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December 22, 2014

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Blocking guns’ path to Mexico

Local ATF agents’ takedown of smuggler part of a national crackdown aimed at drug cartels

BY THE NUMBERS

2 percent — Share of the guns from the United States that originated in Nevada. The majority of firearms come from the border states of Texas, California and Arizona.

Obama visits Mexico

The man known as “Zorra” is the latest catch for federal Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents in Las Vegas. Five days ago he pleaded guilty in federal court, and when he is sentenced in January he faces up to five years in prison.

The agents placed Claudio Caesar “Zorra” Penunuri at the center of a gun smuggling ring from here to Southern California and then south into Mexico. He provided the more than $100,000 in cash to purchase 28 rifles and pistols from Las Vegas gun dealers, and the smuggling routes to ship them illegally into the hands of violent Mexican drug cartels.

His case is a capstone to a burgeoning effort by local ATF agents as part of a two-year national program launched in Washington called Project Gunrunner. Its aim: Stem the flow of illegal U.S. guns into Mexico and bring down violence along the Rio Grande, where the cartels are warring over new drug enterprises in this country.

For Thomas L. Chittum III, the resident agent in charge of the ATF field office in Las Vegas, and his agents, the Penunuri conviction is the most recent in about a half-dozen arrests this year in gun smuggling operations set up to funnel Nevada firearms into Mexico.

“We are focusing a greater emphasis on firearms trafficking because of the increased violence along the border,” Chittum said. “And this is not the last international trafficking case we will have, by any means.”

His comments echo warnings from top federal Justice Department officials in Washington.

The Obama administration has made a “top priority” of attempting to break up Mexico-bound gun smuggling networks that originate in this country. It is working closely with Mexican officials to trace weapons seized in Mexico and backtrack them to the United States to open up even more criminal investigations.

In fact, that is what led Las Vegas agents to the Zorra operation. A year ago this month, four cartel suspects and one Mexican military soldier were killed in a gunbattle during a raid on a home in Tijuana, Mexico. Fourteen firearms were seized, and eight days later ATF agents examined and traced some of the weapons back to a Las Vegas gun dealer.

That connection eventually led them to a Circus Circus parking lot, where guns were transferred and hundreds of dollars changed hands between the smugglers, according to federal court records.

Nationally, more than 90 percent of the guns seized at the border or after raids or gunfights in Mexico have been traced to the United States. The vast majority of the weapons came from California, Arizona and Texas, where some 6,700 licensed gun dealers operate close to the border. But officials now are seeing increasing numbers of firearms in Mexico that came from second-tier states such as Nevada.

With that in mind, the ATF this month sent 70 additional agents and other staff members to the border region for a four-month deployment to beef up enforcement. Meanwhile Chittum and his agents, as well as U.S. Attorney Daniel Bogden, are increasing their vigilance in Las Vegas.

“The smuggler is versatile and creative, well-funded and determined,” Assistant U.S. Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer said this past summer at a law enforcement summit in Albuquerque on arms trafficking. “But so are we.”

Chittum said that Western states where “the availability is easier” for weapons has made “Nevada really something of a source of firearms for traffickers.”

Local gun dealers said they are aware of increased government enforcement, and Bob Irwin, owner of The Gun Store, said “the problem is more noticeable now. I hope they put them away for quite awhile.”

Irwin described a recent case in which his staff notified ATF that a customer was using a fake ID. Agents allowed the store to sell the gun — after they placed a monitoring device on the weapon. “Then they followed the gun to the border and arrested him just before he went across,” Irwin said.

“So we try to help,” Irwin said. “We have no interest in helping drug cartels shoot each other.”

Some investigations do fall into agents’ hands.

Court records show that a Las Vegas gun store employee contacted the local ATF office in February and alerted officials that William Weiss of North Las Vegas was purchasing three firearms for $6,000 in cash, using $20 bills. Agents hurried to the store and found Weiss loading the weapons into his blue Volvo, with California plates.

A check of gun stores showed that in the previous few months Weiss had bought 19 other firearms, including four pistols on the day he received a Nevada driver’s license. Further investigation showed that many of the weapons were destined for Weiss’ brother, Jonnatan Weiss, who lived in Tijuana. Both brothers were arrested, and they are to stand trial in U.S. District Court here in Dec. 1.

The Zorra case, as described in court records, is more complex.

After tracing the guns from the Tijuana shootout to a Las Vegas gun dealer, local ATF agents discovered that five of them — four assault rifles and a .50-caliber sniper rifle — were purchased here in summer 2008.

The purchaser, or “straw buyer,” had been approached by “an individual named Zorra,” later determined to be Penunuri. He offered to pay the buyer “tens of thousands of dollars” to legally purchase the weapons from Las Vegas gun dealers with money he provided.

Penunuri would send an associate identified as Uvaldo Salazar-Lopez to meet with the straw purchaser at the Circus Circus parking lot. Firearms were loaded into a Jeep Cherokee and a blue Thunderbird, and cash was hidden inside a rifle case. Uvaldo Salazar-Lopez was paid up to $800 for picking up the guns and delivering them to Penunuri in Southern California.

The two men had originally met at a park in California, where they played volleyball together. In February, Salazar-Lopez pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court here in the gun smuggling case. That same month, Penunuri was arrested. He pleaded guilty Friday.

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