Mexican Drug Cartels Binge on American Bullets

So popular is the 7.62 caliber ammunition for AK-47 semi-automatic assault rifles that one Academy Sports and Outdoors in the border city of McCallen, Texas, recently stacked shoebox-sized cases several feet high down half a row in the hunting section.

Employees said customers routinely fork over thousands of dollars -- in cash -- to pile shopping carts high with ammunition that Mexico's drug cartels will use to lock and load their favorite assault-style weapons and handguns for battle against police and each other. Employees like Francisco Rodriguez, who works in the guns and ammo section, are not short of stories about Hispanic men clearing shelves of 9 mm rounds, another favorite.

"I had a guy come in the other day and clear me out of .223s," Rodriguez said, referring to ammunition that fits assault-type rifles as well as classic hunting rifle styles. But unlike a typical hunter, this customer "paid $5,000 cash, and then he went to one of our other stores and cleaned that out, too. I didn't ask what he was going to do with it. He probably was going to take it to Mexico."

The market for certain kinds of ammo is so robust these days that sporting goods stores large and small report being unable to keep up with demand for .50 caliber sniper rifle rounds, which can sell for $4 each, or 5.7 caliber "cop killer" rounds that, fired from a handgun, can punch through police body armor. The bullet business is simply booming all along the border, and I have found that's no coincidence.

As big media outlets are belatedly starting to report, American law enforcement authorities, under pressure from Mexico, are escalating a push to slow the guns bought from U.S. merchants and smuggled by drug gang paramilitaries. These have helped them kill more than 6,000 Mexican gangsters, innocent citizens, police, and government officials in just the past year. But what's been overlooked is that the the gun smuggling problem has an evil, much neglected, twin sibling: bullets. There is nothing illegal about buying or selling large amounts of civilian-use ammunition to just about any adult in the U.S. Unlike some laws governing the sale of new guns, bullets are a commodity almost as unregulated as milk or bread, with no record keeping requirement, limit on volume per individual, or disqualifying criminal history for buyers. Also, unlike guns, bullets don't have serial numbers that can later be traced to a store or person.

The one law that applies to ammunition purchases doesn't hinder much. It requires that buyers be U.S. citizens. But retailers aren't required to check. So it's don't ask, don't tell. Day shoppers from Mexico are taking advantage of the bounty and lax inspections on the southbound return trip.

Mountains of ammunition types that fit cartel weapons of choice keep turning up across the Rio Grande in underground weapons depots. Mexico's attorney general's office gave me documents that report three million rounds have been seized in the country in just the last 24 months, a volume considered to be a very small percentage of a vast unknown total.

Owning bullets or guns is mostly illegal in Mexico, and, as with the guns, authorities on both sides unambiguously peg U.S. retailers as sating a recently ravenous black market hunger for ammunition. Whereas the buying and smuggling of American military assault-type rifles carry some risk of smugglers being found out, ammunition is so loosely regulated that Mexican smugglers are simply dropping over on three-day shopping visas to cruise a bounty of stores within the 25-mile deep commercial zone. The visas allow them to wander, judging by a smattering of federal court cases I've been able to locate and study. One of these involved a well-oiled ring of bullet smugglers who'd used their day visas to bring in more than 80,000 rounds in a short time.