Houston ATF Underfunded and Under the Gun

Nov. 30, 2013
It is not a secret that the agency has drawn plenty of enemies as it has gone up against street gangs, militia members and outlaw bikers.

In a room tucked away on a floor where the elevator stops only with a special key, a 10-member squad known as Group 9 is a few hours from launching an undercover mission to take down a band of gunrunners.

The agents are part of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which operates out of a low-profile office building on the far outskirts of Houston.

The agency's name is not listed on the building's directory, and the reception area has bullet-resistant glass and other security features.

It is not a secret that the agency has drawn plenty of enemies as it has gone up against street gangs, militia members and outlaw bikers.

But nowadays the ATF Houston Division -- the agency's largest division in the United States -- has a primary mission of stemming violent crime and the flow of guns from here to Mexico's drug cartels.

Houston and the surrounding area is the marketplace of choice for the cartels, which are arming themselves in an ongoing war with other gangsters as well as with government security forces.

Houston remains the number one point of origin for guns that are recovered from the scenes of organized crime murders and other mayhem in Mexico and are successfully traced back to where they were first sold over the counter, according to the agency.

Making matters even more complex, more than 1.1 million customers in Texas so far this year have requested government permission to buy firearms -- a record pace for the state -- and Texas already has more gun dealers than any other state in the nation.

Lean operation

Through it all, the agency has remained lean compared to peers such as the FBI or Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and remains outgunned in many ways in this state, where guns are a way of life and weekend sales are so large they are regularly held in sprawling convention centers.

There are 67 agents and 25 civilian investigators, as well as numerous analysts and support personnel, assigned to the Houston area.

By comparison, there are approximately five times as many FBI agents as ATF agents based in Houston.

"We are looking for the needle in the haystack, and the haystack is all the gun purchases," said Todd Reichert, an assistant special agent in charge of the Houston division, which in 2013 has worked cases from here to the Mexican border, as well as in Latin America and the Caribbean.

There are 1,612 licensed firearms dealers in the Houston area, a higher number than anywhere else in this state.

As a result, there are more people with more access to guns in Houston and the surrounding counties than anywhere else in the United States, according to the ATF.

Firearms hardly raise an eyebrow here in the metropolis, where most gun stores tend to blend into strip centers with restaurants, book stores, smoke shops and bakeries.

There are exceptions, such as the Carter's County gun store that features a shooting range out back, or the upscale Athena Gun Club, with an air-conditioned, 26-lane shooting range with a VIP Club that includes a gun valet.

They stand out.

"I couldn't see it being any other way," said Jim Pruett, owner of Jim Pruett's Guns & Ammo. "I love Texas."

Seized guns tell stories

The ATF isn't always popular in this state, where people still remember the Waco siege of 20 years ago with the Branch Davidians, as well as the agency's recent "Fast and Furious" blunder that let guns flow from Arizona to Mexico in an attempt to infiltrate smuggling rings.

Within the agency's offices are high-security vaults packed with guns with histories that tell many stories. They range from a pen gun, which can be converted in seconds to a single-shot weapon, to a belt-fed .50-caliber machine gun.

There are also matching gold- and silver-plated AR-15s that were taken off a suspected drug boss earlier this year.

Along the wall are dozens of handguns once owned by a Houstonian who in June was sentenced to 10 years for smuggling about 300 firearms from Houston to Colombian paramilitary groups.

He would take apart the weapons, nicknamed "Cop Killers" for the type ammunition they are capable of firing, and ship them in pieces down to Colombia via express-mail services. He would then go to Colombia and reassemble them.

The case showed how, despite the emphasis placed on stopping guns from heading to Mexico, with Houston's many international connections, other illegal markets continue to thrive.

Larry Karson, an assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Houston-Downtown, said the ATF has drawn plenty of controversy and taken plenty of heat but also sends agents into undercover missions that other agencies shy away from.

"Few other organizations will take the time, trouble and expense to deal with the dangers of going undercover against bikers or radical militia organizations," said Karson, a retired Customs Service agent.

Gun arrests tough

"The ATF has been the one to address it because all these people have one thing in common: They want to play with guns," Karson said.

"Criminals and guns are synonymous," he said. "The problem for ATF is that they also are synonymous for very upright leading citizens who like to hunt or collect firearms."

Reichert notes it can be tougher to make arrests for guns than drugs.

"If someone walks down the street with 10 kilos of cocaine, they are going to jail," he said. "If they walked down the street with a duffle bag of 9 mm (handguns), it depends on who they are, where they got the guns, and what they are doing with them."

Traced through sales

One investigation, which remains among the most significant trafficking bust here in years, didn't hinge on an agent kicking in a door or an informant dropping a tip, but unarmed investigators reviewing sales records kept by gun stores.

All told, 336 military-style weapons were traced from Mexico to Houston.

Two dozen people were arrested in the case that was prosecuted in 2009 and traced to multiple crimes, including the murders of four policemen and three civilian workers in what was called the Acapulco Massacre.

The case weaved from the top of Mexico's drug world to an unemployed Houston machinist who lived at home with his parents and was attractive to the cartel because he had no criminal record and could pass a federally required background check for all gun buyers.

Because most of the guns came from a dealer with a traditionally high sales volume, the dealer was apparently inspected more often than some smaller outfits.

Dealers can't have their books audited by the ATF more than once a year, and the agency's Houston Division says that due to manpower limitations, its goal is to inspect them at least once every four years.

As for Group 9, it is all about catching weapons traffickers, and they regularly go undercover to get it done.

"It is not for the weak of heart. You have got to have steel nerves," supervisor Dan Casey explains of what it takes to go undercover against criminals who almost always have guns, or the ATF wouldn't even be involved.

"It is definitely a skill set; it is not something everybody has."

Ever-present dangers

Earlier this year, an undercover agent feared he was about to be shot when he gave the emergency signal for agents to swarm to his rescue.

Seconds before the agent called for help, the real criminals -- alleged home invaders who had struck several times -- had positioned themselves and their weapons around him so that he'd have no escape or cover.

Among those arrested was a man suspected of being linked to an attempted robbery of an armored car that left one would-be robber dead and security guard wounded.

"Our saying when we do a case is, we want the guns to be there," said Rob Elder, a former police officer who is the new head of the ATF's Houston Division. But he concedes, "when guns are involved, your danger level goes up. Nobody has ever been shot with a bag of cocaine."

Copyright 2013 - Houston Chronicle

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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