By DANE SCHILLER Copyright 2009 Houston Chronicle
June 30, 2009, 9:36PM
In front of a run-down shack in north Houston, federal agents step from a government sedan into 102-degree heat and face a critical question: How can the woman living here buy four high-end handguns in one day?
The house is worth $35,000. A screen dangles by a wall-unit air conditioner. Porch swing slats are smashed, the smattering of grass is flattened by cars and burned yellow by sun.
“I’ll do the talking on this one,” agent Tim Sloan, of South Carolina, told partner Brian Tumiel, of New York.
Success on the front lines of a government blitz on gunrunners supplying Mexican drug cartels with Houston weaponry hinges on logging heavy miles and knocking on countless doors. Dozens of agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives — sent here from around the country — are needed to follow what ATF acting director Kenneth Melson described as a “massive number of investigative leads.”
All told, Mexican officials in 2008 asked federal agents to trace the origins of more than 7,500 firearms recovered at crime scenes in Mexico. Most of them were traced back to Texas, California and Arizona.
Among other things, the agents are combing neighborhoods and asking people about suspicious purchases as well as seeking explanations as to how their guns ended up used in murders, kidnappings and other crimes in Mexico.
“Ever turning up the heat on cartels, our law enforcement and military partners in the government of Mexico have been working more closely with the ATF by sharing information and intelligence,” Melson said Tuesday during a firearms-trafficking summit in New Mexico.
Firearms dealers visited
The ATF recently dispatched 100 veteran agents to its Houston division, which reaches to the border.
The mission is especially challenging because, officials say, that while Houston is the number one point of origin for weapons traced back to the United States from Mexico, the government can’t compile databases on gun owners under federal law.
Agents instead review firearms dealers’ records in person.
People who are legally in the United States and have clean criminal records, but are facing economic problems are often recruited by traffickers to buy weapons on their behalf in order to shield themselves from scrutiny.
Knocks at the door of the shack that looked to be the definition of hard times went unanswered.
“I am out of here,” Sloan said a few moments later, as a pit bull lazily sauntered from the back yard. “I don’t like pit bulls walking up behind me.”
Best information source
On second thought, Sloan switched to Spanish and interviewed a neighbor.
The neighbor said the woman left a month ago after a fight with her husband or boyfriend, who still lived there with what she called “other degenerates.”
“An angry ex-girlfriend or wife is the best person in the world, the greatest source of information,” Sloan said.
The night before, the duo were in a stakeout where they watched a weapons sale.
They also combined efforts with the Drug Enforcement Administration for an aircraft to stealthily follow traffickers to the border.
On this day, agents weren’t wearing raid jackets or combat boots and weren’t armed with warrants.
Guns were hidden under civilian shirts.
Another tip took agents on a 30-minute drive from the shack to a sprawling home with a pool in the back and an American flag out front.
It turned out two handguns, of a type drug gangsters prefer, were bought by a pastor for target practice.
Some stories, they say, are hard to believe.
The lamest so far came from a police officer: He said he bought a few military-style rifles, left them in his car and — on the same night — forgot to lock a door. He couldn’t explain why he didn’t file a police report or why he visited Mexico the day after the alleged theft.