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PHOTO: NATHANIEL JANOWITZ FOR VICE WORLD NEWS.

The US Hunt for Cartel Sniper Rifles in Mexico

Deadly .50-calibers are the weapons of choice for Mexican cartels. But current laws to punish U.S. arms traffickers are not enough.

MORELIA, Mexico — The .50-caliber sniper rifles stood out from the rest of the arsenal in the evidence locker room in the Mexican state of Michoacan, ground zero for one of Mexico's bloodiest cartel wars. 

“That’s the highest caliber that we’ve had,” said Pedro Gutiérrez, who runs the storage facility.

Gutiérrez was accompanied by Tim Sloan, head of the Mexico branch of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), to whom the cartel's current weapon of choice is of grave concern. That’s because most of them are coming from American gun shops.

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Sloan has made improving cooperation with the likes of Gutiérrez a priority since arriving in Mexico in 2018 and gained entry to the vault so that they could have access to the weapons serial numbers. Gutiérrez also finds the relationship beneficial. “Our friends at the ATF”, he said, have been giving them additional explosive and ballistics training to deal with the rise of the cartels’ use of drones, bombs, and homemade tanks.

VICE World News was given an exclusive look inside the bilateral hunt for Mexico’s deadliest weapon. Over the last few years, the seizures of .50-calibers here in Mexico have increased. But many of the American citizens involved in trafficking the weapons face little punishment because of weak laws in the United States.

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A lab technician in the Michoacan evidence locker holds a wrapped AK-47, commonly used by Mexican organized crime. Photo: Nathaniel Janowitz for VICE World News.

The .50-caliber has been center stage for many of Mexico’s worst moments of cartel conflict in recent years. In 2019, when Sinaloa Cartel members freed Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán’s son after he was arrested, they used .50 Calibers to attack government forces on the streets of Culiacan, which was seen in videos that went viral. In 2020, when the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) attempted to assassinate the top security official in Mexico City, they unloaded .50-calibers on his car on the outskirts of the nation's capital. Then they released a video prominently boasting their arsenal of sniper rifles.

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Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has made holding the U.S. government responsible for gun trafficking one of his administration’s top priorities during negotiations between the two countries. That means not only getting the most dangerous weapons off the streets but also prosecuting those who traffic them south.

Sloan accepts that AMLO has reason to be concerned about U.S. guns, and said it’s “well known that at least 70 percent of weapons in Mexico come from the United States,” although that doesn’t mean they are all American made. Many foreign guns are sold in the U.S. then trafficked to Mexico, said Sloan. Experts consulted by VICE World News estimated that the number could be as high as 90 percent with that consideration.

Sloan said that he and his small team in Mexico have one prerogative: “to save Mexican lives.” To do that “we have to focus on the most lethal and the most powerful [weapons].” 

After arriving in Mexico, Sloan forged relationships with the attorney general’s office in six of Mexico’s 32 states, including Michoacan, to analyze the weapons and retrieve their serial numbers.

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This .50-caliber gun, made in the U.S., was found in Michoacan, ground zero for one of the country’s bloodiest cartel wars. Photo: Nathaniel Janowitz for VICE World News.

The ATF claimed that from 2019 to 2021, the amount of guns seized in Mexico per year jumped from 16,000 to 23,000. Sloan alleged that they are on pace in 2022 to reach 28,000. He hopes that the progress will allow the ATF access to other Mexican states and weapons confiscated by the armed forces, because “unless we have access to the firearms and the information, we can't identify the trafficking organizations. We can't stop the guns from coming into the country.”

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Lack of laws

But according to experts, getting guns off Mexican streets is only half the battle. 

“There is no federal law prohibiting trafficking in firearms, which means that the cases that are built for firearms trafficking have to be based on other laws,” said David Pucino, the deputy chief counsel for Giffords Law Center, a public interest group that advocates for gun control legislation. “Frequently the person charged doesn't even get jail time. So they're really, I don't want to say toothless, but they're not nearly as powerful as they need to be to really give a disincentive to this kind of activity.”

Cases that prove Pucino’s point are easy to find.

On December 27, 2018, special forces in Guerrero state, just south of Michoacan, chased off several civilians dressed in camouflage and discovered a narco camp filled with a trove of high artillery weapons, including two .50-caliber rifles and an extremely dangerous semi-automatic M249S belt-fed rifle. The serial numbers of the three weapons were passed on to the ATF, who quickly traced them to a buyer in Texas less than two months prior.

On Jan. 9, 2019, ATF agents in the U.S. approached the buyer, Michael Blake Huff, and asked him about the guns he purchased on November 1. He stated that four .50-calibers and four M249S rifles were missing from his warehouse and may have been stolen, according to court documents seen by VICE World News.

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The next day, police officers in Guerrero engaged in a shootout with members of a local criminal group in the same region where Huff’s guns had been found two weeks before. Six men were arrested with numerous weapons, including another M249S rifle bought by Huff. 

After agents proved that there hadn’t been a break-in at the warehouse, Huff admitted months later that he actually sold the four weapons. It’s unclear if he admitted to selling the two other .50-calibers and two other M249S rifles that were still missing.

But although Huff participated in trafficking the weapons, without a gun trafficking bill, agents had to find other offenses to charge him with. 

Huff ended up pleading guilty to only one count of making a false statement to an officer about selling the guns. He received just two months behind bars, two years of probation, and a $9,500 fine, according to court documents.

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This handgun in the evidence locker was fitted with a custom-made horse head on the handle. Photo: Nathaniel Janowitz for VICE World News.

Pucino said that authorities also use other laws to crack down on traffickers and try to give them longer sentences. Going after the purchasers for lying on their firearms transaction forms is one method. In 2019, an Arizona couple were busted for buying .50-calibers on behalf of their heroin dealer. The so-called “straw purchasers” received five-year sentences each. It’s unclear if the ringleader was ever caught, but even if they were, they would have received a lighter sentence, according to Pucino. 

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That’s because the other method to convict arms traffickers generally involves conspiracy charges related to dealing firearms without a license, where both the direct dealer and the financer and/or organizer can be charged.

These kinds of cases carry lighter sentences. Low-level straw purchasers generally receive harsher sentences than those coordinating the conspiracy, because they’re the ones caught illegally purchasing and selling the weapons. Pucino said it's “the inverse of what you typically want. You want to be able to bring the heavy charges on the heavy hitters. And that's something that's difficult here [in the United States].”

“Having a federal law on the books that expressly prohibits firearm trafficking, that has teeth, would really go a long way, both in terms of allowing law enforcement to devote the resources to it and allowing prosecutors to build those cases in a robust way without having to do this kind of creative work [to prosecute them on lesser charges],” said Pucino.

U.S. lawmakers have tried to create federal firearms trafficking legislation, but have not been able to receive enough support to pass. In 2019, Democratic House Rep. Bobby Rush introduced a bill in the house that would make it a crime to smuggle a firearm or ammunition outside of the United States. In 2021, three senators from both the Republican and Democratic parties presented the Stop Illegal Trafficking in Firearms Act of 2021 that would establish firearm trafficking as a federal offense. Both have received strong opposition from gun rights advocates within the government.

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U.S. President Joe Biden has remained relatively mum on international gun trafficking, instead advocating for universal background checks in his 2022 State of the Union address. But his government has faced increased pressure from Mexico to tackle the issue, especially after the Mexican government filed a landmark lawsuit against U.S. gun manufacturers in 2021. 

Months later, the U.S. and Mexico scrapped the longstanding bilateral security agreement known as the Merida Initiative that was the backbone of the country’s relationship in the drug war, in favor of the new Bicentennial Framework for Security, Public Health and Safe Communities with one of its most clearly designated goals to reduce illicit firearms trafficking. 

The López Obrador administration has made it clear that they expect the U.S. to begin extraditing more U.S. citizens to Mexico for crimes committed on their soil, in particular arms traffickers.

The U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Ken Salazar, reiterated that commitment while speaking at a security event in the state of Guanajuato on March 7. Salazar said that “a lot of guns come to Mexico…from the United States” and the new Bicentennial Framework is “going to have an impact.”

“These criminals from these illicit networks that are selling guns destined for Mexico, we are going to investigate them and they are going to pay the penalty, including bringing them from the United States to prisons in Mexico,” said Salazar.

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Drug seizures kept in the Michoacan evidence locker, next to hundreds of weapons. Photo: Nathaniel Janowitz for VICE World News.

The never-ending hunt

Back at the evidence locker in Michoacan, the hunt is already on for the traffickers of the two .50-caliber sniper rifles in their possession. 

With the increased collaboration, the ATF has traced the buyers from one .50-caliber back to a state on the eastern seaboard and the other to one along the U.S.-Mexico border. But until legislation changes in the U.S. that truly impacts the amount of guns flooding over the border, that hunt will be one of many more. 

Just days after VICE World News left the Michoacan evidence locker, a .50-caliber was found elsewhere in the state alongside other guns and grenades. On March 3, Mexican authorities discovered six .50-calibers, 16 belt-fed rifles and nearly 3 million rounds of ammo in the border state of Sonora—one of the biggest illegal firearms seizures in Mexican history.