Mexican-made ‘ghost guns’ find their way to cartels
A US national who smuggled AR-15 parts into Mexico and assembled the weapons for two of the country’s most violent cartels shows that these firearms, known as ghost weapons, have the potential to be part of the arsenals of the cartels.
Andrew Scott Pierson of Oklahoma smuggled AR-15 weapon parts to his auto repair shop in the Mexican border town of Nuevo Laredo, where he converted them into functional weapons used by the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG) and the Northeast Cartel (Cartel del Noreste – CDN), according to a sentencing notice filed in US federal court in Arkansas. Pierson was sentenced to 12 years in prison on April 20 for his role in the arms smuggling conspiracy, in which he ordered the gun parts over the Internet, had them delivered to Laredo, Texas, and then had them transported across the border.
When authorities raided Pierson’s store in 2018, they discovered a slew of parts and machinery used to make and complete the so-called ghost guns, including metal bending presses for rifle receivers. assault rifles and partially machined AR-15 and AK receivers.
The assault weapons even came with a counterfeit tag from Colt, the largest arms manufacturer in the United States.
SEE ALSO: Clandestine arms factories discovered in Mexico
Weapons assembled in Mexico have been used in past cartel shootouts. CJNG gunmen in the dramatic 2020 assassination attempt on Mexico City Police Chief Omar Garcia Harfuch used domestically-made weapons, according to a March Milenio report in which U.S. Bureau officials alcohol, tobacco, firearms and explosives (ATF) were consulted.
More than two dozen gunmen ambushed Harfuch’s armored vehicle, shooting it more than 400 times with assault rifles and grenade launchers.
According to the Milenio report, the ATF said Mexican criminal groups, including the CJNG, source weapons assembled in Mexico.
“In recent years, we have found guns that were made in Mexico and that received American markings to increase their value, but they are homemade,” Timothy Sloan, the head of the ATF in Mexico, told Milenio.
Earlier in 2017, Milenio reported that seven homemade weapons had been discovered in the state of Michoacán. Each of them bore the hacked Colt logo.
InSight Crime Analytics
Ghost weapons currently make up a fraction of cartel weapons. But Mexico can ill afford to see a wave of phantom weapons being assembled in the country, given the growing firepower and gun violence of criminal groups.
Ghost guns have become synonymous with firearms that do not carry serial numbers and are assembled from kits purchased online. The essential component of their manufacture is an unfinished receiver, the lower part of the weapon that contains the firing mechanism. Although President Joe Biden’s administration has promised to curb the manufacture and sale of these parts, the receivers – sometimes called “80% receivers” – are not considered firearms and are not subject to the same regulations. Minor modifications, however, can turn them into fully functional weapons.
Although most commonly purchased online, ghost gun receivers can also be machined by people with the right equipment, such as a Ghost Gunner CNC machine that authorities found in Pierson’s auto shop.
Nevertheless, Ioan Grillo, author of the book “Blood Gun Money”, told InSight Crime that ghost weapons make up only a small percentage of cartel weapons.
Although the weapons can only be traced to a crime through ballistics analysis, they are still not the preferred option for organized crime groups in Mexico. According to Grillo, they remain a relatively unreliable choice over tried and true American-made firearms.
“They don’t really need to do that right now,” Grillo said of the cartel-made ghost guns. Cartels “can still very easily buy assembled and serialized firearms from stores in the United States and bring them to Mexico.”
SEE ALSO: Arms trafficking rages on Mexican social networks
The manufacture and assembly of weapons in Mexico is not a new phenomenon. Such weapons were discovered in 2014 in the CJNG’s home state of Jalisco.
However, customizing rifles and grenade launchers to make them more deadly is much more common among cartels, Grillo explained. “A very common thing is to convert semi-automatic rifles to fully automatic rifles.” Likewise, they maintain armories where grenade launchers can be adjusted to fire larger frag grenades.
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