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Old 10-01-09, 09:38 AM   #1
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Post ATF says effort helps fight flow of guns to Mexico (AP)

AP - Federal agents have vastly reduced a backlog of investigative leads and increased the number of criminal cases in Houston in a four-month effort to stop the flow of firearms from the U.S. to Mexican drug cartels, officials announced Thursday.

Many weapons seized south of the border are traced back to Houston, where 100 agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and other personnel were deployed in April to develop cases on trafficking firearms to Mexico.

ATF Acting Director Kenneth Melson said the initiative vastly reduced a backlog of investigative leads and increased the number of criminal cases in Houston.

"While we can't say we've solved the gun running problem to Mexico as a result of this (effort), it is a start and it certainly has made an impact here in Houston," Melson told The Associated Press after a news conference.

Melson said 93 percent of the 12,000 guns that U.S. officials were asked in 2008 to trace for Mexican authorities came from the United States. Of those, most have been traced back to Texas, and within the state most came from the Houston area, which has about 1,500 gun dealers.

Houston, with its proximity to the U.S.-Mexico border and a large number of firearms dealers who can offer more variety and better prices, is very attractive to gun trafficking groups, said J. Dewey Webb, special agent in charge of the ATF's Houston division.

"I tell people you don't drive across town to buy your groceries," he said. "You buy your groceries from the nearest grocery store that gives you the best price. Right now it's Texas."

The additional personnel — 72 special agents and 28 inspectors, analysts and support staff — were part of Gun Runner Impact Teams, which help support the ATF's Project Gunrunner, the agency's initiative to reduce the flow of firearms to Mexico.

U.S. Deputy Attorney General David W. Ogden said the four-month effort revealed and disrupted gun trafficking rings tied to the Gulf cartel and the Zetas, the drug ring's infamous hit men. - Before the extra personnel came to the ATF's Houston office, which includes southern Texas in its jurisdiction, the field division had a backlog of more than 700 gun-trafficking leads received from firearms dealers and tracing requests from Mexico, Melson said. The additional help produced 400 more leads.

Agents and personnel finished investigating 87 percent of the more than 1,100 leads, Melson said.

The effort "has led to a much better understanding of the way they are becoming more sophisticated in getting these guns, insulating themselves through layers of straw purchasers," Melson said.

The gun trafficking groups tend to use straw buyers, individuals who buy firearms they claim are for themselves. The buyers can be paid up to $500 to make multiple purchases with different dealers.

During the four month period, the Houston ATF office opened 276 new criminal investigations involving 644 guns that were bought but have not been recovered. About 28 of these cases have gone through the indictment process, Melson said.

The number of new criminal cases is more than the Houston office had in each of the previous three years, Melson said. In 2006, it opened 104 cases; 162 in 2007; and 195 in 2008.

The ATF push also resulted in the seizure of 443 firearms, more than 141,000 rounds of ammunition and three explosive devices.

Mexico has long tried to get the United States to curtail the number of guns that wind up with drug cartels. President Barack Obama has pledged the U.S. will do more.

Melson said cooperation between U.S. and Mexican authorities will be even better in the future after a Spanish version of the ATF's tracing program goes online by the end of the year, allowing Mexican law enforcement to input information about seized guns directly into the system, he said.


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