Texas’ Deadliest Export

A San Antonio Express-News series examining how Mexico’s drug cartels exploit a bountiful land of weapons and ammunition to prosecute a civil drug war that has claimed thousands of lives.

By Todd Bensman


* Winner of the 2009 National Press Club Edwin M. Hood award for foreign correspondence

*Winner of the 2009 Texas Institute of Letters Stanley Walker Award for best work  of newspaper journalism

*Winner of 2009 Houston Press Club Investigative Reporting Award


These stories document Mexico’s black market hunger for American guns. The hidden cross-border trade is hardly a new phenomenon and for decades has occupied a back burner in the national policies of both countries. But with Mexico’s drug war body count surpassing 6,000 in a single year, 2008, a figure that almost flatters the number of American dead in Iraq, the weapons smuggling issue has been suddenly thrust to the top of Mexico’s policy agenda. That reality holds important implications for American taxpayers and legislators as Mexico presses the U.S. for action. While drugs flow north, much to American consternation, American guns are in turn flowing south, powering a literal civil war pitting Mexican drug syndicates against one another and the state. To bring clarity to this gathering foreign policy issue, Express-News reporter Todd Bensman, with photographer Jerry Lara, traveled extensively on both sides of the Texas-Mexico border. Bensman examined hundreds of court records, and interviewed federal police, diplomats and government officials in Mexico and the U.S. He interviewed a former cartel assassin, gun store owners and convicted felons involved in the trade. And he traveled deep into Mexico’s interior to record the human impact behind the body count statistics that American guns have wrought.


Part I:

Gunrunner’s Land of Plenty


                                     One of the four Aguascallientes police officers

                                              gunned down on “Black  Thursday, Feb. 15, 2007,

                                              at an ambush scene where Texas-bought guns

                                              were recovered. photo courtesy of police dept.

The story of how several guns bought legally from a Laredo gun dealer ended up at the killing grounds deep in Mexico where narcotics traffickers murdered four Aguascalientes police officers illuminates how and why armaments from American gun store retailers are stocking Mexico’s drug paramilitaries. Illegal buyers partner with mostly unwitting legal American sellers to produce this grisly result: 5,200 dead Mexicans in 2008 alone. Among them were 600 police and military personnel.

Read Gunrunners’ Land of Plenty here



Part II:

The sellers: merchants torn between profit and conscience


                  Diana Villarreal of “Mando’s Guns and Ammo” Photo by Jerry Lara

International gun trafficking prosecutions against licensed gun dealers are relatively rare. The law provides more protection to sellers than to any other part of the supply chain delivering weapons to Mexico’s drug cartel foot soldiers. Much of the current U.S. law enforcement activity targets the battalions of shadowy “straw buyers,” U.S. citizens who can pass the mandatory FBI background check. But straw buyers couldn’t do business without their witting and unwitting trading partners, American gun merchants.

Read merchants here

*read interview with cartel hit man


         Buyers remorseless


                               Former DEA agent Celerino Castillo pled guilty to dealing

                                        guns without a federal license after ATF agents caught him

                                        hiring a “straw buyer” to purchase guns favored by cartels

                                        Photo by Todd Bensman

Crucial to the flow of guns into Mexico are networks of straw buyers — U.S. citizens with clean criminal backgrounds bankrolled by the cartels to shop for guns. Two kinds stalk South Texas: ordinary people with perhaps only a sneaking suspicion about who’s ultimately paying them; and those much more closely tied to cartels, perhaps even syndicate employees. Mexican officials say 60 percent of all guns purchased in the U.S. that make their way to criminals in Mexico were bought by straw purchasers. Straw purchasing, therefore, has become the new front - and maybe the only practical one - in an escalating bilateral push to shut down the pipelines.

Read Buyers Remorseless here



Bingeing on bullets


                               seized .50 caliber ammunition in Ciudad Juarez loaded for fully

                               automatic machine gun, .50 caliber rounds like these are in such

                               demand at Texas gun shops they are often sold out. courtesy photo

So loosely regulated and available is American ammunition that Mexican smugglers are simply dropping over on day shopping visas to cruise a bounty of stores within the 25-mile deep commercial zone where they can legally wander. Judging by prosecutions and seizures, the day-trippers are doing their part to bring home huge quantities of bullets. The one law that applies to ammunition purchases doesn’t hinder much. It requires that buyers be U.S. citizens. But retailers aren’t required to check. So it’s don’t ask, don’t tell.

Read Bingeing on Bullets here