Blog dedicated to reporting on Mexican drug cartels
on the border line between the US and Mexico

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Arizona guns quietly smuggled across border as bullets fly in Mexico

Chivis Martinez Borderland Beat TY Gus  Tucson

Gun Seizure

Images of charred, bullet-ridden trucks on a remote highway in Sonora and an hours long gunbattle in the heart of Culiacan, Sinaloa, horrified the U.S. public in recent weeks.

The images showed where the “iron river” of guns and ammunition bought in the United States empties onto the streets of Mexico.

The headwaters of that river often spring from Southern Arizona, where federal court records show young people buying weapons for $100 payouts, a man buying rifles from gun stores every few days for nearly a year in Green Valley and Tucson, and heroin addicts selling .50-caliber rifles to their dealers.

After the fatal shooting of three women and six children in La Mora, Sonora, on Nov. 4, Mexican officials announced that some of the ammunition used in the attack came from the U.S.

To get a closer look at how the iron river flows from Southern Arizona into Mexico, the Arizona Daily Star analyzed the 32 weapons-smuggling cases involving Mexico filed in federal courts in Tucson and Phoenix in 2018.

The cases show that rather than dam up the iron river midstream at the Arizona-Sonora border, federal agencies focus on where the river ends and where it begins.

Only a handful of prosecutions came from firearms and ammunition being smuggled into Mexico through Arizona’s ports of entry. Most cases came from federal agents scouring suspicious paperwork at gun stores in Tucson and Phoenix or following up on firearms recovered in Mexico that were traced back to Arizona.

At Arizona’s ports of entry, customs officers catch thousands of pounds of hard drugs every year and inspect millions of travelers heading north, but they only caught six rifles and four handguns heading south in fiscal 2019, according to data provided by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Since 2012, customs officers in Arizona caught 106 rifles, 88 handguns and 202,000 rounds of ammunition.

Far more weapons were caught in Sonora after they crossed the border. Since 2009, the Mexican military recovered 6,700 illicit firearms, including 4,200 rifles, the Mexican newspaper El Imparcial reported on Nov. 18.

Firearms are largely illegal for civilians in Mexico, but they are used widely by drug cartels and other criminal groups.

The Mexican military estimates 1.6 million illicit firearms are circulating in Mexico, the Milenio news outlet reported in August. The estimate included 200,000 firearms smuggled into Mexico each year, most of which came from the U.S. but also from Spain, Italy and Austria.

A more solid number comes from weapons traced back to the U.S. after Mexican authorities recover them at crime scenes, find them abandoned, or under other circumstances. More than 67,000 firearms recovered in Mexico were traced to the U.S. from 2013 to 2018, according to ATF data.

The narratives included in court cases and search-warrant affidavits illustrate what Mexican commentators call an “operación hormiga,” or “ant operation,” of quietly buying firearms in Southern Arizona and smuggling them in small numbers across the border.

Even one such purchase can have “devastating repercussions” in Mexico, Angela Woolridge, a federal prosecutor who handles many of the firearm cases in Tucson’s federal court, wrote in sentencing memorandums.

“It is impossible to know how many people already have been or will be threatened, injured, or killed because of the single firearm the defendant purchased,” Woolridge wrote.

Last weekend, three people were fatally shot in San Luis Rio Colorado, the Mexican border town south of San Luis, Arizona. Mexican authorities recovered high-powered rifles, tactical gear and a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.

Grenade launchers were at the heart of a 2018 case in which an undercover Homeland Security Investigations agent set up two sting operations in Tucson and Chandler.

A man who was not named in court documents contacted the HSI agent online and asked about buying an M-16 automatic rifle and a grenade launcher. He and the undercover agent set a price of $3,650 and met in the parking lot of a big-box store in Tucson in September 2018. The man was arrested, as were two men the following month who met with the agent in Chandler to buy three machine guns with attached grenade launchers for $10,500.

Another highly destructive weapon that figures prominently in cartel violence is the .50-caliber rifle, which can pierce armor and bring down helicopters.

When Mexican soldiers in Sinaloa took into custody the son of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera, the former leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, on Oct. 17 they set off an hourslong gunbattle with cartel soldiers, some of whom used .50-caliber rifles.

The .50-caliber rifles are “what the cartels need to strengthen their particular ‘armies,’ if you will,” said Monique Villegas, special agent in charge of the Phoenix office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. If a competing cartel gets .50-caliber rifles, “that’s what they’re going to start looking for in the U.S.”

Buying one is relatively easy in Arizona and elsewhere, Villegas said.

“My 86-year-old grandmother could walk into a store and buy a .50-caliber rifle if she wants to,” Villegas said.

Michael Huynh, 29, and Katie O’Brien, 28, both Tucsonans, did just that on several occasions, court records show.

They were sentenced in September to five years in prison after they bought three .50-caliber rifles on behalf of their heroin dealer, who would then arrange to have them smuggled into Mexico. One of the .50-caliber rifles, a belt-fed TNW HBM2, is so heavy-duty that it is mounted on a tripod.

Huynh later said he had bought about 50 firearms for his heroin dealer in the previous year.

A rifle that Huynh bought in October 2017, a Century Arms RAS47 assault rifle, was recovered in Mexico three months later after a shootout between Mexican law enforcement and a cartel in La Paz, Baja California Sur.

During their investigation, ATF agents learned that another man, who was not charged, bought a Colt M4 rifle for Huynh’s heroin dealer in March 2017. That rifle was recovered in Culiacan four months later.

Although port busts are relatively rare, when they do happen they can lead to complex investigations.

In November 2017, customs officers busted a vehicle containing six firearms at a port of entry in Nogales, Arizona. Investigators found that one of the firearms was sold online to Gardenia Rincon Avilez two days before the bust, court records show.

Five months later, police in El Mirage searched the home of Nicholas Brasseur, a licensed firearms dealer, and found paperwork showing he had sold 50 lower receivers for AR-15 type rifles to Rincon in March 2018 for $21,000 and another 53 receivers to an associate of Rincon.

Brasseur told agents that Rincon had said she planned to take the receivers to Tucson, where they would be converted to fully automatic rifles and then taken to Mexico.

Weeks later, customs officers in Nogales stopped Rincon as she drove into Arizona. She told agents that she bought the receivers and took them to her sister’s house in Scottsdale, where she stored them in a Tupperware box in the garage.

She eventually took them to Tucson and sold them to the man who had told her which weapons to buy. She sold them for $700 each, or a profit of about $400 per receiver, according to court records.

Rincon said she was given cash in Mexico and brought it to Arizona to buy weapons. On one occasion, she was asked to buy a FN M249 belt-fed rifle in Phoenix. She bought the rifle for $8,000 and sold it in Tucson for $12,500.

Two of the rifles she bought in March 2018 were later recovered in Mexico.


In June 2017, an otherwise law-abiding 18-year-old in Tucson was pressured by a family friend to buy a rifle. The friend gave him the money and told him to buy a Century Arms WASR-10 assault rifle from a gun store in Tucson.

In exchange for $100, the young man lied to the store employee and said the rifle was for his own use, making him one of a half-dozen “straw buyers” in a smuggling ring that moved rifles through Nogales into Mexico, including one recovered in Culiacan, Sinaloa.

In another case, a 23-year-old woman bought a Century Arms RAS47 pistol in Tucson at the request of her boyfriend in December 2017. Hours later, he smuggled it through Nogales into Mexico. The pistol was used in a crime in Sinaloa less than two months later.

Young buyers are common in Arizona and throughout the states bordering Mexico, said the ATF’s Villegas.


  1. Gun control? Good luck with that here in the US. Its becoming a common theme for mass shootings here with no prevail due to gun lobbyists. Along with regulations not imposed nor enforced by Congress. As long as there are prohibitions against those items (drugs & guns) there is a market for with consequences unfortunately.
    The human race has always been destructive by nature.

    1. Second amendment protect gun owners. Even tho the fake news makes it look like mass shooters happens substantially. Most are caused by gang members. Not the unstable white boy going to school.

    2. No one is indicating a race issue here. Rather, the accessibility for guns to be acquired without background checks to anyone with I'll intentions.

    3. What a joke of a comment...always trying to blame the brown man...i have not seen not one mass shooting by a "gang member" in a long time but many disgruntled anglos, asians and even foreigners

    4. 7:04 wouldn’t your comment be a joke too? Why brown? You’re using this long standing racist bullshit. Not all Hispanics are brown we come in all colors

    5. Yeah, those saw 249 and grenade launchers are all coming from the US. This blame game gets old. Maybe if they made guns more accessible to the normal Mexican citizens they could stand up to the rampant crime and cartel violence. Taking away guns only takes them away from law abiding people. Obviously the cartels with their rocket launcher, grenades machine guns ect. don't give a shit about the law.

  2. So, it’s the violence in Mexico is America’s fault because American addicts buy Mexican Drugs smuggled into America, but also America’s fault when Mexicans buy American guns illegally smuggled to Mexico, yet you don’t want Trump’s border wall.
    Curious reasonings.

    1. Using their reasoning: No demand no supply. If Mexicans would stop killing each other, then Americans wouldn’t need to send guns.

    2. Good assessment.

      Long live the 2nd amendment.

    3. You notice that they only mention the.drug addicts, not the "heroin" dealer or gun manufacturer. Are these dealers and gun manufacturers once again the government. Second, you need a federal tax stamp and 1 year waiting period to buy an HK M249 machine e gun and 40mm grenade launcher. Only the civilian model 37 has gun can be purchased.

  3. Well I just read. Old Donny is goin to label cartels as terrorist groups. I've been saying it for awhile it's gonna take the wrong right people getting killed before Americans open their eyes to the crap goin on down there.

  4. It's all Mexico's fault... They don't want guns coming in, why don't they set up inspection stations at ports of entries like the US has...? Then, that's a big then, prosecute everyone caught with them! Can't leave your borders wide open and complain about what's poring in.... I'm a Mexican by the way, living in Mexico....

    1. Wow a Mexican living in mexico, no wonder you come up with the most honest and greatest ideas.

    2. Living in Mexico, mhm that must be why you take a reasonable approach.... I must agree. Maybe they take some $$$ under the table to let them in.

    3. @1:05 you mean a bribe? On the Mexican side? That again would be Mexico's problem. Just like I think a big portion of drugs go into the US via bribery. Both countries are very much to blame for their OWN problems! But Mexico has wide open borders, I also agree with a wall!

  5. 4:03PM

    The root cause for the drug war is America's insatiable appetite for drugs. Without American drug users, the stories covered in this site would not exist.

    F$5k tRUMP and his wall..

    The Wall is up and drug flow continues unabetted. Serious reasoning.

    1. Only 10% of drugs coming into the US are consumed there. The rest go to Canada or are imported here to Europe. Cocaine does not grow in Africa, China or anywhere else.

    2. The root is the corruption that lives in Mexico. Also, there had to be products first in order for there to be addicts. And the wall isn’t even done.

      And if there were no drug addicts, these cartels would find another criminal activity because the savagery is already within them they won’t change. Mexico will never change simply because no one owns up to their mistakes/faults it’s always somebody else’s fault.

  6. Just a clarification a rocket propelled grenade launcher is a recoiless rifle and illegal in US. Same goes for regular grenade launchers (only ones capable of launching non lethal flares are legal). These weapons along with light machine guns, heavy machine gun and explosives come from South of Mexico or from corrupt military.

  7. The reason they aren't catching loads of guns is because that kind of tranza is obsolete. You don't need to recruit people or set up fake addresses for Driver's Licenses anymore. All you have to do is buy the parts and build them down south. Takes 1 person even a minor could do it. The cartels are now producing alot of their guns in-house. No more risk of ATF reverse stings or gunshow busts. Look at the weapons seizure photos and you'll see alot of bare metallic AR-15 receivers. Gun control doesn't work, period.


Comments are moderated, refer to policy for more information.
Envía fotos, vídeos, notas, enlaces o información
Todo 100% Anónimo;