Mexican police display confiscated weapons and two arrested Zeta members in 2010.
Image Reuters

A Justice Department report detailing 25 different cases of illegal arms trafficking between 2007 and 2012 has catalogued a few of the boldest bids by Mexico's most powerful drug cartels to acquire increasingly high-powered weaponry. Among them is a 2010 case in which David Díaz Sosa and Jorge de Jesús Castañeda, affiliates of the Sinaloa drug cartel headed by Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, tried to purchase a Stinger anti-aircraft missile and several anti-tank weapons from undercover agents. That deal ended in arrests for the cartel members, but the report indicates that as many as 400 high-caliber weapons were successfully bought from sellers in the United States and smuggled into Mexico by cartel members in the five years treated in the report.

The Sinaloa cartel wasn't the only drug gang involved in the weapon buys - the Zetas and La Familia Michoacana also established connects in the United States through which they bought, in bulk or in small quantities, AK-47s (which they called "cuernos de chivo" or "goat horns") and AR-15 rifles as well as .50-caliber arms capable of piercing heavy armor and military-grade gear like night-vision goggles, grenades and munitions.

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The case of David Díaz Sosa and Jorge de Jesús Castañeda is one of three in which agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) were able to pose as cartel affiliates and bring down the buying connects in the United States before they could put weapons in the cartels' hands. Díaz Sosa was convicted in 2012 to 25 years in prison after having pleaded guilty to several violations related to his efforts to acquire military-grade weaponry in the U.S. for export to the Mexican cartels. In addition to the Stinger missile and anti-tank weapons, he also tried to purchase grenade launchers, grenades and machine guns, using cash and methamphetamine as payment.

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Between 2006 and 2009, some 400 rifles bound for traffickers' hands were sold at a store in Madera, California. Seven Mexican nationals were arrested. Another, Gregorio Salgado López, was arrested after having sold a total of 800 bulletproof vests to organized crime members in 2009-2011.

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U.S. citizens were in on it, too. Christopher Sean Steward and Jacob Anthony Montelongo were sentenced to nine years in an Arizona jail for charges related to buying weapons for cartels (the report calls them "two of the most prolific straw purchases in the Phoenix-based firearms trafficking conspiracy"). Steward supplied hundreds of firearms, including 260 AK-47s, in return for $176,999 in cash; Montelongo straw-purchased 109 firearms, including multiple AK-47s, and six .50-caliber rifles.

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