By Kevin Johnson, USA TODAY
HOUSTON - Ann Zarate may be one of the most unlikely players to be swept up in Mexico's unrelenting drug war.
The 24-year-old native of Texas' Rio Grande Valley is described by her attorney Jodi Goodwin as a "quiet, super sweet" woman who ultimately could not resist the promise of easy money for precious little work.
Zarate was sentenced earlier this year to 10 months in federal prison as a buyer in a gun-trafficking ring that delivered 77 weapons to Mexico's warring drug cartels. She also represents one in a steady stream of women - grandmothers, single moms and expectant mothers - who cartels are regularly recruiting to keep weapons flowing from the U.S. to support their violent operations in Mexico.
Federal law enforcement officials don't track the numbers of women involved in gun-trafficking cases. But as the demand for weapons in Mexico has escalated in the past two years, trafficking rings have been increasingly recruiting women with clean criminal records to buy weapons for them, said J. Dewey Webb, chief of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives office in Houston.
Often paid as little as $100
At least a dozen women in the past two years have surfaced in federal gun-trafficking cases as suspects or cooperating witnesses in Houston and the South Texas region, the nation's busiest gun-trafficking corridor to Mexico, according to court records, federal law enforcement officials and defense attorneys.
Webb said the women are joining the armies of buyers eager to risk harsh criminal sanctions in the U.S. - and possible retaliation by the cartels if they fail - for a relatively small share in the lucrative arms trade.
Because convicted felons cannot legally buy weapons, women with no criminal history are seen as valuable "straw buyers" who transfer their purchases to smugglers through relatives, boyfriends and acquaintances. The women often are being paid as little as $100 per trip to buy high-powered weapons from legitimate U.S. gun dealers, from Houston to the Rio Grande Valley.
"These buyers have as much blood on their hands as the people in Mexico who pull the trigger," Webb said. "The bottom line is that even grandmothers know what they are doing is illegal."
Houston Police Chief Harold Hurtt said because of the stepped-up law enforcement effort to block the flow of guns to Mexico in the past year, women are being increasingly targeted for recruitment to divert attention away from high-profile suspects in the trafficking operations.
"When a woman walks into a gun store and says she's looking for a weapon for her own protection, there aren't going to be a lot of questions," the chief said.
Some of the largest and most deadly gun smuggling operations in the country have involved women. The development highlights the key role straw buyers are playing to keep what Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., once characterized as the "Iron River" of guns flowing from the U.S. to Mexico.
Deputy Attorney General David Ogden has described the role of straw purchasers as the spark which has led to "horrific acts of violence."
"It's a nationwide problem," Ogden said, "that requires a nationwide commitment."
In a case outlined in court documents unsealed here last year, an organization of 23 buyers, including at least one woman, was linked to purchases of 339 guns during a 15-month, $340,000 buying spree across the region.
Two of the main figures in the ring, Juan Pablo Gutierrez, 24, and John Phillip Hernandez, 26, were sentenced earlier this year to a combined 11 years in federal prison.
But the weapons they and others helped funnel to Mexico - an arsenal of assault rifles and high-powered handguns -are still being recovered at crime scenes throughout areas of Mexico.
Nearly three years after the trafficking operation began, some of the same weapons are being linked to a torrent of violence that has claimed more than 11,000 lives since 2006, according to federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) records.
Weapons traced back to U.S.
Of the 71 weapons recovered in Mexico and traced to the Houston-based trafficking organization so far, 48 have been linked to killings, according to an analysis of firearms by the ATF.
The dead include 17 Mexican law enforcement officials and 31 members of rival drug-trafficking organizations, the main combatants in the ongoing drug war being waged at the border.
Almost every week, another gun in Mexico is traced to the Gutierrez-Hernandez operation, according to ATF records.
Three months ago, the Justice Department deployed 100 additional investigators in an attempt to make some headway in the battle to halt the volume of weapons streaming south.
The Gutierrez-Hernandez operation, federal investigators said, stands as one of the most revealing examples yet of the cartels' long reach into U.S. cities for help in satisfying the steady demand for arms.
ATF Assistant Director Larry Ford said the ring's long roster of so-called "straw buyers" is now emblematic of other similar gun smuggling operations.
Ford said gun rings now often recruit large numbers of buyers, including students and women, in part to divert law enforcement attention that might otherwise be drawn to smaller numbers of buyers making multiple purchases.
"If you spread it out, you don't make it so obvious," Ford said.