Sunday, February 6, 2011

Romanian Weapons Modified in the U.S. Become Scourge of Mexican Drug War

Camron Scott Galloway, 21, walked into X Caliber Guns in Phoenix, Ariz., on Jan. 30, 2008, and filled out forms for the purchase of six AK-47 rifles.

Reliable and powerful, and a bargain at about $500 each, the Romanian-made gun, a semiautomatic version of the iconic Kalashnikov assault weapon, had become popular with the drug cartels in Mexico.

Galloway, who eventually pleaded guilty to a forgery charge and became a cooperating prosecution witness in a broader case, testified that he agreed to act as the purchaser of the Romanian AKs on behalf of a co-worker’s brother, who was trafficking weapons south of the border. Just for doing the paperwork, he earned $100 per rifle.

Four months later, one of the same guns that Galloway signed for surfaced in a safe house used by the Beltrán Leyva drug cartel in northwest Mexico. The discovery followed a deadly shootout between federal agents and drug dealers in Culiacán, the capital of the Pacific state of Sinaloa. Eight police officers were killed.

In the grim accounting of death and violence from Mexico’s drug wars, the episode might be written off as a footnote. After all, almost 35,000 people have been killed in violence in the four years since President Felipe Calderón began deploying troops and federal police throughout Mexico to ratchet up the fight against the cartels.

Mexican gun laws, among the most prohibitive in the world, continue to drive drug dealers and their agents to the United States and its more permissive laws.

But the Romanian AK stands out, both for the popularity it has achieved with the cartels and for the route it has traveled from Romania through the United States to Mexico — a journey made legally even though for years it has actually been illegal to import high-powered, semiautomatic weapons that do not have a “sporting purpose” into the United States.

U.S. gun laws have been interpreted by federal regulators in a way that affords importers a way around the ban. Foreign guns like the Romanian AKs are shipped into the United States stripped of their military features so they can be treated as sporting guns.

The weapons are then modified by an importer with a few U.S.-made parts, declared to be American-made and shipped through wholesalers to local gun dealers for sale with high-capacity magazines, bayonets and the other trimmings of a bargain assault weapon.

The Romanian AKs — sold by Florida-based Century International Arms as the WASR-10 — have become the most common gun purchased in the United States since 2006 to be traced to crimes in Mexico, according to a review by the Center for Public Integrity, InSight, the Investigative Reporting Workshop at the American University School of Communication, PBS’ FRONTLINE and the Romanian Centre for Investigative Journalism.

Reports from the Justice Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) show that over the last four years, more than 500 of the WASR-10s imported into the United States by Century were recovered in Mexico after being purchased in the United States. That is the most of any rifle or pistol purchased, recovered and traced during that four-year span, accounting for more than 17% of the total guns recovered, the reports show. While Century does sell an unmodified version of the WASR-10 in the U.S., most of its guns showing up in the smuggling cases have been upgraded to include high-capacity magazines and other military features, according to law enforcement officials, investigative documents and court records.

Other popular models identified in the ATF reports include several American-made versions of the AR-15 assault weapon, and two guns made by Fabrique Nationale Herstal of Belgium, including a sleek, compact rifle called the PS-90.

The relatively modest price of the WASR-10, and the large premium it fetches in Mexico, where it is valued for its durability and firepower, has contributed to demand for the gun. Sold for as little as $400 in gun shops on the U.S. side of the border, the rifle can fetch upwards of $2,000 to $3,000 in Mexico, officials said.

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