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Obama's other surge

Agents are headed to the border to combat smuggling — but they likely won't be able to the touch the retailers selling the guns.

Men are seen through the bullet-riddled windshield of their truck at a military checkpoint in Ciudad Vicente Guerrero, northern Mexico, May 19, 2009. Rural Mexican towns are on the front line in the drug war, under siege from rival cartels who want control of countryside outposts along smuggling corridors. At least 235 people have been killed there this year. (Tomas Bravo/Reuters)

LAREDO, Texas — 2003 was a very bad year across the Rio Grande in Nuevo Laredo. But it was a very good year for Mando’s Guns and Ammo in this southern Texas border city.

As open warfare between rival drug cartels filled the streets of Nuevo Laredo with bodies, Armando and Diana Villarreal, owners of Mando’s, prospered from a sharp sudden spike in demand for AK-47 semiautomatic assault rifles.

“We were selling in quantity,” recalled Diana Villarreal, who took over the store after her husband died in late 2006. “We weren’t getting rich, but it was nice to have money to buy extra things.”

Federal agents, though, eventually traced more than 50 AK-47s recovered after battles in Nuevo Laredo to Mando’s.

In October 2006, Villarreal died of cancer just before federal prosecutors could make an example of him as perhaps the first federally licensed firearms dealer to be indicted for crossing the legal line into weapons trafficking, U.S. Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives officials confirm. There have been no publicly known successful gun-smuggling prosecutions of licenced retail gun dealers since.

The Obama administration is currently rushing hundreds of ATF agents to the Mexico border with orders to halt the illegal transport of guns to Mexico. The agents are the administration's response to years of pleading from the Mexicans for a crackdown on the smuggling of over-the-counter U.S. arms to the country's ruthless warring drug cartels.

But unless the slow rate of prosecutions picks up — which is unlikely — the agents will be left to go after shadowy so-called “straw buyers,” those who are paid to purchase weapons from licensed dealers and then hand them over to others who don't meet the legal purchasing standards.

America's gun retailers will continue to enjoy some measure of insulation because of scant legal requirements on sales, as well as a high burden of proof that a retailer actually knows ahead of time where the guns are headed.