SPECIAL REPORT: Guns, lies and fear in the Rio Grande Valley
HARLINGEN – Federal agents say they’re seeing a spike in straw purchases in the Rio Grande Valley.
An AK-47 is a very common weapon people will break the law to attempt to buy. CHANNEL 5 NEWS spoke with investigators with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives along with Homeland Security Investigations about how they are trying to crackdown on this illegal activity.
An ATF agent showed us body cam video of an undercover operation. The gun seller by the counter, Salvador Rangel, believed the undercover agents were firearm traffickers. It’s not the first time agents visited his Edinburg store.
“The majority of the cases that we are seeing here in the Valley involved firearm trafficking. And it is a scheme of acquiring firearms from licensed gun dealers – these guns are then smuggled to cartel members who are using these firearms to commit violent crimes in Mexico,” said ATF Agent Noel Rangel.
The scheme is called straw purchasing. It’s when someone buys a firearm for another person. A person will probably offer money to an individual to buy guns the “legal” way.
When it’s time to buy, the person physically purchasing in a weapon will lie on the ATF Form 4473. A warning label on Question 11A forbids anyone from buying a firearm for someone else.
“By lying on that form, that is a federal felony,” said Rangel.
Agents say buying illegally through straw purchasing is increasing in the Valley, especially in Starr and Hidalgo counties.
CHANNEL 5 NEWS found around 20 cases filed in the Valley’s federal courts just over the past year where people were arrested for straw purchases.
During an undercover sting, when the agents admit one of them is buying and the other is supplying the money. In this case, the gun seller was convicted for allowing a straw purchase of rifles, pistols and hundreds of rounds of ammunition. He faces up to 27 months in federal prison. The store, Second Amendment Arms, is now closed.
“Here in the Valley, we are having a problem where individuals from Mexico, they are entering the United States and they are recruiting United States citizens here in the Valley to straw purchase firearm,” explained Rangel.
Those people being recruited are between the ages of 18 to 27 years old, because traffickers know this age group might not have a criminal history. Getting approved for a gun purchase will be easier and according to the feds, they will do anything for cash.
“You may know or have some sort of communication with – they will then nonchalantly ask you ‘hey, can you do me a favor?'” said Rangel.
A favor leading recruits into gun shops around the Valley. In those 20 arrests, CHANNEL 5 NEWS found about 10 local gun shops named related to straw purchasing. Most of them in Hidalgo County, others in Cameron County. Some of the stores had four cases of straw purchasing connected to it within a year’s time. We reached out to those store owners who had cases connected to them, but told us “no comment.”
“I shouldn't say I know they happened – that I know of – but they have probably happened and I had no clue. Straw purchases are very difficult to ascertain,” said gun store owner Brian Guerra, whom to his knowledge has no straw purchase connection.
Guerra says the people trying to track them, either know what guns they were forced to buy while others are clueless or don’t know anything about guns, but they could also be innocent.
“You know, customer service and customers happiness is number one with us – so we want to make sure that our regular customers, or customers that maybe nervous to get into the sport of shooting, are able to ask the questions without any type of prejudgment,” said Guerra.
For now, gun show owners are urged to step up their vigilance and Valley residents are warned to not fall for a trap that will land both parties behind bars.
In the 20 cases we found involving straw purchase arrests, most of the people are scheduled for sentencing; others are still pending and have hearings coming up.
On a national scale, data by Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University shows in 2019 more than 150 prosecutions happened for false statements in order to obtain a firearm or ammunition.