Allison Kilkenny: Unreported

U.S. Is Arms Bazaar for Mexican Cartels

Posted in guns, politics by allisonkilkenny on February 26, 2009
Officials say weapons from George Iknadosian’s store in Phoenix ended up in the hands of a cartel that included Alfredo Beltrán Leyva, right.(Left, A.T.F; right, Eduardo Verdugo/AP)

Officials say weapons from George Iknadosian’s store in Phoenix ended up in the hands of a cartel that included Alfredo Beltrán Leyva, right.(Left, A.T.F; right, Eduardo Verdugo/AP)

Note from Allison: I love how the conversation regarding Mexico’s political and social volatility is never framed as a problem with guns and/or the War on Drugs. Our policies on arms and a failing drug war are just fine. Those crazy Mexicans just need to get their acts together and figure out a bureaucratically corrupt system where corporations operate on the backs of the poor like we have in the good ole’ U S of A, and they’ll be a world power in no time!

New York Times

PHOENIX — The Mexican agents who moved in on a safe house full of drug dealers last May were not prepared for the fire power that greeted them.

When the shooting was over, eight agents were dead. Among the guns the police recovered was an assault rifle traced back across the border to a dingy gun store here called X-Caliber Guns.

Now, the owner, George Iknadosian, will go on trial on charges he sold hundreds of weapons, mostly AK-47 rifles, to smugglers, knowing they would send them to a drug cartel in the western state of Sinaloa. The guns helped fuel the gang warfare in which more than 6,000 Mexicans died last year.

Mexican authorities have long complained that American gun dealers are arming the cartels. This case is the most prominent prosecution of an American gun dealer since the United States promised Mexico two years ago it would clamp down on the smuggling of weapons across the border. It also offers a rare glimpse of how weapons delivered to American gun dealers are being moved into Mexico and wielded in horrific crimes.

“We had a direct pipeline from Iknadosian to the Sinaloa cartel,” said Thomas G. Mangan, a spokesman for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Phoenix.

Drug gangs seek out guns in the United States because the gun-control laws are far tougher in Mexico. Mexican civilians must get approval from the military to buy guns and they cannot own large-caliber rifles or high-powered pistols, which are considered military weapons.

The ease with which Mr. Iknadosian and two other men transported weapons to Mexico over a two-year period illustrates just how difficult it is to stop the illicit trade, law enforcement officials here say.

The gun laws in the United States allow the sale of multiple military-style rifles to American citizens without reporting the sales to the government, and the Mexicans search relatively few cars and trucks going south across their border.

What is more, the sheer volume of licensed dealers — more than 6,600 along the border alone, many of them operating out of their houses — makes policing them a tall order. Currently the A.T.F. has about 200 agents assigned to the task.

Smugglers routinely enlist Americans with clean criminal records to buy two or three rifles at a time, often from different shops, then transport them across the border in cars and trucks, often secreting them in door panels or under the hood, law enforcement officials here say. Some of the smuggled weapons are also bought from private individuals at gun shows, and the law requires no notification of the authorities in those cases.

“We can move against the most outrageous purveyors of arms to Mexico, but the characteristic of the arms trade is it’s a ‘parade of ants’ — it’s not any one big dealer, it’s lots of individuals,” said Arizona’s attorney general, Terry Goddard, who is prosecuting Mr. Iknadosian. “That makes it very hard to detect because it’s often below the radar.”

The Mexican government began to clamp down on drug cartels in late 2006, unleashing a war that daily deposits dozens of bodies — often gruesomely tortured — on Mexico’s streets. President Felipe Calderón has characterized the stream of smuggled weapons as one of the most significant threats to security in his country. The Mexican authorities say they seized 20,000 weapons from drug gangs in 2008, the majority bought in the United States.

The authorities in the United States say they do not know how many firearms are transported across the border each year, in part because the federal government does not track gun sales and traces only weapons used in crimes. But A.T.F. officials estimate 90 percent of the weapons recovered in Mexico come from dealers north of the border.

In 2007, the firearms agency traced 2,400 weapons seized in Mexico back to dealers in the United States, and 1,800 of those came from dealers operating in the four states along the border, with Texas first, followed by California, Arizona and New Mexico.

Mr. Iknadosian is accused of being one of those dealers. So brazen was his operation that the smugglers paid him in advance for the guns and the straw buyers merely filled out the required paperwork and carried the weapons off, according to A.T.F. investigative reports. The agency said Mr. Iknadosian also sold several guns to undercover agents who had explicitly informed him that they intended to resell them in Mexico.

Mr. Iknadosian, 47, will face trial on March 3 on charges including fraud, conspiracy and assisting a criminal syndicate. His lawyer, Thomas M. Baker, declined to comment on the charges, but said Mr. Iknadosian maintained his innocence. No one answered the telephone at Mr. Iknadosian’s home in Glendale, Ariz.

A native of Egypt who spent much of his life in California, Mr. Iknadosian moved his gun-selling operation to Arizona in 2004, because the gun laws were more lenient, prosecutors said.

Over the two years leading up to his arrest last May, he sold more than 700 weapons of the kind currently sought by drug dealers in Mexico, including 515 AK-47 rifles and one .50 caliber rifle that can penetrate an engine block or bulletproof glass, the A.T.F. said.

Based on the store’s records and the statements of some defendants, investigators estimate at least 600 of those weapons were smuggled to Mexico. So far, the Mexican authorities have seized seven of the Kalashnikov-style rifles from gunmen for the Beltrán Leyva cartel who had battled with the police.

The store was also said to be the source for a Colt .38-caliber pistol stuck in the belt of a reputed drug kingpin, Alfredo Beltrán Leyva, when he was arrested a year ago in the Sinaloan town of Culiacán. Also linked to the store was a diamond-studded handgun carried by another reputed mobster, Hugo David Castro, known as El Once, who was arrested in November on charges he took part in killing a state police chief in Sonora.

According to reports by A.T.F. investigators, Mr. Iknadosian sold more than 60 assault rifles in late 2007 and early 2008 to straw buyers working for two brothers — Hugo Miguel Gamez, 26, and Cesar Bojorguez Gamez, 27 — who then smuggled them into Mexico.

The brothers instructed the buyers to show up at X-Caliber Guns and to tell Mr. Iknadosian they were there to pick up guns for “Cesar” or “C,” the A.T.F. said. Mr. Iknadosian then helped the buyers fill out the required federal form, called the F.B.I. to check their records and handed over the rifles. The straw buyers would then meet one of the brothers to deliver the merchandise. They were paid $100 a gun.

The Gamez brothers have pleaded guilty to a count of attempted fraud. Seven of the buyers arrested last May have pleaded guilty to lesser charges and have agreed to testify against Mr. Iknadosian, prosecutors said.

In one transaction, Mr. Iknadosian gave advice about how to buy weapons and smuggle them to a person who turned out to be an informant who was recording him, according to a transcript. He told the informant to break the sales up into batches and never to carry more than two weapons in a car.

“If you got pulled over, two is no biggie,” Mr. Iknadosian is quoted as saying in the transcript. “Four is a question. Fifteen is, ‘What are you doing?’ ”

Journalists Targeted In Mexico’s Drug War

Posted in War on Drugs by allisonkilkenny on December 8, 2008

Julie Watson

Photographers work as an injured man is taken away during a prison riot at La Mesa State Prison in Tijuana, Mexico, Monday, Sept. 15, 2008. Mexico is the deadliest place in the Americas to be a journalist, and among the deadliest in the world. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists says at least 24 journalists have been killed since 2000, and seven have vanished in the past three years. (AP Photo/Guillermo Arias)

Photographers work as an injured man is taken away during a prison riot at La Mesa State Prison in Tijuana, Mexico, Monday, Sept. 15, 2008. (AP Photo/Guillermo Arias)

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico — As the photographer pulled his 2000 Ford Explorer into a soccer field, the crackle of his police scanner was broken by a lone accordion riff.

The riff, a fragment of a “narcocorrido” glorifying drug smugglers, was an announcement that the death toll in Mexico’s drug war _ already above 4,000 this year _ had just risen.

Hector Dayer already knew that as he looked out at the seven bodies, bound, beaten and repeatedly shot. What he didn’t know was whether yet another colleague was among the victims.

Two weeks earlier, Dayer had photographed a friend _ a veteran crime reporter from a rival newspaper _ shot dead in his car as his 8-year-old daughter sat shaking in the passenger’s seat.

On this day, none of the bodies belonged to journalists. Dayer grabbed his camera, pulled up the collar of his jacket to hide his face, and stepped out to photograph the carnage.

“We should wear ski masks, like the police,” said Dayer, a father of two who works for the newspaper El Norte. “We are so public. Everyone can see us and identify us.”

Mexico is the deadliest place in the Americas to be a journalist, and among the deadliest in the world. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists says at least 24 have been killed since 2000, and seven have vanished in the past three years.

Many of the victims had recently reported on police ties to cartels. Some are suspected of accepting drug money, but it’s hard to be sure because the killings are barely investigated. Of the 24 cases, the committee says, only one has been solved.

Some attacks target specific journalists, others entire newsrooms. In at least two cases, grenades have been thrown at newspaper offices.

The attacks are silencing journalists and undermining Mexico’s young democracy. Across the nation, news media have stopped reporting on the drug war, with most limiting their reports to facts put out by authorities, with no context, analysis or investigation. In most places, journalists don’t even report on killings they witness.

Ciudad Juarez, Mexico’s bloodiest city with about 1,400 deaths this year, is an exception. Here journalists continue to cover the daily deaths, without using bylines or photo credits.

Many use different cars and routes to get to work each day. A few wear bulletproof vests, but most think those make them more of a target.

Nearly all crime reporters have received threats. They include Armando Rodriguez, 40, a veteran with the newspaper El Diario. In February, Rodriguez asked the state prosecutor for protection, but she asked him to file a police report and he never did.

On Nov. 13, Rodriguez sat in his driveway with his 8-year-old daughter, waiting for her 6-year-old sister to come out so he could drive the girls to school. Gunshots rang out.

Rodriguez’s wife, Blanca Martinez, screamed as she looked out the kitchen window. She saw her husband’s head bent down and thought he was searching for his cell phone to call his newspaper to report the gunshots.

Then she realized he wasn’t moving. Their daughter was shaking in the seat next to him.

Martinez ran out and told her daughter to get inside the house, then climbed into the car with her husband, holding his bloody body until police and colleagues arrived.

“I don’t have any hope the guilty will be caught,” she said. “All I want is for them to repent.”

The colleagues who showed up to cover Rodriguez’s death were shaken too.

“I took photos but afterward we all didn’t know what to do,” Dayer said. “There was just silence.”

Rodriguez’s desk at El Diario is much as he left it, notebooks and police communiques stacked haphazardly. El Diario director Pedro Torres says he wants a full investigation, but police have shown little interest.

Hours after The Associated Press asked the office of Mexico’s attorney general why nobody had examined Rodriguez’s computer, El Diario editors say federal investigators called to say they were sending someone to pick it up. The attorney general’s office never got back to the AP.

“We’re not interested in making him a martyr. We just want the truth,” Torres said. “We feel so helpless, so angry _ but not afraid. Because, I insist, you cannot do journalism with fear.”

Jorge Luis Aguirre, director of news Web site La Polaka, agrees. As he was driving to Rodriguez’s wake, his cell phone rang.

“You’re next,” said a voice.

Aguirre parked his car, called his wife and fled to the U.S. with his family. He plans to apply for asylum.

“Any journalist in Juarez is at risk right now of being assassinated just because someone doesn’t like what you published,” he said in a telephone interview from hiding.

Media-freedom groups are pushing for the U.S. to grant such requests, and are lobbying Mexico’s Congress to pass a bill that would make attacks on the news media a federal crime.

“This violence has gone way beyond the press,” said Carlos Lauria of the Committee to Protect Journalists. “It’s going against freedom of expression.”

It is also insanely brutal. Dayer has seen the worst of it this year, from human legs protruding from a large pot commonly used to cook pork, to a body hanging inside a house with a pig mask over the face. When the death count reached eight in the span of an hour, he called his wife and told her to take the kids inside.

Once, as he photographed a headless body hanging from an overpass, someone noticed a man in a car nearby taking pictures of the journalists. A photographer went over to ask what he was doing, but the man sped away. Later in the day, the head was found in a trash bag at the foot of the city’s 28-year-old Journalist Monument, a statue of a newspaper delivery boy.

“I think about that day a lot now,” Dayer said.

Juarez’s journalists take extraordinary risks for their daily blood-and-gore reports. They careen through traffic, often arriving at crime scenes before the police. Photographers have stumbled across hitmen who fired shots, pistol-whipped them and stole their cameras.

On a recent morning, an AP reporter accompanied a TV crew as it plied the streets looking for the day’s dead. The police scanner reported an armed man in a white car nearby, and the driver swung into pursuit. A wailing police car raced up behind the crew, as TV and radio correspondent Ever Chavez screamed at the driver.

“Not too close! Get back!” he said.

The police car stopped the white car and dragged out two men as Chavez moved in with his microphone. Police pulled a black handgun from one of the men’s pockets, but it turned out to be plastic. Chavez went on the air.

“That’s the report we have so far,” Chavez said cheerily. “Be careful out there, and have a good morning.”