LAREDO, Texas — For evidence of the booming bullet business along the U.S.-Mexico border, look no further than the case of Carlos Alberto Osorio Castrejon and Ramon Uresti Careaga.
The two Mexican men crossed the Rio Grande on a three-day shopping visa on Nov. 1, 2006. Their destination: Kirkpatrick Guns and Ammo in a tony shopping district of this Texas border city. They were sitting on the store floor sorting their purchase of 12,570 live rounds of assorted ammunition when their luck ran out. In walked an off-duty special agent for the ATF (the agency regulating sales of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms), who, after ascertaining that the men weren't U.S. citizens, arrested them on the spot.
Castrejon and Careaga would go on to confess that they'd made numerous other day trips to buy U.S. ammunition to bring back to Mexico — just the month before, they'd shelled out $6,193 in cash for bullets at another local store.
As this case and others show, Mexican smugglers are simply dropping over the border on three-day shopping visas, toting wads of cash, and bringing warring Mexican drug cartels huge quantities of bullets.
By all accounts, the bullet trade is booming in this region, especially in Texas. Not coincidentally, the trade's boom is taking place as a savage drug war rages below the border in Mexico. In just the last year, Mexico's civil drug war has claimed 6,300 lives.
There are some laws that govern the purchase of new guns from retailers and licensed dealers, although they don't stop smugglers from arming cartels with these guns.
But bullets are a commodity almost as unregulated as milk or bread, with no record-keeping requirements, no limits on the number of bullets an individual can purchase, and no way to disqualify potential buyers based on criminal history. And 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 do much to hinder Mexican bullet-buyers: It simply mandates that buyers be U.S. citizens, but it doesn't require retailers to check. So it’s don’t ask, don’t tell. And only by poor luck do Mexican smugglers coming into U.S. border towns on shopping visas get caught in the act of smuggling.
Storeowner Bill Kirkpatrick — the owner of Kirkpatrick Guns and Ammo, where the ATF agent practically stumbled over the two Mexican smugglers — said he doesn’t ask for proof of citizenship from ammunition buyers because nothing in the law says he has to.
“On ammo, we don’t ask, because a lot of people can get offended,” Kirkpatrick explained. “It’s politically incorrect, like you’re calling them a spic.”
Mexican and U.S. authorities peg U.S. retailers as the source of more than 3 million rounds of ammunition seized in Mexico over just the past 24 months, which is considered a small percentage of an unknown total.
While authorities in both countries have tried to curtail the smuggling of U.S. firearms to Mexico for some time, they've only recently turned their attention to American ammunition.
“If they don’t have bullets they can’t use the guns,” said J. Dewey Webb, the Houston-based leader 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.”
There can be no doubt that American retailers are profiting handsomely from Mexico’s drug war.
Authorities believe one of the nation’s busiest ammunition-smuggling corridors runs through South Texas because of a proliferation of stores in densely populated regions close to the Mexican border. That pipeline, they say, runs south through McAllen, Harlingen and Brownsville. The connecting Mexican state of Tamaulipas is listed as one of the top five Mexican states for illegal ammunition seizures, according to Mexico’s attorney general’s office.
The market for certain kinds of ammo is so robust that big chains and smaller independent stores all along the Texas border report being unable to keep up with demand for .50 caliber sniper rifle rounds, which can sell for $4 each, and 5.7 “cop killer” bullets that can penetrate police body armor.
Employees of Texas-based retailer Academy Sports and Outdoors have plenty of stories about men piling shopping carts high with the $74-cases of 7.62 caliber rounds that only fit AK-47 assault rifles, as well as clearing shelves of .9 mm rounds and other ammunition that fit other kinds of assault-style rifles popular with cartel gunmen.
“I had a guy come in the other day and clear me out of .223s,” Francisco Rodriguez, who works in the guns and ammunition section of a store in McAllen, Texas, said, referring to ammunition that fits many kinds of assault-type rifles, as well as regular hunting rifles. But unlike a typical hunter, he said, 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.”
Mountains of ammunition types so popular at Academy stores in Texas keep turning up across the Rio Grande in drug cartel weapons depots. One bust of a cartel weapons stash house in Reynosa, Mexico last October netted half a million assorted rounds.
South Texas retailers don’t like to contemplate the prospect that they might be profiting from Mexico’s tragedy. Instead, many of those interviewed prefer to believe that target-shooting hobbyists are the ones primarily buying out their stocks.
Austin Ortiz, manager of the firearms section in a newly opened Academy Sports and Outdoors store in McAllen, Texas, offered a typical anecdote. He said the 7.62 and .223 calibers that fit AK-47s and Colt AR-15 military assault-style rifles are among his best-sellers. Often, customers pay in cash.
“There are a lot of gun ranges around here,” Ortiz tried to explain, at first. Asked if he thought smugglers were also buying, he offered this: “I’m pretty sure there are people out there who will take it over and sell it at a profit.”
Yet there’s no store policy or law requiring Ortiz to record or limit sales to anyone. Academy declined to respond to a GlobalPost request for an interview.
Because of the absence of mandatory or voluntary controls on ammo sales, agents hunting the trail of smuggling-minded shoppers will remain hard-pressed to cut this supply line.
Whereas guns recovered in Mexico can at least be traced to a store and original buyer, bullets leave no trail. Smugglers eliminate all clues by removing the rounds from coded store boxes. Bullets are considered too heavy to carry into Mexico by hiking or swimming, so shells usually go into secret vehicle compartments, and then are driven south.
In Texas, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection fields several inspections teams that troll southbound vehicles for cash, guns and — of late — ammunition. But there aren't enough of them to present much of a deterrent, agency officials admit.
“The reality is that the smuggler has the advantage over us,” conceded the Laredo-based CBP assistant port director, Jose R. Uribe. “It’s just the nature of the border.”
It's unlikely that gun sales will become more regulated in the U.S. anytime soon. But regulation of commodities that carry social costs isn't without precedent.
In the early 2000s, Texas and other states with methamphetamine drug problems passed laws restricting the volume sales of over-the-counter cold medicines used to make the drug.
In October, President Bush signed the Methamphetamine Production Prevention Act, requiring retailers like Walgreens and Target to log sales of cold medicines as a means to help law enforcement officers 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 sales reporting rules. “If the abuse of the sales offends the public enough, I could see restrictions going that way with ammunition sales too.”
More GlobalPost Dispatches:
Mexico's staggering drug wars
To live or die in Mexico
Is Mexico a failing state?