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Border & Immigration

Mexican Cartels Upgrade To Heavy Caliber Rifles From The U.S.

An ATF agent grabs .50 caliber rounds seized by federal agents.
Michel Marizco
An ATF agent grabs .50 caliber rounds seized by federal agents.
.50 Caliber Rounds
.50 Caliber Rounds

Federal agents who are supposed to stop weapons trafficking have come under intense congressional scrutiny in recent weeks.

In Arizona, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms is accused of allowing hundreds of guns to slip away INTO Mexico. Two of those guns were reportedly used in the murder of a Border Patrol agent in December. Whistleblowers told members of Congress that the agency allowed weapons to be smuggled south in order to build up cases against traffickers. But along with rifles and pistols, the ATF says they are also tracking an alarming increase in the numbers of heavy caliber weapons being smuggled south. And that has everyone concerned.

American agents won't say that they've allowed heavy caliber weapons to be smuggled into Mexico but they do say the smugglers are buying them up.


The .50 caliber round is enormous, almost the size of your hand.

"This is .50-caliber ammunition," says Peter Forcelli, an ATF agent in Phoenix. He's standing in the evidence locker and he's pulling out a long string of .50-caliber ammunition belted together.

"This type of ammunition if taken out of the bands can be used in the Barrett rifle, or in its belted form can be used in rifles like the ones we have located just outside," he says.

The gun he's referring to is an M-2 Browning. It's legal to buy in Arizona. This one was seized from a trafficker in Phoenix. A round out of this gun will punch through body armor and can travel nearly a mile. It's mounted to a tripod, stands five feet long with the barrel screwed in.

"It's not something you can squeeze in the car for a drive-by shooting," he says. "This is something that you'd be perched up on the hill with or again, mounted on the back of some SUV."


Agents in Arizona seized about 25 of the .50 caliber rifles in the past year. Now, that's less than the eight hundred AK-47 rifles they seized in the same time period, but the .50 calibers were something they hadn't seen before.

Tom Mangan is ATF's spokesman in Phoenix.

"That escalation, we see that on a weekly basis in the seizures that occur here in the United States and also in Mexico," Mangan said.

In the Phoenix trafficking case, the smugglers purchased nearly 200 AK-47S. They bought four of the .50 caliber rifles and then they put a down payment on three more.

In an Oklahoma case last year, smugglers had bought three .50 calibers. Last September, two teenagers were arrested smuggling a .50 caliber through Nogales.

Kristen Rand is an analyst at the Violence Policy Center, a gun control advocacy group in Washington. She's studied the prosecutions of weapons trafficking cases. She says the smugglers are focused on the .50 calibers.

"Once they determine these are the guns that they like, they really key in on obtaining those guns," she said.

Then there are the grenades.

Last month, Wikileaks released more of the private State Department cables. They show that officials are concerned about the origins of the grenades showing up in Mexico. In one dispatch, an official requested that the South Korean military be quietly asked about a cache of missing grenades. In another, officials questioned whether a grenade used to attack the U.S. consulate in Monterrey, came from a stash given to El Salvador during the Cold War.

In Mexico, the Army has seized nearly six thousand grenades since 2007.

"A lot of those grenades that originated from the U.S. are in fact US military grenades that were simply sold to Guatemala and south American countries back in the 80s and early 90s as part of a legitimate foreign service sales program," said Mangan.

But a review of court cases in the U.S. shows at least some of those types of weapons are coming directly from here.

Late last month, 11 people were arrested in McAllen, Texas. They were moving a tripod mounted rifle and hand grenades to Mexico.

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