A few years ago, a retired police officer named Mike Fox found himself badly in need of money. The Vietnam veteran, overweight and ailing, was nearly 70 years old, and his wife, Diane, wasn’t much younger, but they had recently taken custody of their grandsons, a pair of rambunctious two-year-old twins. “We found out our daughter was a heroin addict,” Fox says in a tired, raspy voice. He’s seated at his kitchen table in Georgetown, Texas, a middle-class suburb of Austin, holding a mug of coffee in both hands. The end of one finger is missing from a lawn-mower accident. “We had no idea heroin was so bad,” he says. “I’d been a cop, and I couldn’t even spot it in my own kid.” Their adult son had also fallen victim to heroin, and would later commit suicide. “I had cancer on top of that,” Fox says. “Malignant melanoma.” All of this happened after he had to take his only living relative, a sister in Louisiana, off life support. “It was like a soap opera,” says Diane, her eyes filled with tears. The legal and medical bills, plus the expense of raising two toddlers, quickly depleted their savings, which led Fox to look into a certain side business.
Fox had been a licensed gun dealer since 2007, and had acquired additional federal licenses to manufacture ammunition and possess machine guns. To qualify for the permits, he had to have a physical storefront, but his was just a rented metal warehouse that he hardly ever used. He made most of his money manufacturing ammunition in his garage and selling it to people he met online or through word of mouth. The ammo business was especially profitable in Texas during the Obama presidency, he says: “Hoarding is a thing.”
One of his clients was Tyler Carlson, a 26-year-old solo operator who seemed to make a living buying and selling guns and ammo on a website called Texas Gun Trader. “He had this route from here to Dallas, and he always dealt in cash,” Fox says. “He was connected out the ass. You never knew what he was going to show up with.” Carlson had already bought tens of thousands of rounds of ammunition and eight .50-caliber sniper rifles from Fox when he approached him in the summer of 2015 with the idea of building a military weapon known as a minigun.
Despite the diminutive name, a minigun is a heavy, six-barreled rotary cannon that can fire up to a hundred bullets per second. “If there was ever a most dangerous weapon put on the face of the Earth, it’s a 134,” Fox says, meaning an M-134, the U.S. military’s nomenclature for the weapon. It’s powered by a motor that runs off an external power supply, and is typically found mounted on attack helicopters and fixed-wing gunships, where it’s used to support ground troops in combat. With a minigun, a door gunner can saturate an enemy position with bullets in a matter of seconds, or mow down a squad of soldiers with a single push of the trigger.
The M-134 is a descendant of the Gatling gun, and is legally classified as a machine gun. Unlike assault rifles, which are perfectly legal, machine guns are banned for civilian ownership without a federal license, like the one Fox held. Miniguns are exclusively manufactured by a pair of defense contractors located six blocks from each other in Scottsdale, Arizona. Their primary buyer is the Pentagon, but under State Department supervision, they also export to a number of foreign customers, including the government of Mexico.
In 2016 and 2017, videos emerged of Mexican soldiers in Black Hawk helicopters using miniguns to unload on Gulf Cartel safe houses and convoys in and around the border city of Reynosa, across the river from McAllen, Texas. In February 2017, Mexican marines used a minigun to kill a cartel boss named Juan Francisco Patrón Sánchez, along with 11 of his sicarios, who were bombarded by what looked in the nighttime video like an onslaught of explosive laser beams. It was the closest thing yet to the Mexican government using airstrikes on its own citizens, and according to an affidavit filed in federal court in Austin, as confirmed by officials from the Department of Homeland Security, the Gulf Cartel responded to the Mexican government’s tactical escalation by seeking to obtain miniguns of its own.
Carlson was tall and heavyset, with light-brown hair and blue eyes, and spoke fluent Spanish. Fox didn’t know much about him except that he was from Austin, drove around in a black Tacoma loaded with guns and money, and was married to a woman from Mexico. Carlson had already acquired a handful of minigun parts, but to finish assembling the weapon he needed the help of a gunsmith like Fox, who knew how to forge and cast components working from blueprints in his garage. Fox claims to have taken Carlson at his word when he said he wanted the weapon to hunt wild hogs on a family ranch in South Texas. He knew Carlson was not licensed to possess a machine gun, and that transferring one to him would be a felony, but he agreed to take on the job anyway. “Ty had a lot of money,” Fox says. “We started talking numbers.”
Over the next year, Fox built a total of four miniguns for Carlson. Each one cost $14,000 to build, and could be sold for $240,000 apiece. Fox won’t say how much he earned, but according to a knowledgeable source, a minimum of $500,000 changed hands between Carlson and Fox. “I was receiving so much cash I didn’t know what to do with it,” Fox says.
Then, one afternoon in June 2016, “Ty shows up and says, ‘We got a problem,’ ” Fox recalls. A few days earlier, American border guards had stopped a vehicle attempting to cross into Mexico near Reynosa, and found a small arsenal of weapons in the back seat. The driver had been arrested, the guns and ammo seized, including components of one of the miniguns Fox had built.
According to Fox, it was the first he had heard anything about the guns being smuggled to Mexico. He calls drug traffickers “evil sons of bitches,” and says “never in a million years” would he have built the guns had he known they were being transported across the border. His family has “paid the price on drugs,” he says. When I ask the Foxes how Carlson could have gotten mixed up with such dangerous people, they both give me the same look. “Have you seen Ty?” Diane says. “Nobody messes with Ty,” says Fox.
Carlson, who was drunk when he showed up at the house, wanted Fox to keep his mouth shut about his role in the minigun scheme, and didn’t hesitate to threaten the older man. “Ty let it be known to me that with a couple of phone calls, there’d be two guys on an airplane,” Fox says. “Professional killers.” Carlson mentioned darkly that the driver of the vehicle “had been ratting everyone out like an idiot,” and had since turned up dead south of the Rio Grande.
Fox says he wasn’t intimidated. Both he and Diane had been police officers, and he had a vault full of semiautomatic weapons in the garage. He cut off all contact with Carlson, and says he has not spoken to him since. “He’s a con man,” says Fox. He and Diane didn’t let the boys out of the house for a while, and kept watch for strange cars. At the time, they were still hoping it would all blow over.
* * *
Though it gets far less attention than undocumented immigration or drug smuggling, running guns to Mexico is big business, a southbound black market worth hundreds of millions of dollars. According to the best estimates, gunrunners move 700 to 800 guns into Mexico every day — about a quarter-million guns every year.
“It’s a booming industry,” says Jack Riley, a retired DEA agent who tracked cartel boss Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán for 20 years. “To the cartels, smuggling guns and ammo across the border is just as important as cash coming back from the dope they sell. It’s something no one’s really talked about, and certainly the American people don’t know.”
The most striking thing about this black market is how few gunrunners are caught. Most of them are U.S. citizens, and in America there is no comprehensive federal law against firearms trafficking, making investigations difficult and the penalties relatively light, especially compared with smuggling drugs. Lawmakers have repeatedly introduced anti-trafficking bills in Congress, only to see them torpedoed by gun-industry lobbying. More generally, the National Rifle Association has spent decades successfully pushing for a legal environment in which gun owners are almost untouchable, giving hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign contributions to Republican politicians, and more than a few Democrats, who can be counted on to vote against any and all gun restrictions. As a result, there are more firearms in this country than there are people. Nearly 40,000 Americans died from gunshot wounds in 2017, the highest number since record-keeping began 50 years ago. A mass shooting takes place in America, on average, once a day.
What is less well known is that U.S. gun laws have also been a catastrophe for Mexico. Until relatively recently, Mexico had one of the lowest rates of gun ownership in the world. Very few firearms are manufactured in Mexico, and in general private citizens aren’t allowed to possess them. But since 2004, when the George W. Bush administration allowed the federal ban on assault rifles to expire, a flood of military-style weapons from Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona has equipped Mexico’s criminal class with firepower equivalent or superior to the army and police. The rate of gun ownership per capita in Mexico has increased by a factor of 10 over the past 15 years, and murders have surged in proportion. The deadliest year in Mexico’s recorded history was 2018, with 33,000 killings, almost all of them perpetrated by government security forces armed by U.S. weapons manufacturers, or by cartels armed by American gun smugglers. “For the first time in the last century, Mexican life expectancy is actually declining,” says David Pérez Esparza, Mexico’s newly appointed information minister. “Probably we are the ones who should build a wall.”
Pérez tells me that in 2004 Mexico had the lowest number of homicides in its recorded history. In those days, the cartels were underground smuggling syndicates in the mold of the Italian Mafia, content to bribe officials and carry out hits on rivals while mostly leaving innocent people in peace. But the increased availability of military-grade guns coincided with the rise of a new breed of paramilitary cartel, led by Los Zetas, a group of special-forces veterans who used their elite training to take over all forms of crime in northeastern Mexico. “To do what these criminal organizations do, you need high-powered, lethal weapons,” Pérez says.
The number of homicides committed with a firearm doubled, then tripled, and had quadrupled by 2012, as the military failed to beat back the insurgent criminal militias that developed in the Zetas’ mold. The bloody cycle of street battles and executions has left a staggering number of innocent people dead, the countryside pitted with mass graves. The overall death toll is in the realm of 200,000, making the ongoing cartel wars the second-deadliest conflict of the 21st century, and one of the most traumatic eras in Mexican history. Pérez, who studied the illegal-arms trade at University College London before joining Mexico’s government, doesn’t deny that other factors, including the failed War on Drugs and the notorious corruption of the Mexican police, have contributed to the crisis. Still, “it would be impossible to imagine this scenario without American guns,” he says.
Pérez’s office collects detailed confiscation data from every city and state in Mexico. “More interesting than the numbers,” he says, “is that when you ask traffickers why they are not using the ports, why they are not using the border with Guatemala, their response is basically, ‘Because I’m not stupid. Why will I buy a Chinese gun that is more expensive and not as good as the American ones, or why will I buy a gun from Central America that is 40 years old, when I can go to Walmart, or I can go to a gun show in McAllen, and buy as many guns as I want, new guns, the best, with no questions asked?’ ”
The estimated 250,000 guns smuggled into Mexico every year are only a fraction of the millions sold annually in America, but the black market has an outsize impact on the southern border, where gun stores are concentrated. A 2013 University of San Diego study found that nearly half of all gun stores in the United States would go out of business were it not for the sales boost provided by the carnage in Mexico. “It gives you some idea of the gravitational pull,” says Topher McDougal, the study’s lead author.
Smugglers usually farm out the acquisition of firearms to “straw buyers,” who get paid something like a hundred bucks to go into a gun store and buy one in their own name. “Gunrunners are very well organized,” says Michael Bouchard, formerly an agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and now president of the ATF Association. “They have specific people who handle each of these activities. They rely on anybody they can find to buy guns for them. They’ll buy three at a time and hold them at their house for a while to see if anyone comes knocking. If they get caught selling to someone, they can say, ‘I just needed some cash. I don’t need a license. I’m selling part of my collection.’ Even if they get stopped on the way to Mexico, they can say, ‘I wasn’t going to cross.’ It’s a cat-and-mouse game, and it’s more than any one agency can handle.”
Smugglers also traffic in military paraphernalia of the kind sold in sporting-goods stores across the Southwest. “Scopes, magazines, camo uniforms, knee pads, elbow pads,” says Jerry Robinette, the former special agent in charge of the Texas border region for the Department of Homeland Security’s investigative arm, HSI. “All the things you need to arm these paramilitary cartels.” There’s no end to the ways gunrunners have of hiding their illicit merchandise, he says: “Trucks with an inside and an outer shell. An inner and an outer fender. A flatbed with a false bottom, holding 15 or 20 guns. They’ll hide them inside oil pans, inside manifolds, inside tankers, in the bilge — no one wants to look in there because it’s so fricking nasty.”
Mexico has the primary responsibility of stopping guns from entering its territory, but at many ports of entry, vehicles coming from the U.S. are simply waved through without even slowing to a stop, owing to the volume of traffic under the North American Free Trade Agreement. The personnel that would be needed to search the hundreds of thousands of cars and trucks and buses and trains doesn’t exist, especially in northern Mexico, where unprecedented violence has stretched state resources thin. The Mexican military seizes tens of thousands of American weapons, but only after battles and raids, when the damage has already been done.
American border guards do try to stop guns from entering Mexico, but U.S. Customs and Border Protection is primarily focused on stopping drugs moving north and with seizing drug money, which the agency gets to keep. Every year, CBP releases a report touting its seizures of narcotics and currency, but conspicuously absent from the reports are statistics on firearms. “The structural restriction of information the gun lobby has been able to achieve at almost every level of government is unbelievable,” says Kris Brown, co-president of the Brady Campaign. “No other industry in the United States is protected from the facts in the same way.” Indeed, some agencies, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are forbidden from even studying the social and health effects of guns, thanks to industry lobbying. When I finally manage to pry the border-seizure numbers loose through a Freedom of Information Act request, I can see why CBP isn’t bragging. American border guards seized a paltry 102 of the estimated quarter-million illegal guns that passed their checkpoints in 2018. The most confiscated in recent years was 242, in 2017. In 2016, the number was 86. In 2015, it was a mere 50. Pérez laughs when I read him the figures. “That’s like what the Mexican army can confiscate on a daily basis,” he says.
AT 9:40 P.M. on June 3rd, 2016, at the Anzalduas International Bridge south of Mission, Texas, CBP agents waved a black GMC Canyon pickup into a secondary screening area illuminated by powerful halogen lights. The driver, a 21-year-old dual citizen named Luis Solis, must have known right away that he was busted. Barely concealed in the back seat were four semiautomatic pistols, 15 AK-47s, 4,000 rounds of 7.62 ammunition, and 32 high-capacity magazines. All of the weapons had their serial numbers obliterated. The border guards also found a big military-style battery with a heavy-duty electric cable. It was the power supply for one of the miniguns that Fox had built.
“At first we were trying to figure out what it was,” says Duane Cottrell, the lead HSI officer on the team of federal agents assigned to the case. The officers suspected the work of a major gunrunning cell. They found the minigun parts especially worrisome. “I’ve never seen anything comparable to miniguns at the border,” says Mike Weddell, who led ATF’s side of the investigation. “It’s a mass-casualty weapon.”
Solis was just a student who had been paid $600 to drive the truck across the bridge, and knew little about the people who had hired him. But an informant pointed investigators to a house in McAllen where the cache of weapons had been stored prior to transit. Parked out front was a vehicle belonging to a 35-year-old U.S. Army veteran named Jorge Quintero, described as a big, tall pelon — Spanish for a man with a shaved head — whom the informant had identified as a heavyweight gunrunner.
According to Cottrell, Quintero was the ringleader of a gunrunning cell centered in McAllen that reached as far north as Dallas. “Quintero was the main coordinator,” Cottrell says. “The head of the trafficking organization. He would take purchase orders from his people in Mexico, who were associates or members of the Gulf Cartel. He would then coordinate the purchase of weapons through straw buyers. Then he would coordinate the smuggling to Mexico.”
Cottrell says that Quintero admitted, under interrogation, to selling three miniguns to three separate Gulf Cartel captains.
Though now badly fractured, the Gulf Cartel is the original Mexican crime syndicate, with roots going back to the Prohibition era. “The company,” as it’s known locally, is involved in all kinds of illicit activity but mostly profits from drug trafficking, oil-and-gas theft, and human smuggling. It’s a gangster capitalist enterprise with probable revenues in the hundreds of millions of dollars, equipped with armored vehicles, underground bunkers, its own network of cellular towers, and a small army of lookouts and spies, in addition to platoons of assassins.
The Gulf Cartel’s home base is Matamoros, situated on the mouth of the Rio Grande in the state of Tamaulipas, a hot, green, muggy coastal region south of Texas. At the border crossing with Brownsville, every Mexican vehicle with commercial cargo has to pay a tax, or piso, on the goods. “When I first got into business, I didn’t know about the piso,” an oilman from Matamoros tells me. “The company kidnapped four of my drivers and $500,000 worth of product. They brought one of the guys to my office with a hood on his head and his hands bound and threatened to shoot him right there. I paid $15,000 for each employee, $60,000 total, and they let them go.”
The Gulf Cartel has been at war with the notoriously violent Los Zetas since the two organizations split nearly 10 years ago. Recently, both the Gulf Cartel and what’s left of Los Zetas have badly splintered internally, warring especially fiercely over Reynosa, which has become one of the most murderous cities in the world. All criminal factions are also at war with the Mexican marine corps, which has been deployed to Tamaulipas for nearly a decade. Not surprisingly, the state is probably the largest consumer market for illegal guns in all of Mexico. “Ta-ta-ta-Tamaulipas,” people call it, imitating the sound of an assault rifle. It’s all made possible by a steady supply of military-grade guns and ammo from Texas.
To the agents investigating him, Quintero fit the profile of a cartel-connected gunrunner. He was born and raised in Reynosa, and became an American citizen by serving 10 years in the U.S. military. Cottrell and Weddell say they didn’t profile him for being a veteran, but there is evidence that Mexican drug-trafficking organizations actively recruit American servicemen, and several ex-soldiers have been arrested for gunrunning in recent years, including two California National Guardsmen who were caught stealing from an armory, and an Army recruiter in San Antonio who funneled dozens of assault rifles to the Gulf Cartel.
It had been three months since Solis’ arrest, and the feds were still keeping an eye on Quintero when ATF got a tip: A Mexican national known as Saul was set to buy a sniper rifle from Quintero’s 51-year-old uncle, Alfredo Arguelles. Unbeknownst to Saul and Arguelles, their go-between was an informant. ATF set up a sting operation for the morning of September 7th. As a team of federal agents watched from a distance, Arguelles pulled his white Ford Expedition into a parking lot on the corner of Daffodil and Ware in McAllen, where the informant was waiting for him. A large black parcel changed hands. Inside was a Barrett sniper rifle, an extremely powerful weapon that fires a .50-caliber round the size of a carrot. “I personally made sure it was clean,” Arguelles said. “I put gloves on and wiped it down with oil myself.”
Invented by a Tennessee businessman named Ronnie Barrett in the 1980s and made exclusively by his company, Barrett Firearms Manufacturing, the .50-caliber is one of the most popular weapons among Mexican cartel fighters, surpassed only by the ere quince, or AR-15, and the cuerno de chivo, or AK-47. In the U.S. military, the awesome power of the Barrett is the stuff of legend. It can shoot through a wall of concrete block as if it were made of sheetrock, and has a range of more than a mile. Incredibly, this weapon is unrestricted for civilian ownership in the United States. You can buy one in cash, with no paperwork whatsoever, without breaking any laws. You can own as many as you like.
Arguelles, however, was a Mexican citizen who had overstayed a visa, and foreigners, like felons, are banned from owning firearms in the U.S. Arguelles was arrested, and the ATF agents were able to trace the Barrett to a local gun store, where Quintero had purchased it in his own name. It was enough to arrest him too. He was led away in handcuffs the next time he tried to cross the border. He would plead guilty to “unlawfully disposing of a firearm to an alien under a non-immigrant visa.”
When I reach Quintero by phone at the federal penitentiary in Beaumont, where he’s serving a nearly six-year sentence, he denies being the major gunrunner depicted by Cottrell. “I didn’t even know there was a ring,” he says. “Now I’m supposed to be the leader? I didn’t know I had, like, subjects and shit.” He won’t say anything specific about his case because the call is being recorded, but he tells me he did tours in Iraq and Afghanistan as a Black Hawk crew chief. That is precisely the military occupational specialty that would have given him maximum training on the M-134 minigun. Still, he insinuates a police conspiracy against him. “The federal government is corrupt as shit,” he says before hanging up. “These motherfuckers are dirty.”
Weddell says that cases like these are more complicated and time-consuming for law enforcement than they should be. “A firearms-trafficking bill is what we need more than anything else,” he says. “It would narrow things down to where we’re not looking for technicalities, paperwork violations, that don’t go to the merit of what we’re actually investigating. Not hanging cases on pieces of other statutes that we patch together.” Indeed, neither Solis nor Arguelles nor Quintero was convicted of smuggling, though that’s the activity that brought them to the attention of police. Solis was convicted for the essentially regulatory crime of not having a State Department export license and sentenced to two years in prison (contrary to what Carlson told Fox, he was not killed in Mexico). Arguelles pleaded guilty to an immigration-based offense, being an “alien in possession of a firearm,” and sentenced to 26 months in prison. The best prosecutors did was to oblige Quintero to sign an “acceptance of responsibility,” in which he acknowledged, “I knew the weapons were going out of the USA to Mexico.”
“The current laws against gun trafficking are absolutely worthless,” says Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), who introduced an anti-trafficking bill in the House of Representatives. The proposed law, H.R. 1670, would increase the penalty for straw purchasing and make it a federal crime to buy a firearm with the intent to deliver it to someone prohibited from owning one. The crucial word there is “intent.” Under current law, there is no statute under which police can take action, such as obtaining a warrant, if people are merely stockpiling guns and ammo, even if there are clear indications that they intend to smuggle them to Mexico.
“Say an informant tells you people are going into Mike’s Gun Shop and buying 10 AR-15s at a time, and you see a fair amount of them turning up in Mexico,” the ATF’s Bouchard says. “You can follow people back to their house and watch them unload 10 long guns into the garage, but then what? Do you go knock on their door? If you don’t have a warrant, they’ll tell you to hit the road. If you want to sit and wait and see what they do, you’re going to have to sit on it 24 hours a day. If you see them driving to the border, you can reach out to CBP, and they’ll make the stop based on reasonable suspicion. But until all that happens, you can’t stop the person.”
Maloney’s bill is one of a number of gun-control bills now on the legislative agenda, thanks to the new Democratic majority in the House. Most of the measures are concerned with limiting mass shootings here in America, but some of the regulations would also help tamp down on smuggling to Mexico. Rep. Norma Torres (D-Calif.), for instance, has sponsored a bill that would require purchases of multiple assault rifles to be automatically reported to ATF.
Such proposals, while massively popular, are almost certainly doomed in the Republican-controlled Senate. Even if passed by the Senate, the bills would likely be vetoed by President Trump, who took $30 million from the NRA in 2016. Among the many favors Trump has done for the gun industry, he has refused to appoint a director to the ATF, leaving the agency under acting deputy directorship, a status it often languishes in under Republican presidents.
“ATF is the bastard child of federal law enforcement,” says Robinette, the former HSI agent. “They’re understaffed. They have no resources. Their wings are clipped. It has to do with politics, lobbyists. Gun control is a toxic subject. But we’re not pro or against guns. We’re about illegal trafficking.” He points to a provision in the 1986 Firearm Owner’s Protection Act — the NRA’s signature legislative achievement — that prohibits the ATF from keeping an electronic database of gun sales, which makes the process of tracing weapons absurdly laborious.
“Say law enforcement wants to trace a Smith & Wesson that turned up at a crime scene in Mexico,” says Bouchard. “They send the make, model, and serial number to ATF’s National Tracing Center. It goes to a clerk who has to actually call Smith & Wesson and get someone on the line and give them the info. ‘Who’d you sell it to?’ ‘XYZ distributor.’ Now ATF has to call XYZ and get someone on the line. ‘Who’d you sell it to?’ ‘Mike’s Gun Shop in Texas.’ Now you have to call Mike and ask him to go through all his paper records, which could take days to a week.”
In the Quintero case, though, the agents had something more to go on: the minigun parts. Weddell says the team’s top priority was figuring out where such a powerful weapon had come from, and whether additional miniguns were bound for the border. They managed to trace the battery to Garwood Industries in Arizona, one of only two minigun manufacturers in the United States. But before they had identified Carlson or Fox, a break in the case came from perhaps the most obscure of all federal law-enforcement agencies, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. As it turns out, guns are less tightly regulated in America than money orders.
* * *
Back in 2015 when Carlson first approached Fox about building a minigun, he had already acquired a rotor, some barrels, and a power cable. “But he didn’t have the receiver housing,” Fox says. “That’s the part that’s registered,” the crucial component engraved with a serial number. Without it, the weapon can’t function, and Fox couldn’t fabricate one on his own. Enter Tracy Garwood, the graying, mustachioed, 63-year-old CEO of Garwood Industries, which sells miniguns to the U.S. military and NATO forces worldwide. (The other manufacturer, Dillon Aero, sells to the Mexican military.) Fox found Garwood’s number online, and after one phone conversation, they agreed to meet at Garwood’s headquarters in a nondescript office park on the periphery of suburban Phoenix.
The two men weren’t far apart in age and had a lot in common. They both loved guns and hated the Obama administration, and Garwood was having money troubles of his own. He had developed an improved minigun design with a lightweight titanium receiver, but the guns had been failing, costing him business with the U.S. government. “He was almost broke,” Fox says. “He couldn’t make his house payment.”
When Fox headed back to Texas, he was carrying with him two housing receivers with the serial numbers machined off, as well as detailed schematics. In exchange, Fox had given Garwood $50,000 in an ammo box. “He didn’t ask any questions about that,” Fox says. To cover his tracks, Garwood submitted paperwork to the ATF falsely stating that the components had been destroyed.
Fox made several trips back to Arizona during the following months, and used the materials from Garwood to build four miniguns for Carlson, who supplied all the money needed to acquire parts. Once a gun was complete, Fox and Carlson would take it out and test it. If it worked, Carlson would pay Fox a bonus of $25,000 and take possession of the weapon. Once, when loading a finished minigun into the back seat of his truck, Carlson mentioned that he had a long drive ahead of him, but Fox still claims not to have known that the miniguns were bound for Mexico. In January 2016, Carlson sent Fox another $50,000 in a FedEx envelope. “Don’t spend it all in one place,” he texted. What to do with all the cash was quickly becoming a problem for Fox.
A few months after Trump took office, the Justice Department ended an Obama-era initiative called Operation Choke Point, an anti-money-laundering program that discouraged banks from taking large deposits in cash from payday lenders, escort services, coin dealers, and other shady businesses. That gun dealers were added to the list was a bugbear for the gun lobby and right-wing press, which celebrated the program’s 2017 demise — but not before it tripped up Fox, and ultimately led to his arrest.
“The Obama regime in its infinite wisdom passed a law,” Fox says. “They didn’t want anyone in the gun and ammunition world to expand their horizon.” His wife explains: “If you go down to the bank and open an account, and say, ‘I’m going to bring you cash every day,’ if you tell them you’re a gun business, they won’t let you do it.” Turned away from Austin-area banks, Fox had to find another way of stashing the piles of cash accumulating in his house.
In late 2016, Tim McElligott, an HSI agent in Austin who specializes in financial investigations, got a call about Fox from a colleague at the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. “Fox was going to different post offices,” McElligott tells me, “sometimes four or five different post offices on the same day, and buying up money orders.”
“He was laundering hundreds of thousands of dollars,” says the postal inspector who first noticed the transactions and asked to remain anonymous because he wasn’t authorized to speak on the record. “Basically converting cash to money orders, then funneling them into investment accounts, backtracked with fake paperwork, to make it appear as though those funds were tied to invoices. I knew that Mr. Fox was a retired law-enforcement officer, and that he was a firearms-license holder. It began to develop into a picture. My belief was that he was likely engaged in underground firearms trafficking. That’s a common thing to see.”
According to prosecutors, Fox purchased a total of $272,000 in money orders. All of them were for less than $3,000, suggesting Fox was guilty of a federal crime known as structuring, or breaking a larger purchase into a series of smaller purchases so as not to have to show identification, intentionally keeping the funds anonymous. The U.S. attorney’s office in Austin greenlighted an investigation. They found large wire transfers to Garwood, who had already been flagged in the minigun-smuggling scheme because his company’s markings were on the battery seized on the Anzalduas bridge. Phone calls and text messages tied Fox to Carlson, who had also been flagged in an ATF database after an AK-47 purchased in his name had turned up at a crime scene in Mexico. At that point, “We were like, ‘OK, our suspicion was correct,’ ” McElligott says.
On February 8th, 2017, federal agents served a search warrant on Fox’s home. Had it been a drug case, a platoon of police commandos in body armor might have broken down the door and tossed a flash-bang grenade in the living room. But this was a gun case, and plainclothes agents politely knocked. “They came in real quiet,” Diane says. “They sat down at the dining-room table and said, ‘These are the issues, can we look around?’ Mike said, ‘Sure.’ ”
In the garage, the agents found a fully assembled minigun with an obliterated serial number, along with detailed schematics and a slew of minigun parts. Although Carlson had warned Fox to lay low after the Anzalduas seizure, Fox and Garwood had embarked on a joint venture of their own. The idea had been to build 10 more miniguns using Garwood’s access to parts and the money Fox made from Carlson. It’s not clear to whom they’d intended to sell the miniguns, but in order to drum up business, they’d gone to the 2016 SHOT Show, the firearms industry’s annual extravaganza in Las Vegas. “We made a bunch more contacts,” Fox says. “Even Saudi Arabia was sending a guy over to talk about 600 miniguns for their military. I took out all my retirement money, like $85,000, and gave Tracy another $100,000 on top of that. We were going big-time.”
Fox told much of this to the agents who searched his house. He basically admitted everything he’d done, as well as what he knew about Carlson and Garwood. “I hadn’t slept in two years,” Fox says. “It’s been hell just trying to hold everything together. Once they came to the door, that was the end of it.” The agents confiscated the minigun, but left without making an arrest.
More than six months passed and all three suspects remained free men. When Carlson learned he was under investigation, he fled to Mexico, but ATF agents called Mexican immigration authorities and he was deported to the U.S. for having an expired visa. He would eventually plead guilty to unlicensed possession of a machine gun, as well as conspiracy to export firearms without a State Department license — the same stopgap statute used to convict Solis. In November 2018, he was sentenced to nearly six years.
Cottrell described Carlson as Quintero’s “main man,” who oversaw a network of straw buyers that spanned the state of Texas, but it’s unclear how a kid from Austin could have gotten into business with an organization as secretive and dangerous as the Gulf Cartel. “There was digital evidence that he sought this activity out,” says the postal inspector, who obtained Carlson’s phone records by subpoena. “He sought out gun trafficking. He was not approached by some mysterious person.”
When Carlson writes me from the federal prison in Bastrop, he doesn’t want to talk about the facts of his case, but he does offer some thoughts on the conflict in Mexico. His handwriting is extremely neat, his grammar and composition surprisingly formal. “I have spent time in Reynosa, Quecholac, Tepeaca, and Acatzingo,” he writes, referring to one of Mexico’s most perilous cities, and a string of insular little bandit towns in the state of Puebla. “I have been to San Martín Texmelucan many times, and I have traveled across Veracruz and Guanajuato. Personally, I believe the term ‘cartel’ is misused. Mexican crime syndicates don’t have a monopoly on anything, hence the current chaos and violence.” He goes on to say that the word cartel might better be applied to the United States government, for its monopoly on the “petro-dollar,” and that the bloodshed afflicting Mexico “stems from the so-called War on Drugs.” About that, he’s not wrong.
To date, there have been no media or law-enforcement reports of the Gulf Cartel or any other criminal organization making use of Fox’s miniguns, but in March 2019, Mexico’s National Commission on Human Rights released the results of an investigation into a gun battle that took place last year on a highway a few hours north of Reynosa along the Texas border. Mexican marines were taking heavy fire from a splinter element of Los Zetas and the Gulf Cartel, and called for helicopter backup. The Black Hawk — armed with a Dillon Aero minigun — took off from a military base in Reynosa. When the chopper arrived, the door gunner opened fire on a pickup that was driving past the marines’ position. In it was an innocent family, three of whom were slain in the whirring onslaught of bullets. In photos taken at the scene, the father and mother lie in the front seats, covered in blood and broken glass. The woman is still holding her four-year-old daughter, whose cranium has been impacted by a minigun round. In the back seat, a six-year-old girl lies facedown on the floorboard, her pink shirt and white sandals splattered with blood. It looks like she was trying to hide.
For Fox, the ending was anticlimactic. “I was never really arrested,” he says. “They just asked me to show up one day and get fingerprinted. I knew I was in deep shit then.” In July 2018, he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud the United States, based on his structuring of money orders. He was not convicted on any gun charges, but the facts of the minigun scheme weighed heavily against him in court. He was hoping to get probation, but the judge told him he didn’t deserve leniency because he had been a police officer and should have known better. Though he likes to gripe about Obama, Fox doesn’t blame his fate on liberals or gun control. “I did it,” he says. “I told everybody I did it. It was illegal. I get it.” In January 2019, he was sentenced to three years at the minimum-security penitentiary in Beaumont, but has not yet started serving time on account of complications from a recent foot surgery.
In April 2018, Garwood was allowed to turn himself in to U.S. marshals in Austin, and was released on bond. He was the only person involved in the case who refused to be interviewed, but he pleaded guilty to a single charge of conspiracy to unlawfully transfer machine guns. He got off with probation and a $50,000 fine.
Incredibly, both Fox and Garwood got to keep their federal firearms licenses. Both are still listed by the U.S. attorney general’s office as gun dealers in good standing. This may be because of a loophole buried in the applicable statute, obviously the handiwork of the gun lobby. Pursuant to Section 923(f)(4) of Chapter 18 of the United States Code, if a gun dealer is charged with a crime, ATF is “absolutely barred” from revoking his license if he is acquitted. At the same time, the statute gives ATF exactly one year from the time of indictment to initiate any revocation proceedings. So there’s no way of revoking a license if the court proceedings last more than a year, as is common. “We didn’t try to hold on to them,” Diane says, referring to her husband’s two licenses, including the one to possess machine guns. “Mike tried to give them the original copies. They kept saying, ‘We’ll get them from you next time.’ ”
As for the miniguns themselves, Cottrell and Weddell say that American authorities have no jurisdiction to reclaim them from Mexican territory. When I last speak to Quintero, I ask him where, in theory, he imagines they might be. “Who knows?” he says. “They could be anywhere.”