Feds Say Houston is Gun Trafficking Hot-Spot

Federal agents say a concentrated effort here in Houston and parts of south Texas has been successful in slowing the flow of illegal weapons from the United States to Mexican drug cartels. As Jack Williams reports, the operation netted hundreds of new leads, illegal firearms and a better idea of where the guns are coming from.

"The number one source area in Texas was the Houston area."

Dewey Webb is the Special Agent in Charge of the Houston Division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
The ATF has just concluded a four month operation here, flooding the Houston area with 100 special agents and inspectors. The goal? To find out where drug cartels are getting their weapons. Turns out a lot of the guns come from legitimate gun dealers right here in Houston.  

 "Out of the 8,000 dealers in Texas, there's a little over 1,500 dealers here in the Houston area, so that makes Houston one of the number one stops because you can go to a different dealer everyday for months and months and months. Also, you have a bigger selection here. You have better prices here because there's more competition. Also, the dealers are larger dealers and they have more guns in stock. It just makes Houston the natural place to come."

Cartels use so-called "straw buyers" who purchase guns from the many different dealers here. Webb says it's not hard to find people to buy the guns.

"For the most part, they're looking for U.S. citizens that can legally go in and buy a gun and not raise a red flag, and that's typically who they recruit. It's very enticing if you go into somebody that's working in a fast food restaurant and say you can make $500 a day, go buy me ten guns at ten different dealers and we'll pay you $50 a gun. That's $500 a day for them, as opposed to what they're making working at a fast food restaurant." 

The Gun Runner Impact Team, or GRIT initiative here in Houston traced guns used in crimes in Mexico. Many of those guns were purchased in Texas. Agents followed-up on 1100 total leads and opened almost 300 new criminal investigations involving firearms trafficking. This is U.S. Deputy Attorney General David Ogden.

Dewey Webb, David Ogden and Kenneth Melson

"The new investigations, many of which are ongoing, revealed and disrupted firearms trafficking rings tied to specific Mexican drug-trafficking organizations, such as the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas. During the surge, the GRITS learned that many of these rings operate by recruiting teams of straw purchasers who accumulate numerous firearms by buying them from multiple FFL's and gun shows, then traffickers smuggle the guns into Mexico."         

The operation ended in August, but ATF acting director Kenneth Melson says authorities now know a lot more about
how gun-traffickers operate.

"I believe that the GRIT has led to a much better understanding of the source of these guns and the way that they are now becoming more sophisticated in obtaining the guns. How they are now insulating themselves through several layers of people and the straw purchasers so that we have to work farther up the chain to get these individuals."  

The operation also included more than 1000 inspections of licensed firearms dealers. Some of those dealers were not
following proper procedures when selling guns and officials say a few of them were actually working with cartels
to smuggle guns to Mexico.

Jack Williams. KUHF-Houston Public Radio News.

Bio photo of Jack Williams

Jack Williams

Director of News Programming

News Director Jack Williams has been with Houston Public Radio since August of 2000. He's also a reporter and anchor for Houston Public Radio's local All Things Considered segments...