ATF beefs up efforts to stop gun trafficking

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They'll spend the next four months in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' Houston field division, developing cases against people and groups trafficking firearms to Mexico, acting ATF Director Kenneth Melson said.

Melson said 90 percent of the guns that U.S. officials have traced for Mexican authorities have come from the United States. Of those, most have been traced back to Texas, and within the state most came from the Houston area.

"The ATF has been so successful in developing leads from tracing data we saw the need to relocate personnel and put them into specific areas we've identified as areas for gun trafficking," Melson said. "With this surge in capability, we hope to reduce our backlog in leads and refer more defendants" for prosecution.

The additional personnel -- 72 special agents and 28 inspectors, analysts and support staff -- are part of Gun Runner Impact Teams, which help support the ATF's Project Gunrunner, the agency's initiative to reduce the flow of firearms to Mexico.

Mexico has long tried to get the United States to curtail the number of guns -- many purchased legally -- that wind up with drug cartels. President Barack Obama has pledged the U.S. will do more.

Melson said the additional personnel will work in three areas: sorting through the backlog of gun trafficking leads received from firearms dealers and tracing requests from Mexico; developing cases from those leads; and sending cases for prosecution.

One of the trafficking organizations the Houston ATF office shut down was a group of 23 people who had purchased 339 weapons in 2006 and 2007, with at least 40 of these weapons having been recovered in Mexico. Two members of the group were sentenced to prison within the last month in Houston federal court.

J. Dewey Webb, special agent in charge of the ATF's Houston division that includes South Texas in its jurisdiction, said he expects the new personnel to "make an impact in putting some of these trafficking organizations out of business permanently."

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