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A new data leak ties AZ gun shops to firearms recovered from crime scenes in Mexico

A massive data leak analyzed by USA Today shows how U.S. gun sellers are often behind Mexican cartel violence. The data shows the U.S. gun shops and smugglers tied to nearly 80,000 firearms recovered in crime scenes in Mexico — and many of them are here in Arizona.

Nick Penzenstadler reported the story for USA Today, and he spoke more about it with The Show.

Full conversation

LAUREN GILGER: Begin with some of the big picture findings here for us, like what did you find when you started going through the data from this leak?

NICK PENZENSTADLER: Well, this trace information is so secretive. We were really interested in seeing these names of gun shops and then also the types of guns. So we’re interested in verifying this iron pipeline that we’ve heard about, with guns flowing from border states and border gun shops south and being recovered at crime scenes. So you can see that in the data. We were really interested if we could prove out which gun shops had sold the most, which states had the most gun shops that had recoveries in Mexico, and then to look at the really specific detailed type of firearm: the make, models and the platforms that that people are using.

GILGER: Yeah, yeah. OK, so very detailed data you got here. Tell us where this data came from, as well, because it comes from a very interesting place.

PENZENSTADLER: As with some other stories about guns, it’s hard to get out the data. We had to kind of back into this. So this was originally a hack of the Mexican military, SEDENA, where they lost access to emails and then all the attachments in their email system, and it’s millions and millions and millions of emails that this hacktivist group got access to. And then they transported it to a platform, kind of like WikiLeaks, called DDoS, the (Distributed) Denial of Secrets, where they share it to media organizations. So we had to jump through all these hoops to access it, and then we had a tech team here at our company that built a virtual machine and servers to process it all and then make it searchable to find what we were looking for. There’s a long process, but at the end of the day it was searching individual emails of Mexican military officials who were in contact with the ATF here in the United States to do gun traces on recovered firearms. 

GILGER: So you’ve got data that that we haven’t seen in decades here that that shows the U.S. gun shops and smugglers tied to nearly 80,000 firearms that were recovered south of the border and which types of guns, which is also interesting. But these were recovered at crime scenes, essentially? 

PENZENSTADLER: Yeah, so the definition of a crime trace is it has to either be recovered in the commission of a crime or in the possession of someone who shouldn’t have it. So that’s how they end up getting traced. So we don’t know always how they’re being recovered. But we know based on the ones that do get tied to federal cases, these are being recovered at Mexican crime scenes. Either they’re left in the wake of a crime scene, or they’re seized on a criminal. But yes, almost all of these are used in crime.

GILGER: So how do they end up in Mexico? Talk a little bit about the sort of flow of guns south from the U.S. to Mexico and and why that exists, like the the Mexican gun laws there that make it really attractive. 

PENZENSTADLER: Right, yeah. This is a big part of the story. So, there are really limited ways to access firearms in Mexico. You either have to be in the military, and then if you’re a civilian, you have to jump through all of these hoops with getting approval and licensure. And there are actually two retail stores — as we would think of them in the U.S. — to access firearms. And then, of course, the illicit ways to get them. So there are leaks and these flows of legal-to-illegal firearms, usually from the U.S. So, the most common route is to have a straw purchaser, someone who’s eligible to purchase a firearm, be directed by someone who is ineligible in the United States, like a cartel member, to go to a gun shop, fill out the paperwork, buy a gun, and then flip it immediately, sell it for two or three times its value to smuggle across the border. We know that’s happening, and this data proves that out.

GILGER: OK. So let’s talk about some of the stores that come up in this data. There are big box stores like Cabela’s, right, that that come up, but also many here in Arizona. 

PENZENSTADLER: Yeah, Arizona’s story is huge in this data. I was just looking through it again. I mean, the the biggest database that came up in this is U.S.-manufactured firearms that are sold at U.S. shops, and we know that, for instance, Phoenix and Tucson represent about 500 of these 17,000 recoveries from 2018 to 2020. So just those two cities are selling a pretty large number of these guns that end up south of the border. The ATF has specific rules on border shops. So states like Texas and Arizona, you have to fill out extra paperwork if you’re buying multiple firearms in a single transaction, and those purchases show up in this data as well. And like those are the most concerning ones, where you see someone buying the same rifle, for instance, the same make and model rifle say six or 10 at a time. That’s an indicator of straw purchasing and trafficking. 

GILGER: So there are laws in place to try to stop this kind of thing, but it obviously happens all the time. What efforts look like from law enforcement’s point of view to try to stop this? 

PENZENSTADLER: Well, obviously, this data is a big part of it, and they’re looking at the same patterns we are. So the patterns of a single purchaser buying a high volume of guns and then having recoveries is an indicator. The same shop having multiple traces within a short time to crime — so that’s the period between the initial purchase and then it ends up at a crime scene. If if the Mexican authorities are tracing firearms tied to a Cabela’s in Arizona, with really short time to crime, there is an indicator that someone is trafficking firearms from that shop. And it’s maybe not the the shop’s fault. That’s the important thing to remember here is. The shops themselves are a lot of times doing their best to spot these trends and deny sales. But they say they’re targeted, and especially if they’re at the border, they’re doing legal transactions, and they say there’s really nothing we can do to stop this. 

GILGER: They’re legal. That’s really interesting. Talk a little bit about the tie to the drug trade and like where these guns tend to be used south of the border. There’s an interesting sort of trend of guns flowing south at the same time these narcotics like fentanyl are flowing north. 

PENZENSTADLER: Right. That’s the backdrop of all this is there’s a war going on over drug trafficking routes in Mexico. And of course, the way you wage a war is with armaments, and you have to have foot soldiers with weaponry and ammunition, and you have to source that from somewhere. So, as much as the battle for the routes is waged there is we’re fueling that in our demand for drugs in the north. 

GILGER: So the last thing I want to ask you about here, Nick, is the the lawsuits at hand here, because now there are I think two separate lawsuits from the Mexican government against gun manufacturers and specific gun stores here in Arizona, because of this kind of thing. So what are the accusations there? Because we just talked about how the stores say this is kind of out of our hands. 

PENZENSTADLER: Yeah, that’s exactly right. So the Mexican government has partnered with some U.S. nonprofits to kind of take a new crack at this and say, “OK, if US law shields or prevents civil liability for some criminal action with these firearms, is there another venue? Or does the Mexican government have standing to say these shops should do more to spot these trends and stop them?”

So the shops get these trace requests from the ATF, and they know precisely how many of their guns are being traced. They have to participate in that process. They don’t know necessarily where or what crimes or who, but they’re transmitting the information to the ATF. And the argument goes that if you’re on the border and you’re participating in this cycle, you need to do more to stop this trend and stop the violence. 

KJZZ’s The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ’s programming is the audio record.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.