Jorge Luis Villarreal spent 14 years roughnecking in the Texas oil fields, but when the pandemic hit in early 2020, the 41-year-old found himself laid off and struggling to support his family. Trying to make ends meet, he sold used cars, worked as a mechanic, and did lawn care, before finally turning to a more lucrative trade: arms trafficking.
For about six or seven months, according to court documents reviewed by VICE News, Villarreal acquired guns off the internet in the U.S. and resold them to buyers in Mexico, where firearms are strictly regulated and fetch high prices on the black market.
The disparity between gun laws in the two countries has contributed to American weapons falling into the hands of the world’s most violent criminal groups. Cartels covet guns like the .50-caliber sniper rifle, which fires bullets the size of carrots capable of taking down a helicopter or piercing armor plating, along with semi-automatic assault weapons such as AR-15s and Kalashnikov-style rifles that can be converted into full-auto machine guns in Mexico with some rudimentary gunsmithing.
Villarreal had “knowledge of guns,” court records say, and while he made his home in the Texas city of McAllen, he had family on the other side of the border in Reynosa, which has long been plagued by drug cartel violence. In September 2020, seven guns that Villarreal flipped turned up at crime scenes in Reynosa.
Those seven guns became part of an investigation by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), which traced the Reynosa weapons and dozens of others back to their original buyers in Oklahoma City. The trail led to two men who were using the web, including a site called Armslist—the so-called Craigslist of Guns—to find whatever Villarreal wanted.
The role of Armslist and other similar online marketplaces as a source of weapons that end up in the hands of criminals on both sides of the border is growing, law enforcement sources told VICE News. While federal regulations require stores and licensed firearms dealers to perform background checks on prospective buyers, Armslist connects users for private transactions that can be done with virtually no questions asked, making it easily exploited for “straw purchases” done on behalf of cartels.
Thomas Chittum, the ATF’s acting deputy director, told VICE News that arms merchants who once had to travel around to gun shows and flea markets can now use sites like Armslist—which hosts classified-style listings for everything from handguns to military-grade firepower like the M249 SAW—to operate remotely and broaden their supply networks.
“By using these online marketplaces, I can do it from the comfort of my home and I can reach a much bigger potential customer base,” Chittum said. “That’s the appeal of these things. And it’s the same appeal that makes Craigslist convenient when you want to sell a couch. This represents a pretty significant source of trafficked firearms.”
“It’s the same appeal that makes Craigslist convenient when you want to sell a couch. This represents a pretty significant source of trafficked firearms.”
Around 70 percent of the illegal firearms seized in Mexico are traced back to U.S. sales, according to the latest ATF data. The clandestine nature of arms trafficking makes it difficult to gauge the true scope of the trade, but Mexican authorities estimate about 2.5 million American guns have poured across the border over the past decade. Mexico saw upwards of 150,000 homicides linked to organized crime from 2006 to 2018, and the homicide rate has remained at historically high levels over the last two years.
The government of Mexico sued several major U.S.-based gun manufacturers in August, alleging the companies bear responsibility for the firepower the cartels now wield. Damages could run as high as $10 billion if the suit is successful, Mexican officials have estimated, though a federal law that shields gun companies from liability for crimes committed with their products makes victory a longshot. The lawsuit also seeks tighter controls on sales, but the emergence of sites like Armslist complicates any potential effort to limit guns falling into the wrong hands.
Asked about Armslist and online gun sales in the U.S., Alejandro Celorio, principal legal adviser for Mexico’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told VICE News that the country “has one gun store in the entire nation and issues fewer than 50 gun permits per year,” and strict domestic laws “make it virtually impossible for criminals to lawfully obtain guns in Mexico.”
“Gun companies and sellers like Armslist, instead of implementing public safety–related monitoring or disciplining controls on their distribution systems, undermine these stringent Mexican laws, and wreak havoc in Mexican society, by persistently supplying a torrent of guns to the drug cartels,” Celorio said.
Armslist and an attorney who represents the company in civil cases did not respond to requests for comment. The site runs a disclaimer that says: “Always comply with local, state, federal, and international law. ARMSLIST is NEVER involved in transactions between parties.”
Elsewhere on the site, Armslist describes itself as “purely a service provider” that allows sellers to list guns for sale and notes that “it is the sole responsibility of the buyer and seller to conduct safe and legal transactions.”
Armslist was born at a Fourth of July party in 2007, the brainchild of co-founders Jonathan Gibbon and Brian Mancini, then classmates at the U.S. Air Force Academy. Gibbon told the website Human Events in 2010 it was a direct response to Craigslist prohibiting gun sales.
“When I heard them say that they decided to ban all gun-related ads because a few users cried out for it, it inspired me to create a place for law-abiding gun owners to buy and sell online without all of the hassles of auctions and shipping,” Gibbon said.
With a low-tech aesthetic similar to Craigslist’s and a simple user interface, Armslist quickly grew to become one of the most popular sites for gun sellers and buyers. There are glossier competitors, like the site Gunbroker, and local riffs such as Texas Gun Trader, but Armslist is the most ubiquitous and controversial.
Armslist has been sued multiple times for being the source of weapons wielded by murderers who were legally barred from owning firearms. The cases include a Chicago police commander gunned down by a four-time felon who acquired his Glock pistol from a seller on Armslist; a mother of three from Wisconsin killed in a murder-suicide by her estranged husband who got his gun off Armslist despite having a history of domestic violence; and a 2012 mass shooting at a spa in a Milwaukee suburb where a man under a restraining order for domestic abuse bought a gun off Armslist and used it the next day to kill his wife and two other people.
The litigation is the work of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which alleges Armslist is “negligently facilitating illegal gun purchases through its website.” Armslist has consistently denied any wrongdoing. The spa mass shooting case went to Wisconsin’s Supreme Court, which ruled that Armslist was protected by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the same law that grants websites like Facebook, Google, and Twitter immunity from liability for content or comments posted by users. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal challenging the ruling. The other lawsuits remain pending.
While international arms sales are tightly regulated, it’s perfectly legal for Americans to sell guns to each other without background checks—so long as the sellers are not “engaged in the business” of dealing firearms. But the law is vague on when casual hobbyism crosses the line. Those who devote “time, attention, and labor” to selling guns, or seek to “profit through the repetitive purchase and resale of firearms,” have to apply for a federal license, but the ATF’s Chittum said there are really no hard-and-fast rules.
“Congress intentionally carved out this unstated section of law, private sales, and it is unregulated in that way,” Chittum said. “So a lot of people who want to traffick firearms, to obtain firearms without a record or sell to people who could not possess them legally, have turned to this unregulated private market.”
“A lot of people who want to traffick firearms, to obtain firearms without a record or sell to people who could not possess them legally, have turned to this unregulated private market.”
The allegation that gun buyers and sellers are turning to Armslist to avoid background checks is not new. In 2019, researchers at the University of Minnesota analyzed data from more than 4.9 million Armslist posts and found that less than 10 percent mentioned a background check. The advocacy group Everytown For Gun Safety looked at 9 million posts on Armslist from 2018 to 2020 and found that more than three-quarters of listings by unlicensed sellers did not require a background check.
Sellers on the site contacted by reporters from digital news outlets the Verge and the Trace said they tended to trust their gut while negotiating sales and would sometimes check out the buyer’s online presence, but “only a handful” would actually take prospective customers to a licensed dealer for a proper background check.
In response, a lawyer for Armslist issued a statement to the news sites that said the company “fully complies” with all laws and regularly assists law enforcement. “The gist of the opposition to Armslist lies in opposition to the private ownership of firearms,” the statement said.
In Villarreal’s case, the ATF was able to trace several of the guns found in Reynosa back to a 49-year-old Oklahoma City man named Richard Pond, who records showed had bought 221 guns over the previous two years. When ATF agents knocked on his door, Pond confessed he’d been “straw purchasing” or buying guns on Villarreal’s behalf.
Villarreal was “organized and detail-oriented,” and would “request specific makes, models, and calibers,” Pond said, according to court documents. When items on Villarreal’s shopping list weren’t available in stores, Pond told the ATF, “he would find the firearms online.” Villarreal’s explanation for buying so many guns was that he was reselling them to his “co-workers,” Pond said, according to a criminal complaint filed in November 2020 in a federal court in Oklahoma.
Five of the seven Reynosa guns had a “time-to-crime” of one week or less, the ATF found, meaning only a matter of days passed between Pond buying the weapons in the U.S. and they turned up in Mexico. Court records don’t indicate how the weapons were transported across the border or who exactly was buying them from Villarreal in Reynosa.
With Pond’s help, the ATF set up a sting operation last October where an undercover agent posed as a would-be straw purchaser and struck a deal with Villarreal to buy a dozen pistols for $5,800. The feds got a warrant and tracked Villarreal using the GPS on his phone as he traveled from McAllen to Oklahoma City. When he arrived for the deal, the agents arrested him.
Villarreal’s other straw purchaser was Cory Jump, a 50-year-old auto mechanic who runs a shop that specializes in Porsches in the small town of Tecumseh, about 40 miles southeast of Oklahoma City. When ATF agents paid him a visit, Jump initially denied ever selling more than two guns at a time. Pond, however, had already shown the ATF text messages that proved Jump had sold him 14 guns in a single go just a few months earlier.
Jump eventually admitted to the ATF agents that “he would purchase firearms he found online, primarily via, and then resell them to Villarreal.” Altogether, Jump estimated, he’d sold Villarreal “between 30 and 40 firearms.” At least one of those guns later turned up in Mexico, according to court records.
Armslist was not the trafficking ring’s only source of weapons. Court records say Villarreal would time his trips from Texas to Oklahoma City to buy from Jump and Pond “to coincide with local gun shows,” where buyers and sellers can use the private sale loophole to avoid federal background checks.
One federal law enforcement agent, who requested anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly, told VICE News that cartels typically smuggle weapons into Mexico with the same routes and methods used to transport the cash proceeds from illicit drug sales. That often means using hidden compartments in vehicles ranging in size from small cars to tractor trailers, and bribing border guards to look the other way.
To diffuse the risk and avoid attracting attention from U.S. authorities, the agent said, cartels are increasingly turning to small-scale “ant trafficking,” which entails “someone buying a gun here, a gun there, spreading it out, trying not to get on anybody’s radar.”
“You get people working for the cartel, or people working for a trafficking group, they’re looking for guns they want, they will travel throughout states just to get ’em,” the agent said.
“You get people working for the cartel, or people working for a trafficking group, they’re looking for guns they want, they will travel throughout states just to get ’em.”
There’s at least one other federal case aside from Villarreal’s where a seller on Armslist told investigators he was involved in shipping guns to Mexico. The defendant, a 23-year-old former U.S. Army soldier, eventually pleaded guilty to illegally importing or manufacturing firearms and was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison.
Pond pleaded guilty to the same charge as Villarreal and was sentenced last week to 48 months of probation. His lawyer did not respond to requests for comment. Pond agreed to surrender 114 pistols, rifles, and shotguns to federal authorities as part of his plea agreement.
Jump, the other straw purchaser, pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators. He was sentenced in September to 24 months of probation. His attorney did not respond to requests for comment, but said in court documents that Jump is “a family man with strong values,” who’d never been arrested previously. Like Villarreal, he told the court that he’d fallen on hard times during the pandemic and was trying to make some extra cash by selling guns.
Several of Jump’s friends and customers from his Porsche repair shop wrote letters to the court on his behalf, including a retired FBI agent and a former deputy for the sheriff’s office in Logan County, Oklahoma. The ex-deputy, Don Horton, told VICE News he doesn’t want guns winding up in the hands of criminals, but he also doesn’t view Armslist as being problematic because there are plenty of other ways to acquire weapons without undergoing a background check.
“Armslist is just a small slice of the pie of the transfer of firearms between individuals,” Horton said. “It facilitates in making it easier perhaps, but it does not facilitate something that wouldn’t happen by some means anyway.”
Villarreal pleaded guilty to a charge of conspiracy to deal firearms without a license and got 37 months in federal prison, a sentence he began serving last week. He admitted to taking “approximately 59” guns into Mexico and illegally selling others in Oklahoma and Texas. He declined an interview request through his attorney.
In a memo to his sentencing judge, Villarreal’s lawyer wrote that he “had no malice in his heart, he wasn’t trying to cheat vulnerable victims, and while he admittedly was trying to make a profit, he certainly wasn’t doing it out of greed.”