Agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives and Mesa and Gilbert police Thursday arrested nine men throughout Mesa and Gilbert accused of selling firearms to a violent Mexican drug cartel, according to the ATF.
Bill Newell, a special agent in charge of the ATF Phoenix office, told the Tribune the men were arrested after nearly a yearlong investigation into the federal firearms violations for selling high-powered firearms to Sinaloa, a cartel based in Sonora, Mexico. He said authorities seized a number of high-powered firearms.
Sinaloa is one of four major drug cartels in Mexico and its members are currently known for purchasing high-powered rifles used in assaults against government and law enforcement officials and home invasions. The Sinaloa also is known for beheading its victims in the battle for Sonora, Newell said.
The men were arrested after warrants were executed at nine homes in an operation that involved about 50 law enforcement officers who assisted in the raids, Newell said.
The men were arrested after federal warrants were executed and now are in federal custody. They are accused of purchasing the firearms from local gun shows, gun shops and unlicensed dealers for people who cannot legally purchase them, Newell said.
The types of firearms seized at the residences were not immediately available, according to Newell.
"It's a war - it's an ongoing war down there, and they need ammunition," he said.
The men who allegedly purchased the firearms for Sinaloa members are facing at least 10 years in prison if convicted for "lying and buying," a program for people who knowingly purchase weapons for someone who cannot legally possess a firearm, Newell said. More arrests are expected, he said.
"We took down the whole network," Newell said. "If you go into a gun store and say a gun you are purchasing is for you, and it's not, you're looking at spending 10 years in prison. Of all the guns seized in Mexico, 95 percent of them are from the U.S."
ATF agents began the investigation into the illegal gun purchasing operation in January after receiving some information from a home invasion investigation in Tucson, Newell said.
He said he was unsure about other arrests, but added that the investigation was ongoing.