|Web System Helps US, Mexico Track Weapons|
Maggie Ybarra - El Paso Times
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November 01, 2010
The U.S. and Mexico are using an Internet-based system to help Mexican authorities continue their battle against violence and gun-trafficking by drug cartels.
The system, an electronic tracing system called Spanish e-Trace, allows law enforcement agencies to submit firearm trace requests to the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' National Tracing Center, where agents can analyze trends in the movement of weapons to Mexico and other countries.
It was designed to assist Mexican investigators who are tracing firearms known to originate in the U.S., according to a May 2010 State Department report.
The original e-Trace was made in English but the Spanish version was made available to some Mexican law enforcement agencies in March, according to an August 2010 Congressional Research Service report. The bureau has traced more than 35,000 guns that were seized in Mexico as of April 2010, according to the State Department report.
Tom Crowley, an ATF spokesman in Dallas, said the Spanish e-Trace system eliminates the communication problems U.S. and Mexican agencies have experienced while trying to trace weapons.
"It's a lot quicker and a lot more accurate because, it being in Spanish, eliminates the problem we have with interpretations," he said.
About 70 percent of firearms seized and traced in Mexico between 2004 and 2008 were from Texas, California and Arizona, according to a June 2009 U.S. Government Accountability Office report.
It is not known how many of those guns were seized in Juárez.
More than 6,700 people have been killed in Juárez since the cartel war began in 2008. On Thursday, gunmen opened fire on three buses carrying maquiladora workers killing three women, a man and wounding 15 others.
But the Mexican federal police who patrol the streets of Juárez do not have access to the Internet system, said federal police spokesman José Ramón Salinas. They collect the guns and pass them on, he said.
"We, federal police, give the weapons to either the Mexican Attorney General or the Mexican army, who then consult with American officials and trace the guns using that system," Salinas said.
Crowley said ATF has agents in Juárez who assist tracing the weapons. Mexican authorities in Juárez understand the importance of tracing the guns and work hand-in-hand with U.S. agents whenever they find weapons, Crowley said.
"A trace of the weapons will bring you to the first purchaser. Now, if this person (the purchaser) has a lot of guns showing up in Mexico, that's going to give us the means to open up an investigation into illegal gun-trafficking," he said.
Crowley declined to say how many agents are working in Juárez for security reasons. He said the agents are fluent in English and Spanish and can use either version of the e-Trace system.
Crowley said the number of guns that have been traced in Juárez is not currently available.
In El Paso, gun-trafficking investigations have led to several arrests in 2008 and 2009, including El Pasoan John Avelar, 32, and Jonatan López-Gutiérrez, 33, of Mexico. Both men pleaded guilty and were convicted of running a gun-smuggling scheme on Dec. 2, 2008.
López-Gutiérrez was one of two people arrested at a downtown bridge on March 19, 2008, while attempting to cross six rifles and a semi-automatic gun into Mexico, according to a federal affidavit.
He told U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents that he had been illegally exporting firearms since June 2007, the affidavit said.
López-Gutiérrez said he would tell Avelar which guns to purchase at gun stores and give him the money to buy them. He said Avelar worked as a "straw purchaser," someone who purchases the guns for someone else and received $100 to $150 for each gun he bought, the affidavit said. Both men were convicted on gun-trafficking charges.
Then there were the arrests of Miguel Martinez-Yu, a U.S. resident, and Octavio Bojorquez, of Juárez, in January 2009, according to a federal affidavit. The two worked together to purchase "cop killer" pistols, named for their popularity among Mexican drug-trafficking organizations and reputation for firing bullets that can penetrate the body armor commonly worn by law enforcement officials, the affidavit said.
Martinez-Yu told ATF agents that Bojorquez bought the guns from a store in the El Paso area, according to the affidavit.
Martinez-Yu told the agents that he paid Bojorquez $1,200 to buy 14 of the pistols, worth about $17,000, and that they were no longer in his possession, the affidavit said.
Both men were convicted of making false statements on firearms purchases in 2009.
Although numerous arrests for gun-trafficking have been made in El Paso within the past two years, gun-trafficking is growing beyond the border region and into other parts of the states, Crowley said.
"The trends we're seeing is that it's not just a border issue anymore," Crowley said.
"We're having a lot of investigations showing that the cartels are coming up to the Dallas area, for example, utilizing straw purchasers and bringing guns into Mexico from Dallas. We've had cases as far away as Oklahoma as well."
The Spanish e-Trace system is just one of many tools that ATF uses to combat gun-trafficking.
The agency sent 100 agents from its Gun Runner Impact Team to southern Texas to investigate more than 1,000 criminal leads in 2009. The agents conducted 1,100 firearms license inspections on 70,000 firearms, which resulted in 440 violations and 276 federal firearms trafficking-related criminal cases, the State Department report said. The report said Mexican officials seized 80,000 firearms from December 2006 to February 2010. In addition, the State Department report said Mexican authorities and ATF agents disabled 122 bombs. The report does not elaborate.
In the future, ATF plans to create a special unit for arms trafficking investigations that will link firearms to drug cartels for prosecution, according to a State Department report. Mexican authorities plan to compile a comprehensive list of people who have a history of acquiring weapons and share it with U.S. authorities, the report said.
Maggie Ybarra may be reached at mybarra(at)elpasotimes.com