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Gun-trafficking pipeline carries arms from Nevada to Mexico

From the look of things, Southern Nevada resident Marcos Romero was an enterprising fellow.

By day Romero sweated it out at a local Jack in the Box restaurant. Flip the burgers, mop the floor, help behind the counter.

In his spare time, he bought guns. Plenty of them.

Not just any guns, federal authorities allege, but the weapons of choice of Mexico’s violent Los Zetas organized crime drug cartel. With its historical connection to the Mexican army, Los Zetas has specialized in assassination.

Even a drug cartel needs a steady supply of weapons, and for years the narco gangs have paid handsomely for AR-15s, AK-47s, .50-caliber rifles, explosives, and munitions purchased from American gun stores and licensed collectors.

Romero, an illegal immigrant from Mexico, might have lived small in Las Vegas. But he dreamed big, according to a criminal complaint filed against him Aug. 2 in U.S. District Court.

When Mexican authorities earlier this year raided a Los Zetas training camp in Nuevo Leon, about 45 miles outside the state capital of Monterrey, hundreds of weapons and thousands of rounds of ammunition were recovered. Agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives worked with Mexican authorities to trace the weapons back to the United States. Some of those weapons, ATF discovered, were purchased at Las Vegas Valley gun shops by an “Efren Browne.” An identity check found Efren Browne working at a local Jack in the Box next to Marcos Romero.

The good news is, the ATF’s Electronic Tracing System (eTrace) appears to have been effective. The bad news is, the guns got all the way to a Mexican drug training camp before they were recovered.

Romero’s alleged side job was interrupted, but Las Vegas ATF Resident Agent in Charge Thomas Chittum knows the scenario isn’t unique. His office spends many hours working U.S.-to-Mexico gun trafficking cases. That includes using the eTrace system to catch straw buyers, locals who purchase guns on behalf of traffickers who can’t legally obtain the weapons.

With his trunkload of guns, Romero was still a bit player. But, Chittum says, “We have documented hundreds of firearms being trafficked out of Southern Nevada and being recovered in Mexico.”

Why the Nevada-Mexico connection?

Geography, for one thing. From Las Vegas, it’s less than a day’s drive to the border. And compared to California, Nevada has liberal gun purchasing laws.

Although Chittum wouldn’t comment, I also suspect the character of Las Vegas, with its throng of international travelers and enormous cash flow, makes it feel like a safer place to do illicit business.

Since 2006, the ATF’s Project Gunrunner has attempted to interrupt the gun pipeline between the United States and Mexico.

Although its proponents can point to plenty of successes, critics contend it hasn’t gone far enough fast enough as Mexico’s drug gangs have increased their violence, turning the border region and several major cities in that country into war zones.

“We have seen an increase in firearms trafficking,” Chittum says. “There’s no doubt it’s connected to the ongoing violence in Mexico. Cartels use firearms as tools of the trade to try to control trafficking routes and lucrative distribution territories.”

The ATF has a politically delicate job: investigate gun traffickers without stepping on American citizens’ Second Amendment rights. Recently, the bureau, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Mexican authorities were criticized by the Inspector General’s Office for failing to share sensitive investigative information to the detriment of their common goal: to halt the flow of weapons into the hands of the drug cartels.

The security of two nations depends on increasing that communication.

Inter-agency politics aside, if an illegal immigrant who works at a Jack in the Box can become an arms trafficker in his spare time, there’s still room for improvement.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith.

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