By Ildefonso Ortiz
The AK-47 assault rifle has gained a bad reputation in recent years as the weapon of choice of the Mexican cartels.
But while law enforcement officials and weapons experts agree that the nearly 65-year-old Avtomat Kalashnikova is popular for its reliability, accuracy and price, those very traits are what make it so appealing to criminal organizations, Mexican officials say.
“It has a simple design that is easy to maintain, and it is easy to operate,” said Luis Morales, general manager at RDS, an upscale firearms store that specializes in tactical equipment. “The ammunition for it is very cheap, and it is easy to find magazines and other accessories for it.”
Mikhail Kalashnikov began designing the AK-47 model in 1945. It was finished in 1947 and put to work by the Russian army in 1949. The weapon quickly caught on with militaries worldwide, and it became a popular sporting rifle soon after.
Today, there are more than 100 million AK-47s out there, Morales said.
While an AK-47 retails in the $600 to $800 range, with some models reaching more than $1,000, some knock-offs can be found for about $430.
WEAPON OF CHOICE
A former Zeta, who left the drug cartel in 2006, told Valley Freedom Newspapers earlier this year that the AK-47 was one of his favorite weapons because of the minimal maintenance it requires. The AK-47 he described was a fully automatic rifle, meaning that multiple shots were fired each time he squeezed the trigger. A semi-automatic rifle, on the other hand, fires one shot each time the trigger is pulled.
Members of organized crime — including the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas — typically carry the AK-47, a Tamaulipas law enforcement official said.
Mexican authorities seized 40,469 pistols and 55,269 “long firearms” between Dec 1, 2006 — when President Felipe Calderón took office — and Dec. 23, 2010 — the most recent date for which figures were statistics, according to information released by the Mexican military. A former Mexican naval officer said he wouldn’t be surprised if more than half of those “long firearms” were AK-47s.
They certainly make the news often enough:
>> Last year, Tamaulipas police arrested three Zetas in Matamoros in connection with the shooting of two police officers. Also seized in the arrest were three AK-47s.
>> Last week, the Mexican military seized 24 of the Soviet-designed rifles hidden inside a cave in the town of Anzaldua, near Reynosa.
>> And after Brownsville native and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Special Agent Jaime Zapata was killed in February by Zetas in the northern Mexican state of San Luis Potosi, casings recovered from the scene revealed that the murder weapon was an AK-47.
Unlike the United States, Mexico largely restricts possession of firearms to members of law enforcement and the military. Civilians can purchase and own certain small-caliber pistols and sporting rifles, but the restrictions are lengthy.
In the Unites States, law-abiding citizens may purchase semiautomatic rifles — like AK-47s — if they meet certain criteria.
Those looking to purchase a rifle must be 18 or older, present certain documentation and pass a background check through the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System, Morales said. Those looking to purchase an automatic firearm must go through a strict, three-month process that includes a lengthy background check in addition to the regular background check done when purchasing a firearm, he said.
People with felonies or assault violations are not eligible to purchase a firearm, Morales said.
The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives, which is tasked with enforcing firearm laws is familiar with AK-47s.Individuals who are not eligible to purchase a firearm will try to get one through a “straw purchase” by having eligible customers do the buying for them, agency spokeswoman Franceska Perot said.
While the agency didn’t have specific data singling out the weapon by model, the ATF lists the AK-47 as one of the weapons targeted by its “Project Gunrunner,” which sought to reduce cross-border arms trafficking, Perot said. The only other rifle listed in the project is the AR-15 assault rifle.
Although the AK-47 is associated with Mexican cartels, it’s also a reliable weapon for law-abiding citizens for use in hunting, target practice and home defense, Morales said.
Morales himself has had an AK-47 for more than 16 years, and it’s still in optimum condition.
“The caliber is great for hunting,” he said. “This is a weapon that you can put through anything and it will continue to fire.”