Mexican Drug Cartels Binge on American Bullets

American and Mexican authorities are only now starting to crack down on this trade, but succeeding will prove as tough as interdicting guns. "The main thing is for us to stop the illegal flow of guns going to Mexico, but if they don't have bullets they can't use them," said J. Dewey Webb, the Houston-based head of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. "It's just as important and it's just as illegal. If we could reduce the traffickers to throwing rocks at each other, I think we've achieved our goal."

Authorities believe one of the nation's busiest ammunition smuggling corridors runs through South Texas because of the state's dearth of regulations and a proliferation of gun merchants in the densely populated regions close to the Mexican border. That wide, south flowing pipeline, they say, runs through Laredo, McAllen, Harlingen, and Brownsville. Mexico lists the connecting state of Tamaulipas as one of the top five states for illegal ammunition seizures. Those who speak for large public American sporting goods retailers, as well as small private gun shops so ubiquitous in Texas, don't like to contemplate the prospect that they may be profiting from Mexico's bloodshed. There's a certain willful denial going on. Instead, many of those I visited in recent months from Brownsville to Laredo insisted that wealthy target-shooting hobbyists are the ones buying out their stocks of, say, .50 caliber sniper rounds that can cut through concrete buildings.

Austin Ortiz, manager of the firearms section in a newly opened Academy in McAllen, said the 7.62 and .223 calibers are among his best sellers. There were no company instructions to call the ATF or check for citizenship on suspicious buyers, he said.

"There are a lot of gun ranges around here," Ortiz told me when I asked him why anyone would buy so much. Asked if he thought smugglers also were buying, Ortiz contemplated the question before offering a surprisingly candid answer. "I'm pretty sure there are people out there who will take it over and sell it at a profit."

Because of the absence of mandatory or voluntary controls on ammo sales by socially concerned bullet merchants, federal agents on the hunt for smuggling-minded Mexican shoppers will remain hard pressed to cut this gusher of a supply line. Whereas guns recovered in Mexico can at least be traced to a store and original buyer, bullets leave no trail. Smugglers eliminate any last clue by removing the rounds from coded store boxes. That's why in pictures of seizures you always see the bullets filling buckets or plastic bags.

Bullets are considered too heavy to swim or hike into Mexico in profitable enough quantities. So shells usually go into secret vehicle compartments and are driven in the direction everyone knows gets less attention -- south.

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection fields some small mobile groups of inspectors who randomly check Mexico-bound vehicles for cash, guns, and  -- of late -- bullets. But even agency officials admit the effort isn't much of a deterrent on ammunition smugglers because the federal agents are far too few in number. Dumb luck has proven a better friend to law enforcement as American agents or police stumble over smuggling operations.

"The reality is that the smuggler has the advantage over us," conceded CBP Assistant Port Director Jose R. Uribe. "It's just the nature of the border."

To catch an ammo smuggler, an American agent has to somehow catch physical sight of a smuggler or catch them in the act. For instance, in November 2006, El Paso police officers just happened to spot two Mexican men driving into an alley behind Alamo Shooters Supply. They followed and watched the men cart out dollies laden with tens of thousands of rounds. Javier Paredes Vega and his brother Jorge admitted they were regular ammo smugglers who made profitable use of their day visa privileges. Last year, both pleaded guilty to weapons violations.

Everyone seems to understand by now that the sale of firearms in America is as politically protected as agricultural subsidies. But regulating commodities like ammunition, either requiring a record of volume sales or restricting quantities, may be more open for debate. That laws have been passed to regulate certain retail commodities for a higher social good is certainly not without precedent. Take "precursor" cold medicines that have the dual-use purpose of making illegal methamphetamine. Selling cold medicine was any retailer's right until the early 2000s. That was when national retailers like Walgreens and Target began setting voluntary limits on the sale of common cold medicines as a means to dampen the meth contagion. Texas and other states eventually passed laws. In October, then-President Bush signed the Methamphetamine Production Prevention Act, requiring retailers to log sales of cold medicines as a means to help law enforcement and deter meth producers.

"I do see a parallel," said East Texas-based Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin McClendon, who in 2004 filed a civil lawsuit against Walgreens seeking to force compliance with certain sales reporting rules. "If the abuse of the sales offends the public enough, I could see restrictions going that way with ammunition sales too."