Rogelio Barajas got off his flight from central Mexico to O’Hare with empty luggage that smelled of gunpowder.
It smelled that way because Barajas had returned from one of his regular journeys transporting guns: More than 100 in all, smuggled from Illinois to Mexico over the course of four years. His scheme eventually drew the attention of federal investigators in September 2008, when Mexican police recovered a rifle in an abandoned car. Using the weapon’s serial number, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives traced it back to Barajas, who had purchased it at a store called GAT Guns in the Chicago suburb of East Dundee.
Clerks at the shop told investigators that they knew where Barajas was taking the guns. He mentioned he was starting a “hunting business,” though he had no license to export firearms, which is required by law. GAT Guns sold him weapons anyway.
Barajas is the most prolific of the gun traffickers identified in a cache of ATF records obtained by The Trace. The documents contain the results of the bureau’s crime gun traces, through which firearms collected by law enforcement are tracked to their original sale by a licensed gun dealer, and cover 2,922 firearms recovered by Mexican authorities between 2007 and 2010. The records were provided to The Trace by the activist groups Stop US Arms to Mexico and the Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights, which had obtained them from an ATF source and had analyzed them in aggregate for an August report. An ATF source provided the data to the activists, but attempts to contact the ATF source for this story were unsuccessful.
Because federal law prohibits the ATF and local law enforcement agencies from releasing the results of crime gun traces, firearm trafficking patterns are hidden from public view. The trove of records reviewed by The Trace tell two clear stories: High-volume gun traffickers often depend on a single retail gun dealer for most of their wares. And rarely do those gun sellers face consequences.
The 11 traffickers who appear most frequently on the list of crime guns reviewed by The Trace were each tied to 10 or more weapons recovered in Mexico. Nine of those purchasers got most — or, in some case, all — of their guns from a single gun store. Barajas picked up at least 69 firearms from GAT Guns, alone.
Court records and news clips show that six of the top traffickers in the data set were prosecuted. Barajas, who did not respond to a request for comment sent to his attorney, eventually pleaded guilty to trafficking weapons and was sentenced to nearly four years in prison.
But there is no indication that any of the dealers were sanctioned or investigated. Most remain in business today. In fact, GAT Guns appears on a 2017 list of the top sources of crime guns recovered in the city compiled by the Chicago Mayor’s Office. A manager for the store declined to comment for this article.
“It’s one big operation. You’ve got drugs — cocaine, marijuana, methamphetamine, heroin — coming up from South America and Central America to the U.S., which is a big consumer. And then you have money and guns going south,” said a former ATF official who worked in Mexico during the period in question. He spoke to The Trace on condition of anonymity because he still consults with law enforcement. “Guns are the tool of the trade,” he said. “People aren’t killing each other with machetes.”
Every year, experts estimate that traffickers like Barajas attempt to smuggle more than 200,000 guns from the sprawling and loosely regulated American retail market to Mexico, in what has been called a “river of iron.” These weapons contribute to Mexico’s sky-high homicide rate, which is about four times that of America. The river of iron is fed by tributaries that spring from stores like GAT.
The data reviewed by The Trace represents only a slim fraction of the total number of American-purchased guns recovered by Mexican authorities: every year, the ATF conducts 10,000 to 20,000 traces of guns found at Mexican crime scenes, 70 percent of which were originally sold by American retailers. It’s unclear how the ATF source who leaked the documents selected the subset of trace reports he provided to the anti-trafficking activists. The ATF declined to comment for this article.
Experts on crime guns say the data highlights how smugglers find the weak points in America’s sprawling, loosely regulated gun market. “A relatively small number of retailers in this country are disproportionately involved in selling guns later used in firearm-related violent crime,” said Dr. Garen Wintemute, the director of the University of California/Davis Violence Prevention Research Center. “For traffickers, spreading purchases between a lot of different stores increases the hassle of doing business. The sweet spot is a retailer who would sell the trafficker whatever he wants without asking questions. The hard part is finding that retailer.”
Two dealers who spoke with The Trace said they are not sure what responsibility they have to identify and stop legal-but-suspicious sales that may be tied to trafficking.
Buying a large numbers of similar guns is considered a hallmark of trafficking, but it isn’t illegal on its own. Investigators have to demonstrate that the purchaser knowingly trafficked specific weapons, identified by serial number, without a license.
“You have people who just want to sell the weapons, and people who want to buy them, and if they can get away with it, why not?” said Davy Aguilera, a former ATF official who worked in Mexico, Texas, and Central America over the course of his career. “A citizen who is not a prohibited purchaser can purchase as many guns as he or she wants. And a dealer is going to sell them.”
”What happens to the guns after the retailers make the sale is not their concern,” Aguilera added. He explained that the ATF typically only becomes aware of a trafficking operation once guns turn up at their final destination, as in Barajas’s case, or if ATF officials identify a lot of bulk sales in dealers’ sales records during inspections. Those inspections are rare, however: according to the ATF, it only inspected about 8 percent of licensed dealers in 2017.
Under federal law, gun dealers only have to notify the ATF of very specific purchasing patterns: namely, if a single person buys more than one handgun from the same licensed dealer within five business days. In states along the Southwest border — Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California — dealers also have to alert the ATF if they sell more than one rifle or shotgun to the same person within five business days.
One former firearms dealer said that it may be difficult to distinguish purchases made by a trafficker from sales to avid collectors.
Tens of thousands of firearms smuggled from the United States help to fuel extreme rates of violence south of the border.
Beginning in 2007, a Minnesota man named Paul Giovanni De La Rosa began purchasing guns and delivering them to a business partner who lived near Mexico City. In court documents, he was accused of smuggling more than 100 firearms over the course of 20 trips. The weapons included more than 40 Five-seveN pistols, which are favored by drug cartels because they fire a cartridge that can pierce body armor. After De La Rosa was caught at the Laredo border crossing with weapons hidden inside furniture, he was prosecuted and sentenced to three years in prison. He did not respond to a request for comment sent to his attorney.
Dozens of De La Rosa’s purchases were included in the trove of ATF records reviewed by The Trace. Of the 34 weapons tracked in that dataset, 28 were sold by a single store: Hart Brothers, in the town of Albert Lea, Minnesota.
The episode still haunts Milan Hart, the owner of the gun store. He knew De La Rosa, whom he remembered as a loyal and courteous customer. “We were totally ignorant of what was going on,” Hart said in a phone interview. “Mr. De La Rosa couldn’t have been a nicer individual.”
Hart said De La Rosa’s buying spree didn’t strike him as particularly noteworthy, given that many American gun owners amass enormous collections. “I’ve got guys that have bought way more than that. I own more than a 1,000 guns myself,” Hart said. “Collecting firearms is no different than collecting anything else.” Hart says he learned the weapons were part of a trafficking scheme only after De La Rosa was in custody.
Hart said it frustrates him that his former customer De La Rosa managed to get dozens of guns across the border before he was caught. “As soon as he took that first gun across, they should have arrested him,” Hart said. “How would you feel if the government knowingly allowed someone to conduct criminal activity through your business?”
He doesn’t like thinking about what happened to the guns when they arrived at their destination: “A lot of Mexican lives are lost because of gun running, innocent lives.”