NOGALES, Mexico — North of the border, the .50-caliber sniper rifle is the stuff of YouTube celebrity, shown blasting through engine blocks and concrete walls. Deployed with U.S. troops to foreign wars, it is among the most destructive weapons legally available in the United States.
But every week, those rifles are trafficked across the border to Mexico, where increasingly militarized drug cartels now command arsenals that rival the weaponry of the country’s security forces. In many cases, criminals outgun police.
After years of failed U.S. and Mexican efforts to curb arms trafficking, groups such as the Jalisco New Generation and Sinaloa cartels are showcasing the military-grade weapons in slick propaganda videos and using them to defeat security forces in battle.
In a country with just a single legal gun shop, on a military base in the capital, roughly 2.5 million illicit American guns have poured across the border in the past decade, according to a new Mexican government study. That flood has been a key accelerant in the security crisis now confronting the country. The cartels are using assault rifles to kill record numbers of police officers — 464 in the first nine months of 2020 alone — and smaller armed groups are fueling historically high homicide rates.
Mexican officials, in rare public criticism, are now venting their frustration at what they say is the U.S. failure to stop the flow of .50-caliber rifles. At a time when the United States is pushing Mexico to target cartels more aggressively, U.S. laws that make .50-calibers and other destructive weapons easy to buy, along with a lack of enforcement at the border, are enabling those groups to expand their influence and activities in the country.
“It’s irresponsible that in the United States this type of weapon is sold to anyone with minimum requirements and without any follow-up after the purchase,” said Fabian Medina, chief of staff to Mexico’s foreign minister. “What we know in Mexico is that it reaches the hands of criminal organizations, and that with these powerful weapons, they’ve shot down marine helicopters and deprived many people of their lives.”
The weapon has both tactical and strategic power, as a symbol of the growing strength and reach of the cartels. One of Mexico’s most popular bands has adopted the name “Calibre 50.” Among its recent hits: “El Nino Sicario,” or “The Child Hitman.”
The number of assault rifles in Mexico, including .50-calibers, AK-47s and AR-15s, has more than doubled in the past decade, the government reported this year. The annual homicide rate has risen 67% in that time.
The United States and Mexico this year formed a high-level working group on arms trafficking. U.S. officials say they’re now doing more than ever to halt the flow of arms and ammunition.
“Over the last eight months, there’s been a real sea change in terms of the effort being made on this,” said a State Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter. “It takes a while to get indictments, get arrests, put people in jail, but in terms of a much more coordinated U.S. government effort and better coordination with Mexico, there’s been a lot of progress.”
But frustration on the Mexican side has grown. A decade after “Operation Fast and Furious,” in which U.S. agents allowed thousands of firearms to flow south in a botched attempt to track them, and despite $3 billion in U.S. aid to Mexico to fight narco-traffickers, the two countries have not curbed the flow of weapons.
At one high-level meeting this year, Mexican Defense Secretary Luis Cresencio Sandoval, grew visibly irritated with U.S. officials.
“What if we did as little to stop drugs as you’re doing to stop guns?” he asked, according to a senior Mexican official who was present.
Around 70% of guns found at crime scenes in Mexico are traceable to the United States, according to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
The .50-calibers were used by U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan to strike targets from nearly 2 miles away. In the United States, they’re a fixture of gun shows. Enthusiasts make online videos showing people using them to obliterate game and take down trees.
But in Mexico, the weapon has come to symbolize a dangerous misalignment in the broader drug-war partnership between the two nations: Sold casually in the United States, it is increasingly being used to target and terrorize Mexicans.
In a conference room next to the border crossing between Nogales, Ariz., and Nogales, Mexico, local Mexican customs chief Juan Gim Nogales was giving a presentation on the rise of arms trafficking. Ammunition is one sign of the problem.
“The amount of ammunition we’re seizing has surged in the last few months,” he said. In August alone, agents at the port of entry seized more than four times the ammunition confiscated in all of 2019.
“We can’t tell what they’re getting ready for, but they’re arming up,” Gim said.
Then word came through: A man had just been stopped by agents with boxes of ammo in his back seat. Several customs officials drove to the scene in an armored car.
The trafficker was a large man, leaning against a pillar, talking casually on his cellphone while soldiers inspected his red Ford Explorer. He had left the ammunition sitting on the back seat, unconcealed.
It happens multiple times a day: Even with only random, periodic inspections, Mexican authorities get a glimpse into the scale of the trafficking problem.
Increasingly, they’re finding military-grade weapons and ammunition, often brand-new, purchased days before at Arizona gun shops and shows. When weapons are detected at the border, it’s often because the traffickers are hapless or distressed, very different from the sophisticated transnational criminals who use the contraband.
A young American woman tried to speed through the border crossing this year and hit a wall; Mexican authorities said she was high on drugs. There was a .50-caliber rifle in the back seat.
“It was sticking out of a suitcase,” Mexican authorities noted in a report. Next to it, they found 8,018 rounds of ammunition for the heavy weapon.
Last year, it was a 14-year-old boy who slammed into a wall. He, too, was found with a .50-caliber. Mexico has confiscated more than 600 rifles in the past 11 years, officials say. Many more have reached the cartels.
“It’s what we don’t find that we worry about,” said Ricardo Santana Velazquez, Mexico’s consul in Nogales, Ariz. “Because those are the guns that show up later at murders and massacres.”
Mexico accuses the United States of insufficient effort against arms trafficking, but Mexican law enforcement is also weak. U.S. citizens caught in Mexico trafficking guns face a maximum sentence of two years — and often serve only a few months.
In one recent propaganda video, gunmen from the Jalisco New Generation cartel showed off .50-caliber rifles, some mounted on armored trucks.
“They give a psychological edge to the cartels and create fear among the security forces,” said Ioan Grillo, author of the forthcoming “Blood Gun Money,” about cross-border gun trafficking to Mexico. “Imagine being in a police truck and .50-cal bullets rip through the armor.”
The day after the man was found with the boxes of ammunition in Nogales, Santana went to inspect the U.S. side of the border.
At one crossing, there were no U.S. agents conducting searches. At another, agents conducted quick, superficial inspections of 1 in 20 cars. Signs warned against crossing the border with guns: “Illegal to carry firearms/ammunition into Mexico.”
In the foothills on the Mexican side, cartel scouts watched with binoculars.
“They choose their moments,” Santana said. “They know when to cross.”
“You can see how little stands in the way of someone trying to move an arsenal into Mexico,” he added.
The assault rifles come from throughout the United States. The two biggest sources, ATF officials say, are Arizona and Texas.
Traffickers take the guns southward along the same routes they use to move drugs north. The groups that dominate smuggling along the Pacific Coast, including the Sinaloa cartel, shop for guns in Arizona. Texas is the primary market for the ascendant Jalisco cartel. The .50-caliber weapons are widely available in both states, where they retail for about $10,000 to $12,000 each.
The Houston area, home to 5,000 licensed gun stores and dealers and a sprawling, unregulated informal market, where private sales are facilitated by online listings, is “ground zero” for trafficked weapons, according to Fred Milanowski, who runs the ATF office there. More weapons recovered in Mexico are traced to Houston and surrounding Harris County than anywhere else in the United States.
Trafficking cells are typically led by an organizer who offers recruits $500 or more per gun to purchase .50-calibers. In many cases, these straw buyers are people with substance-abuse problems who are indebted to their dealers. Last year, a couple was caught trafficking .50-calibers on behalf of their Tucson heroin dealer. In another case, teenagers agreed to buy weapons for a cartel in exchange for Justin Bieber concert tickets.
The organizer seeks out buyers who don’t have felony convictions; buyers typically have little or no idea for whom they’re working or where the guns are going. Unless they make the kind of large bulk purchases that would raise red flags, there’s nothing to stop them from buying up powerful rifles, particularly on the informal, or secondary, market.
“We’ve had trafficking cells who only make purchases on the secondary market,” Milanowski said.
Some organizers work exclusively for one criminal group. Others have little idea whom they’re supplying. Weapons are smuggled south the same way narcotics are moved north: hidden in secret vehicle compartments and sometimes broken into parts for reassembly on arrival.
Mexican officials and analysts are studying the American gun culture, as U.S. officials have tried to make sense of the Mexican narco-trafficking culture. David Perez Esparza, now a top official in the country’s Public Security Ministry, became a member of the National Rifle Association to better understand the organization while writing his dissertation on arms trafficking. He wrote of the shock of attending a gun show in Texas, watching children play around assault rifles: “Wow, a normal Sunday with the family.”
Mexican officials have tried to pitch the United States on deploying X-ray scanners on both sides of the border. They’ve asked for more intelligence-sharing and permission to send Mexican agents to work on the U.S. side of the border. They’ve requested changes to U.S. gun laws that allow weapons to be sold at gun shows without background checks, and they’ve asked for more information about the “Fast and Furious” scandal that stung ATF.
U.S. officials say efforts to install such technology have been hampered by red tape in the Mexican customs department. The U.S. diplomats working on arms trafficking have reminded their Mexican counterparts that they cannot change U.S. laws.
Milanowski said the lack of tough U.S. penalties for firearms trafficking leaves ATF without leverage to turn offenders into informants. U.S. lawmakers have introduced multiple anti-trafficking bills in Congress, but none of them has passed, largely because of the strength of the gun lobby.
“We have to charge them with what is basically a paperwork violation,” he said. “We don’t really have a big charge to hang over them.”
The NRA did not respond to a request for comment. The organization has defended the sale of .50-caliber weapons in the United States, arguing that criminals don’t use them because they’re too expensive and unwieldy, but noting that they’re popular with competitive sharpshooters and sportsman.
Homicides in Mexico reached historic highs in 2018 and 2019; 2020 is on pace to set a record.
Cartels that once focused on securing drug routes to the United States are increasingly fighting for control of territory, waging gun battles that can leave a dozen or more people dead. The availability of high-powered weapons has transformed that fight.
In telephone recordings from the October 2019 ambush in Aguililla, Michoacán, officers can be heard shouting “I’m dying” and pleading for backup as gunfire continues. Mexican officials say at least one .50-caliber rifle and several AK-47s and AR-15s from the United States were used.
“It’s a telling example of what happens when the cartels are better armed than the police,” said one Mexican security official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the investigation was ongoing.
Twenty-three people, including four police officers, were killed the next month when gunmen descended on Villa Unión, 70 minutes from Eagle Pass, Texas. Investigators recovered six .50-caliber rifles; ATF traced one to a gun shop in suburban Houston. Five people have been charged in an alleged scheme to traffic weapons from Texas.
U.S. officials say they have responded to Mexico’s requests to improve coordination on the issue. Border authorities seized more than 350 Mexico-bound rifles and handguns at checkpoints during fiscal 2020, the most in at least a decade. That’s just over 0.1% of the estimated guns trafficked each year, roughly 250,000.
The ATF says it has increased its presence in Mexico by 20% in the past year, with a focus on tracing recovered weapons. Still, officials say they have limited ability to make arrests unless there is evidence of a trafficking operation.
“There are a range of factors that agents and prosecutors can look at, such as firearms concealed in a hidden space of a vehicle, but there is nothing inherently illegal about driving near the border with firearms in your car,” said Thomas Chittum, ATF’s assistant director of field operations.
Mexicans see a deeper disconnect between the U.S. focus on the drug war and a lack of action to help stem the flow of powerful weapons.
“Imagine if criminals were regularly shooting at American police with .50-cals,” Grillo said. “That would surely cause an uproar and people would look at how people are often able to buy these weapons as easily as if they are buying a pistol.”