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

Thursday, August 26, 2021

Where Do Mexican Drug Cartels Get Their Guns? Often, The United States

"Sol Prendido" for Borderland Beat

Jose Rafael Vasquez tried to smuggle guns from the U.S. to Mexico, but was arrested as part of Homeland Security's Operation Without a Trace.

A Washington man drove to a U.S. border crossing last year in his teal Ford pickup truck loaded with a hidden arsenal bound for a Mexican cartel war zone.

Miguel Diaz Calderon never made it out of Texas. U.S. Customs agents searched his vehicle at the Eagle Pass crossing and found 43 shotguns, rifles and pistols. 

They also discovered more than 10,000 rounds of ammunition hidden in an ice chest in the gas tank and inside the spare tire, court records show.

Diaz is part of what cartel members call the “Hormiga,” Spanish for “ant,” referring to an ant trail of reliably flowing weapons transported from the southern U.S. to Mexico, said Jaeson Jones, who tracks cartel trends and previously managed the daily operations of the Texas Rangers' Border Security Operations Center.

The Mexican government estimates that more than half a million guns are smuggled from the U.S. each year, arming Mexico's deadly cartel wars. Officials in Mexico — which has just one gun store and issues fewer than 50 gun permits a year — blame lax U.S. gun laws and the prevalence of gun shops in America for the bulk of weapons that allow cartels to flourish. Earlier this month, the Mexican government sued U.S. gun manufacturers in federal court, accusing them of fueling the violence

Diaz is one of 360 suspects arrested so far during Operation Without a Trace, an ongoing crackdown launched nearly two years ago by Homeland Security Investigations and U.S. Customs and Border Protection to intercept illegal guns, said Joseph Lestrange, division chief of Homeland Security's Transnational Organized Crime.

These agencies team with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to investigate the financing, transportation, and communications methods of smuggling networks.

Agents launched 534 investigations, seized $29 million and intercepted more than 1,200 guns, 4,700 magazines for semi-automatic and automatic weapons and 700,000 rounds of ammunition headed to Mexico, Lestrange told The Courier Journal this month.

"The majority of weapons we've seized since we started this operation have been in the corridor by Laredo, Texas — from Laredo to El Paso," he said.

Diaz, who lived in Union Gap, a three-hour drive from Seattle, tried to cross the border northwest of Laredo on International Bridge 2 on May 5, 2020. The bridge connects Eagle Pass, Texas, to the Northern Mexico city of Piedras Negras in the state of Coahuila.

After his arrest, Diaz told agents with Homeland Security Investigations he was paid $5,000 upfront to smuggle "fierros," Spanish for "iron," which he understood to be guns, across the border.

He expected to be paid an additional $5,000 once the guns were delivered to Michoacán, Mexico, according to court records. He claimed he didn't know the names of the gun buyers or their cartel affiliations.

In Michoacán, the global powerhouse Cártel Jalisco Nueva Generación, or CJNG, has been engaged in a long and deadly battle with Sinaloa and other rival cartels.

"It's hard to pinpoint exactly where we think a particular load (of guns) we seized was going," Lestrange said. Some suspects won't talk after their arrests and others admit smuggling guns but claim they don't know the names of the buyers or the cartel involved.

"But we also know most of the violence the Mexican government is concerned about against police and against institutions is coming from CJNG and the Sinaloa Cartel" run by the notorious kingpin "El Chapo," Lestrange said.

If Diaz had sneaked his arsenal past U.S. Customs officials, he would have had to pay a "piso," or fee, to members of the Cártel del Noreste, or CDN, which dominates this area of northern Mexico, Jones said.

Even though CDN is a rival of CJNG, its members accept payments to allow drugs or guns to pass through their territory.

After paying the piso and traveling through Coahuila, Diaz still would have faced a 14-hour drive south to Michoacán.

The state, about a five-hour drive west of Mexico City, is known for its production of avocados. It is also the native land of ruthless Mexican cartel boss Rubén Oseguera Cervantes, a top U.S. target with a $10 million reward for information on his whereabouts.

Known as "El Mencho," he commands the 5,000 member CJNG, now as powerful as the Sinaloa Cartel but less known.

A special investigative report in 2019 by The Courier Journal warned of CJNG's ruthlessness in Mexico and its reach across the U.S. into small towns. CJNG is based in Guadalajara, Mexico's second-largest city, in the state of Jalisco. But it has expanded operations in the majority of Mexico's states.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration blames CJNG and the Sinaloa Cartel for the bulk of America's illicit fentanyl, the top killer during the deadliest drug epidemic in U.S. history.

Meanwhile, the Mexican government blames prominent U.S. gun manufacturers for the influx of cartel weapons in its lawsuit against them in federal court in Boston.

"Almost all guns recovered at crime scenes in Mexico — 70% to 90% of them — were trafficked from the U.S.," the Mexican government claims in its complaint.

An estimated 20 attorneys, many based in Texas, are expected to unite to represent Mexico, including six companies they blame for the bulk of recovered crime guns there: Smith & Wesson, Beretta, Century Arms, Colt, Glock and Ruger.

Officers found all of those brands, except Century Arms, in the shipments smuggled by Diaz, court records show.

The Mexican government claims that more than 68% of illegal guns smuggled across the border are made by those companies, along with Barrett and Witmer Public Safety Group, which acquired Interstate Arms.

"As a result of the continued use and possession of many of these guns, residents of Mexico will continue to be killed and injured by these guns, and the public will continue to fear for their health, safety, and welfare," American attorneys wrote in the suit on behalf of Mexico.

Mexico suffered more than 40,000 fatal shootings in 2018, according to public briefings by Mexico's Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard. Of the guns used in crimes in Mexico and traced back to the United States, about 41% came from Texas, he said.

An estimated 19% came from California, 15% from Arizona and 25% from other states.

Some of the reasons so many guns come from Texas: people can cross the border on land or by the Rio Grande River, and "in places like Houston and San Antonio, there’s a gun store on every corner,” said Will Glaspy, formerly in charge of DEA's Houston Division.

Cartels seek out military-grade weapons, he said: "The bigger the better."

Mexican military forces confiscated 71 armor-piercing 50-caliber guns in the year ending January 2020, according to the Cabinet of the Minister of Foreign Affairs in Mexico.

That included rifles manufactured in Tennessee and Arkansas capable of downing aircraft or ripping through armored police cars and tanks.

CJNG members posted a video that went viral on social media in July 2020 showing off their arsenal of tanks and .50-caliber guns. DEA agents say the cartel was trying to instill fear in its enemies and woo new members.

The majority of U.S. states allow citizens to buy .50-caliber weapons, something Mexico reserves for its military.

Cartels often use drug profits to pay Americans to buy weapons for them at retail stores and gun shows, called straw purchases. The cartels then use their members or contract with associates to serve as "consolidators."

Those associates arrange the purchase of several guns — keeping them at stash houses or handing them off to transporters in gas station parking lots or other neutral locations, Lestrange said.

A Dallas man claimed he didn't know assault rifles, pistols and ammunition were hidden in his silver SUV as he attempted to cross into Mexico from Laredo, Texas.

A jury didn't believe him, convicting Jose Rafael Vasquez last month of attempting to smuggle goods out of the country. U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents contend Vasquez told them he was headed to the city of Matehuala, a seven-hour drive south of Laredo, Texas, in the Mexican state of San Luis Potosí.

There, members of the Gulf Cartel and CJNG have formed a partnership, Jones said.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers with an Anti-Terrorism Contraband Enforcement Team were screening traffic headed out of Laredo on the Lincoln-Juarez Bridge in October when they noticed a bundle under the carriage of Vasquez's SUV, secured with black ties.

Investigators found several guns inside the packages, as well as in a secret compartment in the paneling.

Officers found three rifles, eight pistols, several magazines and more than 4,700 rounds, including a bag of bullets under Vasquez's seat and more ammunition wrapped in tape and plastic and tucked inside a hidden compartment between the exterior and interior paneling.

Diaz, who pleaded guilty, and Vasquez are awaiting sentencing. They could each face up to 10 years in prison.

Diaz's attorney, Gregory Torres, declined comment. Vasquez's attorney, Silverio Martinez, said he plans to lobby for leniency, even probation, arguing this is his client's first arrest.

Vasquez was born in Mexico but raised his family in Dallas, where he ran a moving company with his three adult sons. He sometimes loaned his SUV to his employees and his relatives and argues that one of them could have hidden the guns, Martinez said.

"He never saw those guns," his attorney told The Courier Journal.

To intercept more Mexico-bound guns, the U.S. Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy of 2020, of the National Drug Control Policy, vowed that "the United States will improve criminal-intelligence and information-sharing for illegal weapons trafficking and enhance cooperation with international partners."

Operation Without a Trace works in sync with efforts by ATF, which targets straw purchasers, and the DEA, whose agents piece together conspiracy cases by identifying drug networks and their links to specific cartels.

Homeland Security teamed with the ATF to launch a confidential tip line asking for help from the public, displaying the number on about 200 billboards near the border, asking for information on illegal guns bound for Mexico.

U.S. agents also are helping train Mexican police on investigative techniques and evidence collection and improving intelligence sharing, Lestrange said.

"We've got agents and we've got trained criminal investigators from the host government in Mexico working investigations in Mexico," he said. "And they're sending leads up to us to connect the dots."



  1. Sol I truly appreciate ur in-depth articles. U r one of the best! Once again u refuse to address the nucleus of the issue. It’s the same issue in every black neighborhood in USA. Call it gun violence all u want. The people in this country who are in reality know it’s black on black genocide, not gun violence. Same with Mexico and their citizenry. It’s not USA’s fault, no more than it’s Mexico’s fault that USA drug addicts are dying in record numbers, or the mass incarceration for drug crimes in the 90’s. It’s the blacks 14-40 year olds fault that they are slaughtering each other in record numbers. It’s their fault that they are only 3.5% of the population but account for well over 50% of all murders. It’s not us Trump supporters killing blacks it’s blacks killing blacks. Now go south. It’s Mexicans fault they they are committing genocide on their own people. It’s sad that the availability for the average Mexican to get legal firearms for protection is next to nill. How can the citizens let this continue. Mexico needs thousands of more guns, but legal and for citizens. I won’t call 911 for a cop or the government to protect me and my family. We have that covered. And If it’s some marauding gang of drug dealing killer rapists coming to my door to do us harm, yeah we might lose but we will die shooting. God bless the 2nd amendment in the USA. Mexican citizen’s rise up and demand ur right to self protection. The slaughter has to stop!

    1. @5:51 A white man talking about black violence. A white man. Greed and treachery and violence are hard-coded in the white man's DNA.
      The greatest trick the white man ever pulled was convincing the world that he isn't dangerous but the black man is.

    2. When black kills black no news.

    3. @9:58
      Its unfortunate but the truth is the stats are correct .And a white man can comment on a black man and visa versa because we are all men and women here . Its not racist until you make it that way .

    4. I know a lot great people of color, but the News does not focus on them. They are hard working and great family men and women.

    5. Yes da White
      The best thing is for citizens of Mexico to arm up, but as you can see the government of obrador don't want that, they care less for it's citizens that die everyday. It's so easy for the criminals to kill someone as they know the other person is not armed. Some autodefensas have popped up, the cartel will tell the government take the autodefensas guns away or we stop
      the bribes. So you guessed it the Army is sent by Obrador to disarm them, but in turn Obrador tells the governor to make it look like he requested the Army.

    6. It is not black on black genocide. It is criminal black market capitalism and the reality is that in both the USA and Mexico it is US manufacturers and US importers and US políticos that prioritize money over the social destruction their “products” cause.
      You sound very racist and dumb

  2. Nice article! I don't always agree with opinions on this site but the reporting is excellent.

  3. Dr.Sol did you see what they call the persons taking guns to Mexico for the Cartels Hormigas,ants delivering to make money. Now do we blame the manufacturer or the buyers? Thanks to the straw buyers more people are easily getting killed.

  4. can I sue mexico for having a 10year opioid habit? The heroin I was doing came strait from Mexico.i been off it for 5years now but it fucked up a chunk of my life

    1. Congratulations first. Courts in Mexico r so corrupt u won't win

    2. 8:09. Most users de heroin became “opioid addicts” because your USA legislature, executive branch, government regulator (FDA), doctors and farmacias serve drug users. Your US farmacia producers encouraged doctors to prescribe the most potent drugs to children for broken bones and then they changed the rules and your DEA made it easier to get heroin and fent than the drugs that made doctors and farma companies rich for 20 years.
      As for your wasted five years - man up and take some responsibility.

    3. 629-well put. Nice to see someone that pas attention to facts and history

    4. 629-well put. Nice to see someone that pas attention to facts and history

  5. I agree with Sol not getting the point Mexico will get guns from where the least path of resistance what ever that may be. Its also not our fault Mexico isnt more vigilant into what goes into their country ,we do all we can and dump millions of dollars into agents and the resources to fight and stop illegal things from crossing over Mexico accepts millions of our dollars and squanders it away meanwhile providing nothing in the form of stopping anything from coming in .
    Nothing can be fixed in Mexico until you address the coruption of its leaders , History has shown this time and time again .
    Although I do think its cute that your narrative shows that Mexicans are not responsible enough to handle firearms in any rational safe way but instead massacre one another for sport . But I dont care either way its just pathetic to me that the government of Mexico would blame anyone but themselves for how mexicans act within their own borders .Deal with it motherfuckers .

    1. Cinkerblaster you have a good clear view points. What amazes me after reading the article is that 20 lawyers on the US side are in it to help the Mexican lawyers in winning the the 10 mil. lawsuit against the gun manufacturer. Talk about greed, now the manufacturers have to get layers to get represented. Bad people with guns kill people, the manufacturer does not kill people.

  6. This will never stop, guns will continue going into Mexico, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Tons have gotten in.

  7. Man a judge in brownsville once gave a defendant time served
    The guy said i was trying to defraud the mexican government not the us government
    His excuse was wal mart didnt tell i couldnt take the stuff to messico

  8. To be honest border patrol and Customs are busy baby sitting Central American kids. Saw border patrol pick full of Diapers. When do they have time to catch gun running and drug smuggling. The administration cut the Homeland security budget. Border Patrol are also under staff. While they are changing diapers, smuggling and gun running are in business.

    1. It is not customs job to babysit, they work at the checkpoints.

    2. Da Carlos since when have you seen customs officers changing diapers lol. Next you will be saying you saw them breast feeding the babies.

  9. I can't believe as the article states 20 attorneys based in Texas are working together with Mexican attorneys in suing the gun manufacturers, unbelievable. It would be like families suing Mexico for thier loved ones that died from drugs coming from Mexico. Or a drunk driver suing the car maker for the crash he got into.
    Attorneys of the US side along with Mexico are suing for 10 million dollars
    should they win (never) they would stand to get 30% of thier cut that's big time money.

  10. Carlos your halarious I can't stop laughing, your really honest, the border patrol and customs is changing diapers, so you mean to say no one is at the check points, oh wait you mean to say too the border patrol is not watching the border wall...let me call some relatives to cross the border.

  11. How do Americans get there drugs? Mainly from Mexico. Lol come on bro guns ain't the problem. Its the corrupt officials that aren't doing their jobs right


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