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Hacked data reveals which US gun sellers are behind Mexican cartel violence

鶹ý exclusive: Massive data leak ties names of American shops and buyers to thousands of guns recovered at Mexican crime scenes.

A massive leak of Mexican military intelligence has exposed for the first time in two decades U.S. gun shops and smugglers tied to 78,000 firearms recovered south of the border – and which types of guns are being trafficked.

The nuggets of information are among roughly 10 million records hacked by an anonymous collective known as “Guacamaya” and shared with news outlets by the transparency organization Distributed Denial of Secrets, or DDoSecrets. The Mexican Defense Ministry leak previously made headlines for exposing military corruption and surveillance abuse, and now reveals the trace data on American-sold firearms recovered since 2018.

Despite efforts to stem the flow, these American firearms are smuggled south as part of the cycle of Latin-American narcotics headed north. The violence in Central America fueled, in part, by guns also has contributed to the migration crisis at the U.S. border.

An avalanche of guns:Explore the visual investigation

As part of the leak, emails relaying U.S. government data between Mexican military leaders and PowerPoint presentations by Mexico’s attorney general show which American straw buyers were tied to the most weapons as of 2022.

Among them is Texan Craig Adlong. He pleaded guilty in 2020 for lying on firearm transaction forms, saying the guns were for his personal use. He purchased 95 semi-automatic rifles at Guns Unlimited in Katy, Texas, making seven visits over two months.

Sixty-six of those firearms were recovered in Mexico, according to the leak.

Reached by phone, Adlong told 鶹ý he was surprised he remained on Mexican officials' radar after serving a six-month prison sentence. He made a mistake, he said, that he has put behind him.

Asked if he worries about acts of violence being committed with guns tied to his name, he said, “Absolutely. You’d have to be an animal not to.”

Of the other six top purchasers, half are linked to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives scandal known as Fast and Furious.

From 2006-2011 agents in Arizona stood down as straw purchasers illegally bought 2,000 guns at shops, intending to use the information to track trafficking patterns and arrest the kingpins. However, agents didn’t deliver the high-level arrests – and in the process, they lost track of hundreds of guns.

One of those guns was recovered at the Nogales, Arizona, crime scene where U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry was killed in 2010 when his tactical unit attempted to arrest a band of robbery suspects.

Hundreds of Fast and Furious firearms have previously been traced to other shootings in Mexico. The new leak indicates hundreds more are still being found.

“It’s appalling,” said Peter Forcelli, a retired ATF deputy assistant director who recently wrote a book critical of Fast and Furious. “This is a stain we all wear. We had a duty to stop the flow of guns and we’re failing.”

Phoenix ATF special agents Tom Mangan (L) and Peter Forcelli examine a confiscated AK-47 short pistol at the bureau's headquarters in Phoenix. The guns and the ammunition on the table were part of a shipment bound for Mexico confiscated in 2008.

Forcelli said it’s no surprise that guns purchased more than a decade ago in Tucson, Arizona, continue to show up in gun battles in Michoacán, Mexico: “They’re not like apples or loaves of bread; guns will be around until they get recovered at a crime scene used by the cartels.”

鶹ý utilized cloud computing infrastructure to securely analyze the data. Servers churned for several days to process the hacked material into a searchable format, and the entire project took several months to complete. The database of emails consists of more than 10 million records and spans six terabytes – which would roughly fill 8,000 physical filing cabinets if printed on paper.

Gun trace data is kept out of public view by a rider to a Congressional bill known as the “Tiahrt Amendment,” passed in 2003 to shield gun shops from scrutiny. Each year, the that had been bought in the U.S., with no further details.

Mexican lawyer and legal consultant of the Mexican Foreign Ministry, Alejandro Celorio, speaks during a press conference in Mexico City in April.

The leaked Mexican communications expose a dark reality behind those numbers: “It’s bodies on the streets,” said Alejandro Celorio, a legal adviser to Mexico’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who confirmed the leaked material used for this report was legitimate.

“I respect that the U.S. government wants this shielded, but it’s frustrating that the information isn’t public,” said Celorio, who is leading his country’s lawsuit against American gun manufacturers and five Arizona gun shops. “I think the average American would be surprised that the fentanyl crisis is nurtured because of the number of firearms going to Mexico to empower the cartels.”

American gun shops are selling guns that end up in Mexico

Partnering with American attorneys, Celorio is going after Barrett, Beretta, Century Arms, Colt, Glock, Smith & Wesson and Sturm, Ruger & Co. in a $10 billion suit that was revived by an appeals court in March.

In a separate suit, they have accused five Arizona gun shops – many of which also appear in the hacked data obtained by 鶹ý, of selling guns that crossed the border and were used in crimes.

Mexican officials are particularly concerned about Arizona and Texas big-box stores near the border such as Academy 鶹ý + Outdoors and Cabela’s because of how often they sell multiple rifles in a single transaction. Those stores sold 727 and 215 respectively of the guns recovered in Mexico from 2020 to 2022.

Corporate representatives for those companies did not respond to detailed questions from 鶹ý.

The documents call out Zeroed In Armory in Pearland, Texas, as the source of 75 recovered firearms. That shop was the center of a gun trafficking ring raided by the ATF in 2020.

Federal agents said the Pearland shop did nearly $1 million in cash transactions in 2019 – an indicator of trafficking. It sold six Barrett .50 caliber rifles to an unemployed American that were later recovered in the Mexican home of a high-level cartel leader, according to court documents.

The shop is now closed and the owner, .

Trace data also points to Ammo AZ, a Phoenix shop, as having sold 46 firearms recovered at Mexican crime scenes. That shop is named in the Mexican government suit as having provided semi-automatic rifles to the Jalisco New Generation Cartel in Mexico. A spokeswoman Ammo AZ declined to answer questions, citing the ongoing litigation.

Broadly, gun shops and manufacturers claim they are insulated from many civil suits tied to criminal behavior with guns by the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act.

Fletcher Arms employee Ryan Dieter packs up an Anderson Manufacturing AM-15 rifle on Jan. 19. The Waukesha, Wis. shop appears in the Mexican trace data for a Colt .223 Sporter rifle recovered south of the border.
(Credit: Mike De Sisti / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

Firearm trade associations like the contend that ATF’s own data shows corrupt dealers represent a . Of the 9,700 cases ATF made for illegal trafficking from 2017 to 2021, just 136 were tied to gun dealers.

In Mexico, firearm purchases are much different than in the U.S. Civilians are only able to obtain a firearm legally from two stores in the entire nation and only after months of paperwork and registrations. That means a majority of gun crimes are committed with smuggled American firearms.

The leaked emails are largely bureaucratic intelligence sharing. But they reflect the violence fueled by those guns.

One example: weekly briefings about homicides tied to organized crime. In a single week in September 2020, staff at CENAPI – the attorney general’s crime analysis hub – traced 389 events and 455 victims. Most happened in the state of Guanajuato, now among the most violent regions in the country.

The classified emails also include photos of suspects, seized body armor, rows of rifles, garbage bags of marijuana and carloads of methamphetamine.

Alamdar Hamdani, U.S. Attorney for the Texas Southern district in Houston, said he’s assigned 70 prosecutors to the district’s 400-mile stretch of border, which he called “the front line when it comes to dealing with the cartels.”

A member of the Mexican Army stands next to a semi-automatic rifle and cartridges outside the prison of Ciudad Juarez after an attack on a prison in January 2023 left 14 people dead – most of them correctional officers and security agents – and allowed 24 inmates to escape.

He rattled off the Sinaloa, CJNG, Del Norte and Gulf cartels as having an insatiable appetite for American guns and said that agents are constantly building cases with confidential informants, undercover buyers and stings.

“The message is the same as counterterrorism: You should be reticent about taking that step, making a quick buck straw purchasing firearms for someone you don’t know,” Hamdani told 鶹ý.

Who are the straw buyers tied to Mexico?

The hacked material identifies a series of straw purchasers who caught the attention of Mexican officials as behind a high volume of traces.

The top purchaser identified by Mexico in the documents is Uriel Patiño, who served a 70-month prison sentence after taking a plea deal in 2014. Patiño was notorious for being the top straw purchaser in the Fast and Furious debacle, purchasing 700 guns under ATF’s watch. that two AK-style Romanian-made, U.S.-sold WASR-10 rifles purchased by Patiño ended up at a crime scene in Culiacán in 2013.

Two other purchasers, Sean Christopher Steward and Carlos Armando Celaya – both prosecuted in the Fast and Furious operation – also appear in the data.

Mexican state police in Tamaulipas cracked open four refrigerators imported from the U.S. on June 17, 2020. Inside, they discovered 54 firearms. American prosecutors said 33 of those were traced back to Michael Mummert of Texas, who was sentenced to three years in prison.

What types of weapons are recovered in Mexico?

Detailed trace data in the leak provides the make, model, serial number and first point of sale for weapons recovered at crime scenes in Mexico.

It offers a window into the demand for cheaply made, American-sold arms.

The most traced American-made firearm in the 2018-2020 dataset is the semi-automatic Anderson Manufacturing AM-15, often viewed as a “budget” variant of the AR-15 chambered to shoot the popular 5.56 x 45mm ammunition.

Mexican officials recovered more than 500 of the weapons made in Kentucky and sold in shops in 16 U.S. states. The AR-style rifles have become a weapon of choice for American mass shooters recently in Buffalo, New York, Louisville, Kentucky, and Nashville, Tennessee – as well as in Uvalde, Texas, where an 18-year-old killed 19 elementary students and two teachers two years ago.

Police in Uvalde feared the rifle’s firepower, delaying their response to the shooting: “AR. He has a battle rifle,”

The second-most recovered firearm was the Colt Government pistol, with more than 480 recoveries. That model was the standard-issue U.S. military sidearm from 1911 to 1985.

Another popular gun is the AK-47 replica Century Arms RAS47 made in Vermont. In Mexican slang, they’re known as “cuernos de chivo,” goat’s horns, because of the curved magazines extending from the Soviet-era Kalashnikov knockoffs popularized in cartel culture.

Equally popular in Mexico is the U.S.-imported WASR-10 version of the AK. That’s the Romanian-made rifle used by a shooter in Gilroy, California, in 2019 to kill three and wound 17. Those alleging it is funneling “uniquely lethal” semiautomatic rifles to criminals.

American and Mexican security officials have issued public warnings about an ongoing arms race for high-quality, heavy weaponry. The leak backs that up, showing the recovery of 121 of the .50 caliber Barrett rifles – among the most powerful weapons civilians can purchase, which can penetrate armor plates more than a mile away.

Mike Weddel, the ATF special agent in charge of the Houston office, said drug trafficking organizations south of the border seem to have an unlimited supply of cash to pay top dollar for smuggled guns.

“My understanding is typically a firearm like an AR that retails for $1,000 here, by the time it winds up in Mexico it has doubled or tripled in value,” Weddel said. “It’s a vicious cycle. We’re consumers of narcotics and there’s an ongoing war in Mexico over the routes of those narcotics and that’s enforced with the use of firearms.”

Weddel said he’d like to see even more Mexican police agencies submitting trace requests to the ATF on guns they recover, to help pinpoint trafficking patterns.

Jon Lowy, president of the Global Action on Gun Violence group that is part of the suit against gun manufacturers and shops, said the release of the trace data should put pressure on the dealers to do more to stem the flow.

“Gun dealers and the industry has known for decades that the criminal gun market is supplied by traffickers and straw purchasers through irresponsible dealers,” Lowy said. “The response was to seek special protection from civil liability and hide this information in the shadows. Responsible gun dealers don’t sell those guns and alert law enforcement when they see high-risk behavior.”

Contributing: Lou Barone, architect, Gannett technology operations; Steve Fisher, for 鶹ý in Mexico City.

Nick Penzenstadler is a reporter on the 鶹ý investigations team. Contact him at npenz@usatoday.com or @npenzenstadler, or on Signal at (720) 507-5273.

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