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Investigation: US retailers fuel Mexico's drug wars

US officials visit Texas in hopes of clamping down on the cross-border weapons pipeline.

Soldiers stand guard near seized weapons during a news conference at the Defense Headquarters in Mexico City Nov. 7, 2008. The Defense Ministry presented to the media an arsenal of weapons seized on Thursday, during a operation in Reynosa. (Stringer/Reuters)

McALLEN, Texas — In the graceless Mexican border town of Reynosa, just a few miles over the Rio Grande from here, federal police were stunned by what they found in a Gulf Cartel safe house last November.

Before them lay more than 500,000 rounds of every type of ammunition, sticks of dynamite, 165 hand grenades, tear gas launchers with plenty of shells, handguns and 540 assault-style rifles. It was billed as the largest seized weapons cache in Mexican history. (Click here for a guide to Mexico's leading drug cartels.)

This week, GlobalPost learned the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has traced the majority of those assault-style rifles, by serial number, straight to licensed Texas  dealers.

The finding underscores the reasons why U.S. Homeland Security Department Secretary Janet Napolitano will end her trip to Mexico this week with a stop in Laredo, Texas. She will visit border security systems — through which many of these weapons were no doubt smuggled south after purchase.

Texas retailers — particularly those that inhabit the southern border regions where McAllen and Laredo hug the Rio Grande — lead other U.S. retailers as the origin of powerful weapons and ammunition flowing into cartel depots in Mexico.

"We know that Texas is a leading source state for firearms going into Mexico," said Robert Elder, second in command of the ATF's Houston field office, which covers hundreds of miles of border. "This further confirms that."

Napolitano and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder will arrive in south Texas today, April 3, after attending a firearms smuggling conference in Cuernavaca, Mexico, and after discussing Mexican President Felipe Calderon's longstanding complaints about the smuggling of American guns into Mexico, where they arm the government's mortal enemy: the drug syndicates.

ATF statistics show that in 2007, the last full year for which figures were available, Texas sellers were the source of 1,131 traced guns found discarded at Mexico shooting scenes or confiscated from cartel gangsters. That's more than twice the number of California sellers — which was the runner-up to Texas — and more than the combined total of 13 other top states.

Tracing results for 2008 won't be available until next month. But they are expected to show a dramatic increase in weapons traced to Texas shops. The prevalance is due to several factors:  culture, a dearth of sales regulations, and a proliferation of sporting goods retailers close to a long, porous border.

U.S. and Mexican law enforcement officials also say Texas hosts the nation's busiest corridor for ammunition smuggling into Mexico.

Mexico is demanding that that the Americans tighten gun regulations, a politically dicey proposition considered unlikely to advance quickly — if at all. So instead, the Obama administration and Congress recently earmarked millions of dollars to beef up the ATF's ability to sniff out the trails of gun buyers and their trafficking partners working Texas towns and cities.