistol: Colt, based in West Hartford, Conn., is the corporate legacy of Samuel Colt, who popularized the revolver in the years before the Civil War. The "El Presidente" model is popular in Mexico because it is one of the few guns legally available there, according to the Violence Policy Center. It is cheaper at gun outlets in the U.S.
— Beretta 9mm. An Italian-made 9mm pistol that is a best-seller among U.S. law enforcement agencies. It's a more powerful version of the Beretta popularized in James Bond novels and films.
— Century Arms Draco 7.62X39mm pistol: Another Romanian import. A Draco, purchased in Joshua, Texas, near Forth Worth, was used in the attack and shooting death of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent Jaime Zapata in Mexico in February. It is not clear if Century Arms imported the Draco in that case. It fires the same round as the AK-47 but is significantly shorter and easier to conceal.
Military-style weaponry has enabled the drug trafficking organizations to match and sometimes overwhelm the firepower of Mexican law enforcement.
In May 2008, Mexican federal police raided a suspected trafficker house in Culiacan, a long-standing drug hotbed in the Mexican state of Sinaloa. Cartel gunmen armed with AK-47s purchased in Arizona overwhelmed the police, killing eight.
The Hearst survey parallel the findings of a Violence Policy Center report from 2009 documenting 21 gun-trafficking court cases involving 1,700 weapons funneled to Mexico, as well as a federal law enforcement report this year, based on 2,921 guns recovered in Mexico and traced to original U.S. purchases between December 2006 and November 2010.
The federal report also concluded that of 2,921 traced guns, 1,470, or 50 percent, were from Texas. A total of 852, 29 percent, were from Arizona. California, by contrast, accounted for 90 guns, three percent of the total. California gun-control activists credited that state's low total to strict state firearms laws that severely limit sales of military-style weaponry.