While a surge of humans and drugs flows north across the border, assault rifles and other high-powered weapons flow south.
And leaders of the human smuggling and drug smuggling organizations in Mexico are getting their guns from the same places that law-abiding Arizonans are getting theirs: licensed gun dealers and gun shows, according to court documents.
“There’s an iron river of guns flowing to Mexico,” said special agent Thomas Mangan, spokesman for the Phoenix Field Division of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Search warrant affidavits outlining recent ATF arrests allege that “straw purchasers” — people with clean records who buy guns for criminals or others who aren’t allowed to possess them — buy high-powered weaponry from legitimate dealers in cities from Tucson to Scottsdale and Apache Junction to Avondale.
The straw purchasers then turn the guns over to smugglers who sneak them across the border, usually in cars with hidden compartments, for a few hundred dollars. They return with thousands of dollars for the criminal organizations.
Agents with the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested Cedric Lloyd Manuel and Miguel Apodaca, both of Phoenix, with nine assault rifles as they went through inspections Jan. 21.
The day before, three brothers, Lucio, Rosendo and Marcos Aguilar, had bought the guns from EAU Sales, 1678 W. Superstition Blvd. in Apache Junction; Bear Arms, 10269 N. Scottsdale Road in Scottsdale, and Shooters Vault, 3202 E. Greenway Road, in Phoenix.
The straw purchasing crew included other Aguilar family members and some unrelated people. Between November and the Jan. 21 arrests at the border, the crew bought 66 assault rifles.
“Manuel stated that he had taken probably about 20 loads of firearms into Mexico over the past couple of months,” ATF special agent Heidi Peterson wrote in the affidavit.
The Aguilar family, Manuel and Apodaca and the accused ringleader, Blas Bustamante, have been charged in U.S. District Court with gun violations.
Mangan said the value of guns triples across the border.
He added the Mexican crime organizations use the same infrastructure for smuggling humans and drugs north as they do to move the guns south.
ATF is working on a number of Arizona gun trafficking investigations while they also work with Mexican authorities to trace guns used in crimes across the border.
One such crime was the shooting of Ramon Tacho Verdugo, the 49-year-old police chief of Agua Prieta, Sonora, who was gunned down as he left the police station Feb. 26.
Mangan said ATF is helping to solve that killing.