Crime

The Inside Story of a Texas Gun-Smuggling Ring

El Tacticool for Borderland Beat from Rolling Stone

 few years ago, a retired
police officer named Mike Fox found himself badly in need of money. The Vietnam
veteran, overweight and ailing, was nearly 70 years old, and his wife, Diane,
wasn’t much younger, but they had recently taken custody of their grandsons, a
pair of rambunctious two-year-old twins. “We found out our daughter was a
heroin addict,” Fox says in a tired, raspy voice. He’s seated at his kitchen
table in Georgetown, Texas, a middle-class suburb of Austin, holding a mug of
coffee in both hands. The end of one finger is missing from a lawn-mower
accident. “We had no idea heroin was so bad,” he says. “I’d been a cop, and I
couldn’t even spot it in my own kid.” Their adult son had also fallen victim to
heroin, and would later commit suicide. “I had cancer on top of that,” Fox
says. “Malignant melanoma.” All of this happened after he had to take his only
living relative, a sister in Louisiana, off life support. “It was like a soap
opera,” says Diane, her eyes filled with tears. The legal and medical bills,
plus the expense of raising two toddlers, quickly depleted their savings, which
led Fox to look into a certain side business.

One of his clients was
Tyler Carlson, a 26-year-old solo operator who seemed to make a living buying
and selling guns and ammo on a website called Texas Gun Trader. “He had this
route from here to Dallas, and he always dealt in cash,” Fox says. “He was connected
out the ass. You never knew what he was going to show up with.” Carlson had
already bought tens of thousands of rounds of ammunition and eight .50-caliber
sniper rifles from Fox when he approached him in the summer of 2015 with the
idea of building a military weapon known as a minigun.
Despite the diminutive
name, a minigun is a heavy, six-barreled rotary cannon that can fire up to a
hundred bullets per second. “If there was ever a most dangerous weapon put on
the face of the Earth, it’s a 134,” Fox says, meaning an M-134, the U.S.
military’s nomenclature for the weapon. It’s powered by a motor that runs off
an external power supply, and is typically found mounted on attack helicopters
and fixed-wing gunships, where it’s used to support ground troops in combat.
With a minigun, a door gunner can saturate an enemy position with bullets in a
matter of seconds, or mow down a squad of soldiers with a single push of the
trigger.
The M-134 is a
descendant of the Gatling gun, and is legally classified as a machine gun.
Unlike assault rifles, which are perfectly legal, machine guns are banned for
civilian ownership without a federal license, like the one Fox held. Miniguns
are exclusively manufactured by a pair of defense contractors located six
blocks from each other in Scottsdale, Arizona. Their primary buyer is the
Pentagon, but under State Department supervision, they also export to a number
of foreign customers, including the government of Mexico.
In 2016 and 2017,
videos emerged of Mexican soldiers in Black Hawk helicopters using miniguns to
unload on Gulf Cartel safe houses and convoys in and around the border city of
Reynosa, across the river from McAllen, Texas. In February 2017, Mexican
marines used a minigun to kill a cartel boss named Juan Francisco Patrón
Sánchez, along with 11 of his sicarios, who were bombarded by what looked in
the nighttime video like an onslaught of explosive laser beams. It was the
closest thing yet to the Mexican government using airstrikes on its own
citizens, and according to an affidavit filed in federal court in Austin, as
confirmed by officials from the Department of Homeland Security, the Gulf
Cartel responded to the Mexican government’s tactical escalation by seeking to
obtain miniguns of its own.
Carlson was tall and heavyset,
with light-brown hair and blue eyes, and spoke fluent Spanish. Fox didn’t know
much about him except that he was from Austin, drove around in a black Tacoma
loaded with guns and money, and was married to a woman from Mexico. Carlson had
already acquired a handful of minigun parts, but to finish assembling the
weapon he needed the help of a gunsmith like Fox, who knew how to forge and
cast components working from blueprints in his garage. Fox claims to have taken
Carlson at his word when he said he wanted the weapon to hunt wild hogs on a
family ranch in South Texas. He knew Carlson was not licensed to possess a
machine gun, and that transferring one to him would be a felony, but he agreed
to take on the job anyway. “Ty had a lot of money,” Fox says. “We started
talking numbers.”
Over the next year, Fox
built a total of four miniguns for Carlson. Each one cost $14,000 to build, and
could be sold for $240,000 apiece. Fox won’t say how much he earned, but
according to a knowledgeable source, a minimum of $500,000 changed hands
between Carlson and Fox. “I was receiving so much cash I didn’t know what to do
with it,” Fox says.
Then, one afternoon in
June 2016, “Ty shows up and says, ‘We got a problem,’ ” Fox recalls. A few days
earlier, American border guards had stopped a vehicle attempting to cross into
Mexico near Reynosa, and found a small arsenal of weapons in the back seat. The
driver had been arrested, the guns and ammo seized, including components of one
of the miniguns Fox had built.
According to Fox, it
was the first he had heard anything about the guns being smuggled to Mexico. He
calls drug traffickers “evil sons of bitches,” and says “never in a million
years” would he have built the guns had he known they were being transported
across the border. His family has “paid the price on drugs,” he says. When I
ask the Foxes how Carlson could have gotten mixed up with such dangerous
people, they both give me the same look. “Have you seen Ty?” Diane says.
“Nobody messes with Ty,” says Fox.
Carlson, who was drunk
when he showed up at the house, wanted Fox to keep his mouth shut about his
role in the minigun scheme, and didn’t hesitate to threaten the older man. “Ty
let it be known to me that with a couple of phone calls, there’d be two guys on
an airplane,” Fox says. “Professional killers.” Carlson mentioned darkly that
the driver of the vehicle “had been ratting everyone out like an idiot,” and
had since turned up dead south of the Rio Grande.
Fox says he wasn’t
intimidated. Both he and Diane had been police officers, and he had a vault
full of semiautomatic weapons in the garage. He cut off all contact with
Carlson, and says he has not spoken to him since. “He’s a con man,” says Fox.
He and Diane didn’t let the boys out of the house for a while, and kept watch
for strange cars. At the time, they were still hoping it would all blow over.
THOUGH IT GETS far less
attention than undocumented
immigration or drug smuggling, running guns to
Mexico is big business, a southbound black market worth hundreds of millions of
dollars. According to the best estimates, gunrunners move 700 to 800 guns into
Mexico every day — about a quarter-million guns every year.
“It’s a booming
industry,” says Jack Riley, a retired DEA agent who tracked cartel boss Joaquín
“El Chapo” Guzmán for 20 years. “To the cartels, smuggling guns and ammo across
the border is just as important as cash coming back from the dope they sell.
It’s something no one’s really talked about, and certainly the American people
don’t know.”
The most striking thing
about this black market is how few gunrunners are caught. Most of them are U.S.
citizens, and in America there is no comprehensive federal law against firearms
trafficking, making investigations difficult and the penalties relatively
light, especially compared with smuggling drugs. Lawmakers have repeatedly
introduced anti-trafficking bills in Congress, only to see them torpedoed by
gun-industry lobbying. More generally, the National Rifle Association has spent
decades successfully pushing for a legal environment in which gun owners are
almost untouchable, giving hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign
contributions to Republican politicians, and more than a few Democrats, who can
be counted on to vote against any and all gun restrictions. As a result, there
are more firearms in this country than there are people. Nearly 40,000
Americans died from gunshot wounds in 2017, the highest number since
record-keeping began 50 years ago. A mass shooting takes place in America, on
average, once a day.
What is less well known
is that U.S. gun laws have also been a catastrophe for Mexico. Until relatively
recently, Mexico had one of the lowest rates of gun ownership in the world.
Very few firearms are manufactured in Mexico, and in general private citizens
aren’t allowed to possess them. But since 2004, when the George W. Bush
administration allowed the federal ban on assault rifles to expire, a flood of
military-style weapons from Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona has equipped
Mexico’s criminal class with firepower equivalent or superior to the army and
police. The rate of gun ownership per capita in Mexico has increased by a
factor of 10 over the past 15 years, and murders have surged in proportion. The
deadliest year in Mexico’s recorded history was 2018, with 33,000 killings,
almost all of them perpetrated by government security forces armed by U.S.
weapons manufacturers, or by cartels armed by American gun smugglers. “For the
first time in the last century, Mexican life expectancy is actually declining,”
says David Pérez Esparza, Mexico’s newly appointed information minister.
“Probably we are the ones who should build a wall.”
Pérez tells me that in
2004 Mexico had the lowest number of homicides in its recorded history. In
those days, the cartels were underground smuggling syndicates in the mold of
the Italian Mafia, content to bribe officials and carry out hits on rivals
while mostly leaving innocent people in peace. But the increased availability
of military-grade guns coincided with the rise of a new breed of paramilitary
cartel, led by Los Zetas, a group of special-forces veterans who used their
elite training to take over all forms of crime in northeastern Mexico. “To do
what these criminal organizations do, you need high-powered, lethal weapons,”
Pérez says.
The number of homicides
committed with a firearm doubled, then tripled, and had quadrupled by 2012, as
the military failed to beat back the insurgent criminal militias that developed
in the Zetas’ mold. The bloody cycle of street battles and executions has left
a staggering number of innocent people dead, the countryside pitted with mass
graves. The overall death toll is in the realm of 200,000, making the ongoing
cartel wars the second-deadliest conflict of the 21st century, and one of the
most traumatic eras in Mexican history. Pérez, who studied the illegal-arms
trade at University College London before joining Mexico’s government, doesn’t
deny that other factors, including the failed War on Drugs and the notorious
corruption of the Mexican police, have contributed to the crisis. Still, “it
would be impossible to imagine this scenario without American guns,” he says.
Pérez’s office collects
detailed confiscation data from every city and state in Mexico. “More
interesting than the numbers,” he says, “is that when you ask traffickers why
they are not using the ports, why they are not using the border with Guatemala,
their response is basically, ‘Because I’m not stupid. Why will I buy a Chinese
gun that is more expensive and not as good as the American ones, or why will I
buy a gun from Central America that is 40 years old, when I can go to Walmart,
or I can go to a gun show in McAllen, and buy as many guns as I want, new guns,
the best, with no questions asked?’ ”
The estimated 250,000
guns smuggled into Mexico every year are only a fraction of the millions sold
annually in America, but the black market has an outsize impact on the southern
border, where gun stores are concentrated. A 2013 University of San Diego study
found that nearly half of all gun stores in the United States would go out of
business were it not for the sales boost provided by the carnage in Mexico. “It
gives you some idea of the gravitational pull,” says Topher McDougal, the
study’s lead author.
Smugglers usually farm
out the acquisition of firearms to “straw buyers,” who get paid something like
a hundred bucks to go into a gun store and buy one in their own name.
“Gunrunners are very well organized,” says Michael Bouchard, formerly an agent
with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and now president
of the ATF Association. “They have specific people who handle each of these
activities. They rely on anybody they can find to buy guns for them. They’ll
buy three at a time and hold them at their house for a while to see if anyone
comes knocking. If they get caught selling to someone, they can say, ‘I just
needed some cash. I don’t need a license. I’m selling part of my collection.’
Even if they get stopped on the way to Mexico, they can say, ‘I wasn’t going to
cross.’ It’s a cat-and-mouse game, and it’s more than any one agency can
handle.”
Smugglers also traffic
in military paraphernalia of the kind sold in sporting-goods stores across the
Southwest. “Scopes, magazines, camo uniforms, knee pads, elbow pads,” says
Jerry Robinette, the former special agent in charge of the Texas border region
for the Department of Homeland Security’s investigative arm, HSI. “All the
things you need to arm these paramilitary cartels.” There’s no end to the ways
gunrunners have of hiding their illicit merchandise, he says: “Trucks with an
inside and an outer shell. An inner and an outer fender. A flatbed with a false
bottom, holding 15 or 20 guns. They’ll hide them inside oil pans, inside
manifolds, inside tankers, in the bilge — no one wants to look in there because
it’s so fricking nasty.”
Mexico has the primary
responsibility of stopping guns from entering its territory, but at many ports
of entry, vehicles coming from the U.S. are simply waved through without even
slowing to a stop, owing to the volume of traffic under the North American Free
Trade Agreement. The personnel that would be needed to search the hundreds of
thousands of cars and trucks and buses and trains doesn’t exist, especially in
northern Mexico, where unprecedented violence has stretched state resources
thin. The Mexican military seizes tens of thousands of American weapons, but
only after battles and raids, when the damage has already been done.
American border guards
do try to stop guns from entering Mexico, but U.S. Customs and Border
Protection is primarily focused on stopping drugs moving north and with seizing
drug money, which the agency gets to keep. Every year, CBP releases a report
touting its seizures of narcotics and currency, but conspicuously absent from
the reports are statistics on firearms. “The structural restriction of
information the gun lobby has been able to achieve at almost every level of
government is unbelievable,” says Kris Brown, co-president of the Brady
Campaign. “No other industry in the United States is protected from the facts
in the same way.” Indeed, some agencies, such as the Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention, are forbidden from even studying the social and health
effects of guns, thanks to industry lobbying. When I finally manage to pry the
border-seizure numbers loose through a Freedom of Information Act request, I
can see why CBP isn’t bragging. American border guards seized a paltry 102 of
the estimated quarter-million illegal guns that passed their checkpoints in
2018. The most confiscated in recent years was 242, in 2017. In 2016, the
number was 86. In 2015, it was a mere 50. Pérez laughs when I read him the
figures. “That’s like what the Mexican army can confiscate on a daily basis,”
he says.
AT 9:40 P.M. on June
3rd, 2016, at the Anzalduas International Bridge south of Mission, Texas, CBP
agents waved a black GMC Canyon pickup into a secondary screening area
illuminated by powerful halogen lights. The driver, a 21-year-old dual citizen
named Luis Solis, must have known right away that he was busted. Barely
concealed in the back seat were four semiautomatic pistols, 15 AK-47s, 4,000
rounds of 7.62 ammunition, and 32 high-capacity magazines. All of the weapons
had their serial numbers obliterated. The border guards also found a big
military-style battery with a heavy-duty electric cable. It was the power
supply for one of the miniguns that Fox had built.
“At first we were
trying to figure out what it was,” says Duane Cottrell, the lead HSI officer on
the team of federal agents assigned to the case. The officers suspected the
work of a major gunrunning cell. They found the minigun parts especially
worrisome. “I’ve never seen anything comparable to miniguns at the border,”
says Mike Weddell, who led ATF’s side of the investigation. “It’s a
mass-casualty weapon.”
Solis was just a
student who had been paid $600 to drive the truck across the bridge, and knew
little about the people who had hired him. But an informant pointed
investigators to a house in McAllen where the cache of weapons had been stored
prior to transit. Parked out front was a vehicle belonging to a 35-year-old
U.S. Army veteran named Jorge Quintero, described as a big, tall pelon —
Spanish for a man with a shaved head — whom the informant had identified as a
heavyweight gunrunner.
According to Cottrell,
Quintero was the ringleader of a gunrunning cell centered in McAllen that
reached as far north as Dallas. “Quintero was the main coordinator,” Cottrell
says. “The head of the trafficking organization. He would take purchase orders
from his people in Mexico, who were associates or members of the Gulf Cartel.
He would then coordinate the purchase of weapons through straw buyers. Then he
would coordinate the smuggling to Mexico.”
Cottrell says that
Quintero admitted, under interrogation, to selling three miniguns to three
separate Gulf Cartel captains.
Though now badly
fractured, the Gulf Cartel is the original Mexican crime syndicate, with roots
going back to the Prohibition era. “The company,” as it’s known locally, is
involved in all kinds of illicit activity but mostly profits from drug
trafficking, oil-and-gas theft, and human smuggling. It’s a gangster capitalist
enterprise with probable revenues in the hundreds of millions of dollars,
equipped with armored vehicles, underground bunkers, its own network of
cellular towers, and a small army of lookouts and spies, in addition to
platoons of assassins.
The Gulf Cartel’s home
base is Matamoros, situated on the mouth of the Rio Grande in the state of
Tamaulipas, a hot, green, muggy coastal region south of Texas. At the border
crossing with Brownsville, every Mexican vehicle with commercial cargo has to
pay a tax, or piso, on the goods. “When I first got into business, I didn’t
know about the piso,” an oilman from Matamoros tells me. “The company kidnapped
four of my drivers and $500,000 worth of product. They brought one of the guys
to my office with a hood on his head and his hands bound and threatened to
shoot him right there. I paid $15,000 for each employee, $60,000 total, and
they let them go.”
The Gulf Cartel has
been at war with the notoriously violent Los Zetas since the two organizations
split nearly 10 years ago. Recently, both the Gulf Cartel and what’s left of
Los Zetas have badly splintered internally, warring especially fiercely over Reynosa,
which has become one of the most murderous cities in the world. All criminal
factions are also at war with the Mexican marine corps, which has been deployed
to Tamaulipas for nearly a decade. Not surprisingly, the state is probably the
largest consumer market for illegal guns in all of Mexico.
“Ta-ta-ta-Tamaulipas,” people call it, imitating the sound of an assault rifle.
It’s all made possible by a steady supply of military-grade guns and ammo from
Texas.
To the agents
investigating him, Quintero fit the profile of a cartel-connected gunrunner. He
was born and raised in Reynosa, and became an American citizen by serving 10
years in the U.S. military. Cottrell and Weddell say they didn’t profile him
for being a veteran, but there is evidence that Mexican drug-trafficking
organizations actively recruit American servicemen, and several ex-soldiers
have been arrested for gunrunning in recent years, including two California
National Guardsmen who were caught stealing from an armory, and an Army
recruiter in San Antonio who funneled dozens of assault rifles to the Gulf
Cartel.
It had been three
months since Solis’ arrest, and the feds were still keeping an eye on Quintero
when ATF got a tip: A Mexican national known as Saul was set to buy a sniper
rifle from Quintero’s 51-year-old uncle, Alfredo Arguelles. Unbeknownst to Saul
and Arguelles, their go-between was an informant. ATF set up a sting operation
for the morning of September 7th. As a team of federal agents watched from a
distance, Arguelles pulled his white Ford Expedition into a parking lot on the
corner of Daffodil and Ware in McAllen, where the informant was waiting for
him. A large black parcel changed hands. Inside was a Barrett sniper rifle, an
extremely powerful weapon that fires a .50-caliber round the size of a carrot.
“I personally made sure it was clean,” Arguelles said. “I put gloves on and
wiped it down with oil myself.”
Invented by a Tennessee
businessman named Ronnie Barrett in the 1980s and made exclusively by his
company, Barrett Firearms Manufacturing, the .50-caliber is one of the most
popular weapons among Mexican cartel fighters, surpassed only by the ere
quince, or AR-15, and the cuerno de chivo, or AK-47. In the U.S. military, the
awesome power of the Barrett is the stuff of legend. It can shoot through a
wall of concrete block as if it were made of sheetrock, and has a range of more
than a mile. Incredibly, this weapon is unrestricted for civilian ownership in
the United States. You can buy one in cash, with no paperwork whatsoever,
without breaking any laws. You can own as many as you like.
Arguelles, however, was
a Mexican citizen who had overstayed a visa, and foreigners, like felons, are
banned from owning firearms in the U.S. Arguelles was arrested, and the ATF
agents were able to trace the Barrett to a local gun store, where Quintero had
purchased it in his own name. It was enough to arrest him too. He was led away
in handcuffs the next time he tried to cross the border. He would plead guilty
to “unlawfully disposing of a firearm to an alien under a non-immigrant visa.”
When I reach Quintero
by phone at the federal penitentiary in Beaumont, where he’s serving a nearly
six-year sentence, he denies being the major gunrunner depicted by Cottrell. “I
didn’t even know there was a ring,” he says. “Now I’m supposed to be the
leader? I didn’t know I had, like, subjects and shit.” He won’t say anything
specific about his case because the call is being recorded, but he tells me he
did tours in Iraq and Afghanistan as a Black Hawk crew chief. That is precisely
the military occupational specialty that would have given him maximum training
on the M-134 minigun. Still, he insinuates a police conspiracy against him.
“The federal government is corrupt as shit,” he says before hanging up. “These
motherfuckers are dirty.”
Weddell says that cases
like these are more complicated and time-consuming for law enforcement than
they should be. “A firearms-trafficking bill is what we need more than anything
else,” he says. “It would narrow things down to where we’re not looking for
technicalities, paperwork violations, that don’t go to the merit of what we’re
actually investigating. Not hanging cases on pieces of other statutes that we
patch together.” Indeed, neither Solis nor Arguelles nor Quintero was convicted
of smuggling, though that’s the activity that brought them to the attention of
police. Solis was convicted for the essentially regulatory crime of not having
a State Department export license and sentenced to two years in prison
(contrary to what Carlson told Fox, he was not killed in Mexico). Arguelles
pleaded guilty to an immigration-based offense, being an “alien in possession
of a firearm,” and sentenced to 26 months in prison. The best prosecutors did
was to oblige Quintero to sign an “acceptance of responsibility,” in which he
acknowledged, “I knew the weapons were going out of the USA to Mexico.”
“The current laws
against gun trafficking are absolutely worthless,” says Rep. Carolyn Maloney
(D-N.Y.), who recently introduced an anti-trafficking bill in the House of
Representatives. The proposed law, H.R. 1670, would increase the penalty for
straw purchasing and make it a federal crime to buy a firearm with the intent
to deliver it to someone prohibited from owning one. The crucial word there is
“intent.” Under current law, there is no statute under which police can take
action, such as obtaining a warrant, if people are merely stockpiling guns and
ammo, even if there are clear indications that they intend to smuggle them to
Mexico.
“Say an informant tells
you people are going into Mike’s Gun Shop and buying 10 AR-15s at a time, and
you see a fair amount of them turning up in Mexico,” the ATF’s Bouchard says.
“You can follow people back to their house and watch them unload 10 long guns
into the garage, but then what? Do you go knock on their door? If you don’t
have a warrant, they’ll tell you to hit the road. If you want to sit and wait
and see what they do, you’re going to have to sit on it 24 hours a day. If you
see them driving to the border, you can reach out to CBP, and they’ll make the
stop based on reasonable suspicion. But until all that happens, you can’t stop
the person.”
Maloney’s bill is one
of a number of gun-control bills now on the legislative agenda, thanks to the
new Democratic majority in the House. Most of the measures are concerned with
limiting mass shootings here in America, but some of the regulations would also
help tamp down on smuggling to Mexico. Rep. Norma Torres (D-Calif.), for
instance, has sponsored a bill that would require purchases of multiple assault
rifles to be automatically reported to ATF.
Such proposals, while
massively popular, are almost certainly doomed in the Republican-controlled
Senate. Even if passed by the Senate, the bills would likely be vetoed by
President Trump, who took $30 million from the NRA in 2016. Among the many
favors Trump has done for the gun industry, he has refused to appoint a
director to the ATF, leaving the agency under acting deputy directorship, a
status it often languishes in under Republican presidents.
“ATF is the bastard
child of federal law enforcement,” says Robinette, the former HSI agent.
“They’re understaffed. They have no resources. Their wings are clipped. It has
to do with politics, lobbyists. Gun control is a toxic subject. But we’re not
pro or against guns. We’re about illegal trafficking.” He points to a provision
in the 1986 Firearm Owner’s Protection Act — the NRA’s signature legislative
achievement — that prohibits the ATF from keeping an electronic database of gun
sales, which makes the process of tracing weapons absurdly laborious.
“Say law enforcement
wants to trace a Smith & Wesson that turned up at a crime scene in Mexico,”
says Bouchard. “They send the make, model, and serial number to ATF’s National
Tracing Center. It goes to a clerk who has to actually call Smith & Wesson
and get someone on the line and give them the info. ‘Who’d you sell it to?’
‘XYZ distributor.’ Now ATF has to call XYZ and get someone on the line. ‘Who’d
you sell it to?’ ‘Mike’s Gun Shop in Texas.’ Now you have to call Mike and ask
him to go through all his paper records, which could take days to a week.”
In the Quintero case,
though, the agents had something more to go on: the minigun parts. Weddell says
the team’s top priority was figuring out where such a powerful weapon had come
from, and whether additional miniguns were bound for the border. They managed
to trace the battery to Garwood Industries in Arizona, one of only two minigun
manufacturers in the United States. But before they had identified Carlson or
Fox, a break in the case came from perhaps the most obscure of all federal
law-enforcement agencies, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. As it turns out,
guns are less tightly regulated in America than money orders.
BACK IN 2015, when
Carlson first approached Fox about building a minigun, he had already acquired
a rotor, some barrels, and a power cable. “But he didn’t have the receiver
housing,” Fox says. “That’s the part that’s registered,” the crucial component
engraved with a serial number. Without it, the weapon can’t function, and Fox
couldn’t fabricate one on his own. Enter Tracy Garwood, the graying,
mustachioed, 63-year-old CEO of Garwood Industries, which sells miniguns to the
U.S. military and NATO forces worldwide. (The other manufacturer, Dillon Aero,
sells to the Mexican military.) Fox found Garwood’s number online, and after
one phone conversation, they agreed to meet at Garwood’s headquarters in a
nondescript office park on the periphery of suburban Phoenix.
The two men weren’t far
apart in age and had a lot in common. They both loved guns and hated the Obama
administration, and Garwood was having money troubles of his own. He had
developed an improved minigun design with a lightweight titanium receiver, but
the guns had been failing, costing him business with the U.S. government. “He
was almost broke,” Fox says. “He couldn’t make his house payment.”
When Fox headed back to
Texas, he was carrying with him two housing receivers with the serial numbers
machined off, as well as detailed schematics. In exchange, Fox had given
Garwood $50,000 in an ammo box. “He didn’t ask any questions about that,” Fox
says. To cover his tracks, Garwood submitted paperwork to the ATF falsely
stating that the components had been destroyed.
Fox made several trips
back to Arizona during the following months, and used the materials from
Garwood to build four miniguns for Carlson, who supplied all the money needed
to acquire parts. Once a gun was complete, Fox and Carlson would take it out
and test it. If it worked, Carlson would pay Fox a bonus of $25,000 and take
possession of the weapon. Once, when loading a finished minigun into the back
seat of his truck, Carlson mentioned that he had a long drive ahead of him, but
Fox still claims not to have known that the miniguns were bound for Mexico. In
January 2016, Carlson sent Fox another $50,000 in a FedEx envelope. “Don’t
spend it all in one place,” he texted. What to do with all the cash was quickly
becoming a problem for Fox.
A few months after
Trump took office, the Justice Department ended an Obama-era initiative called
Operation Choke Point, an anti-money-laundering program that discouraged banks
from taking large deposits in cash from payday lenders, escort services, coin
dealers, and other shady businesses. That gun dealers were added to the list
was a bugbear for the gun lobby and right-wing press, which celebrated the
program’s 2017 demise — but not before it tripped up Fox, and ultimately led to
his arrest.
“The Obama regime in its
infinite wisdom passed a law,” Fox says. “They didn’t want anyone in the gun
and ammunition world to expand their horizon.” His wife explains: “If you go
down to the bank and open an account, and say, ‘I’m going to bring you cash
every day,’ if you tell them you’re a gun business, they won’t let you do it.”
Turned away from Austin-area banks, Fox had to find another way of stashing the
piles of cash accumulating in his house.
In late 2016, Tim
McElligott, an HSI agent in Austin who specializes in financial investigations,
got a call about Fox from a colleague at the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.
“Fox was going to different post offices,” McElligott tells me, “sometimes four
or five different post offices on the same day, and buying up money orders.”
“He was laundering
hundreds of thousands of dollars,” says the postal inspector who first noticed
the transactions and asked to remain anonymous because he wasn’t authorized to
speak on the record. “Basically converting cash to money orders, then funneling
them into investment accounts, backtracked with fake paperwork, to make it
appear as though those funds were tied to invoices. I knew that Mr. Fox was a
retired law-enforcement officer, and that he was a firearms-license holder. It
began to develop into a picture. My belief was that he was likely engaged in
underground firearms trafficking. That’s a common thing to see.”
According to
prosecutors, Fox purchased a total of $272,000 in money orders. All of them
were for less than $3,000, suggesting Fox was guilty of a federal crime known
as structuring, or breaking a larger purchase into a series of smaller
purchases so as not to have to show identification, intentionally keeping the
funds anonymous. The U.S. attorney’s office in Austin greenlighted an investigation.
They found large wire transfers to Garwood, who had already been flagged in the
minigun-smuggling scheme because his company’s markings were on the battery
seized on the Anzalduas bridge. Phone calls and text messages tied Fox to
Carlson, who had also been flagged in an ATF database after an AK-47 purchased
in his name had turned up at a crime scene in Mexico. At that point, “We were
like, ‘OK, our suspicion was correct,’ ” McElligott says.
On February 8th, 2017,
federal agents served a search warrant on Fox’s home. Had it been a drug case,
a platoon of police commandos in body armor might have broken down the door and
tossed a flash-bang grenade in the living room. But this was a gun case, and
plainclothes agents politely knocked. “They came in real quiet,” Diane says.
“They sat down at the dining-room table and said, ‘These are the issues, can we
look around?’ Mike said, ‘Sure.’ ”
In the garage, the
agents found a fully assembled minigun with an obliterated serial number, along
with detailed schematics and a slew of minigun parts. Although Carlson had
warned Fox to lay low after the Anzalduas seizure, Fox and Garwood had embarked
on a joint venture of their own. The idea had been to build 10 more miniguns
using Garwood’s access to parts and the money Fox made from Carlson. It’s not
clear to whom they’d intended to sell the miniguns, but in order to drum up
business, they’d gone to the 2016 SHOT Show, the firearms industry’s annual
extravaganza in Las Vegas. “We made a bunch more contacts,” Fox says. “Even
Saudi Arabia was sending a guy over to talk about 600 miniguns for their
military. I took out all my retirement money, like $85,000, and gave Tracy
another $100,000 on top of that. We were going big-time.”
Fox told much of this
to the agents who searched his house. He basically admitted everything he’d
done, as well as what he knew about Carlson and Garwood. “I hadn’t slept in two
years,” Fox says. “It’s been hell just trying to hold everything together. Once
they came to the door, that was the end of it.” The agents confiscated the
minigun, but left without making an arrest.
More than six months
passed and all three suspects remained free men. When Carlson learned he was
under investigation, he fled to Mexico, but ATF agents called Mexican immigration
authorities and he was deported to the U.S. for having an expired visa. He
would eventually plead guilty to unlicensed possession of a machine gun, as
well as conspiracy to export firearms without a State Department license — the
same stopgap statute used to convict Solis. In November 2018, he was sentenced
to nearly six years.
Cottrell described
Carlson as Quintero’s “main man,” who oversaw a network of straw buyers that
spanned the state of Texas, but it’s unclear how a kid from Austin could have
gotten into business with an organization as secretive and dangerous as the
Gulf Cartel. “There was digital evidence that he sought this activity out,”
says the postal inspector, who obtained Carlson’s phone records by subpoena.
“He sought out gun trafficking. He was not approached by some mysterious
person.”
When Carlson writes me
from the federal prison in Bastrop, he doesn’t want to talk about the facts of
his case, but he does offer some thoughts on the conflict in Mexico. His
handwriting is extremely neat, his grammar and composition surprisingly formal.
“I have spent time in Reynosa, Quecholac, Tepeaca, and Acatzingo,” he writes,
referring to one of Mexico’s most perilous cities, and a string of insular
little bandit towns in the state of Puebla. “I have been to San Martín
Texmelucan many times, and I have traveled across Veracruz and Guanajuato.
Personally, I believe the term ‘cartel’ is misused. Mexican crime syndicates
don’t have a monopoly on anything, hence the current chaos and violence.” He
goes on to say that the word cartel might better be applied to the United
States government, for its monopoly on the “petro-dollar,” and that the
bloodshed afflicting Mexico “stems from the so-called War on Drugs.” About
that, he’s not wrong.
To date, there have
been no media or law-enforcement reports of the Gulf Cartel or any other
criminal organization making use of Fox’s miniguns, but in March 2019, Mexico’s
National Commission on Human Rights released the results of an investigation
into a gun battle that took place last year on a highway a few hours north of
Reynosa along the Texas border. Mexican marines were taking heavy fire from a
splinter element of Los Zetas and the Gulf Cartel, and called for helicopter
backup. The Black Hawk — armed with a Dillon Aero minigun — took off from a
military base in Reynosa. When the chopper arrived, the door gunner opened fire
on a pickup that was driving past the marines’ position. In it was an innocent
family, three of whom were slain in the whirring onslaught of bullets. In
photos taken at the scene, the father and mother lie in the front seats,
covered in blood and broken glass. The woman is still holding her four-year-old
daughter, whose cranium has been impacted by a minigun round. In the back seat,
a six-year-old girl lies facedown on the floorboard, her pink shirt and white
sandals splattered with blood. It looks like she was trying to hide.
For Fox, the ending was
anticlimactic. “I was never really arrested,” he says. “They just asked me to
show up one day and get fingerprinted. I knew I was in deep shit then.” In July
2018, he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud the United States, based on
his structuring of money orders. He was not convicted on any gun charges, but
the facts of the minigun scheme weighed heavily against him in court. He was
hoping to get probation, but the judge told him he didn’t deserve leniency
because he had been a police officer and should have known better. Though he
likes to gripe about Obama, Fox doesn’t blame his fate on liberals or gun
control. “I did it,” he says. “I told everybody I did it. It was illegal. I get
it.” In January 2019, he was sentenced to three years at the minimum-security
penitentiary in Beaumont, but has not yet started serving time on account of complications
from a recent foot surgery.
In April 2018, Garwood
was allowed to turn himself in to U.S. marshals in Austin, and was released on
bond. He was the only person involved in the case who refused to be
interviewed, but he pleaded guilty to a single charge of conspiracy to
unlawfully transfer machine guns. He got off with probation and a $50,000 fine.
Incredibly, both Fox
and Garwood got to keep their federal firearms licenses. Both are still listed
by the U.S. attorney general’s office as gun dealers in good standing. This may
be because of a loophole buried in the applicable statute, obviously the
handiwork of the gun lobby. Pursuant to Section 923(f)(4) of Chapter 18 of the
United States Code, if a gun dealer is charged with a crime, ATF is “absolutely
barred” from revoking his license if he is acquitted. At the same time, the
statute gives ATF exactly one year from the time of indictment to initiate any
revocation proceedings. So there’s no way of revoking a license if the court
proceedings last more than a year, as is common. “We didn’t try to hold on to
them,” Diane says, referring to her husband’s two licenses, including the one
to possess machine guns. “Mike tried to give them the original copies. They
kept saying, ‘We’ll get them from you next time.’ ”
As for the miniguns
themselves, Cottrell and Weddell say that American authorities have no
jurisdiction to reclaim them from Mexican territory. When I last speak to
Quintero, I ask him where, in theory, he imagines they might be. “Who knows?”
he says. “They could be anywhere.”
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