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The cross-border bullet trade

Mexican drug cartels are loading up on bullets in the U.S.

Mexican soldiers stand behind a haul of weapons that was seized after a gun battle in the border town of Tijuana March 7, 2008. Soldiers seized over 90 weapons, almost 50,000 rounds of ammunition and over 400 kg of marijuana and made 3 arrests, local media reported. (Jorge Duenes/Reuters)

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.”