Borderland Beat, September 15, 2023
US Customs and Border Protection officers found 270 firearms hidden inside water heaters behind a false wall. On Sept. 6, CBP officers at the Donna Port of Entry conducted an outbound inspection on a red GMC pickup truck attempting to leave the US.
Alex Santos Lopez and Jose Luis Pacheco were arrested on charges of exporting merchandise from the US without a license or authorization, records show. The driver was identified as Santos-Lopez and the passenger was identified as Pacheco.
While inspecting the truck and trailer, officers found 270 firearms and ammunition in the trailer. The guns were hidden in a false wall, inside two 45-gallon water heaters that were being hauled in the trailer.
Special Agents with Homeland Security Investigations interviewed Santos-Lopez, who said he knew he was transporting the guns. He said that he and Pacheco had been planning the trip for a month, and they were going to be paid $5,000, which would be split evenly between the two of them.
Project Thor found that the problem of cartel weapons smuggling was far worse than previously understood. They estimated that cartels were trafficking up to 1 million weapons every year, with a retail value of up to $500 million, not including ammunition and tactical supplies, according to intelligence analysis.
Project Thor concluded that American guns were being used to fuel an unprecedented spike in violence across Mexico. Up to 85% of firearms found at those crime scenes were traced back to the U.S.
Without Project Thor, U.S. law enforcement “bureaucracies were more interested in defending their turf than prosecuting criminal organizations,” said Edwin Starr, who retired from the ATF as a senior special agent in December 2022. Starr credited the interagency program with leading to a major breakthrough in one of his firearms trafficking cases that, according to Demlein, helped take down an entire cartel gunrunning network.
On Dec. 8, 2021, ATF Chief of Staff Daniel Board praised Project Thor’s “insight, initiative, and hard work” as he presented the team with the agency’s Distinguished Service Medal.
But Project Thor was denied funding for fiscal year 2022, according to internal documents and sources with direct knowledge, effectively shutting it down. The Justice Department and ATF would not disclose how much money is dedicated to the mission of countering international firearms trafficking to Mexico, saying, “There is no line-item budget for it.”
The Biden administration signaled a new commitment to tackle the issue at a June 14 press conference, pointing to the ATF’s Operation Southbound, an investigative and prosecutorial “nationwide initiative” designed to “disrupt the trafficking of firearms from the U.S. to Mexico” focused on border states. Officials also pointed to funding for gun tracing and ongoing diplomatic efforts to train and equip Mexican law enforcement with that technology.
However, other law enforcement, intelligence, and diplomatic officials doubt their own agencies’ commitment to dismantling cartel gunrunning networks across the US, and criticized the ongoing approaches as “ineffective.”
“Any U.S. strategy that depends, for its success, on Mexican law enforcement efforts in Mexico is doomed to failure,” warned Christopher Landau, who served as US Ambassador to Mexico until 2021. “We’ve been talking about this for 10, 20 years. Nothing is changing. … This has been a major bipartisan failure of the U.S. government for many decades.”
Senior officials defended their approach to countering weapons smuggling out of the country. “ATF is committed to stopping as many guns as possible from being illegally trafficked into Mexico,” ATF Director Steven Dettelbach told CBS News in a statement, touting the prosecution of 100 people in the past year. “Investigating straw purchasers is just one tool that we use. Our efforts also include large-scale, long-term, complex investigations of entire trafficking networks.”