At least one gun used by Nidal Malik Hasan at Fort Hood was an FN Herstal 5.7 semiautomatic—which also happens to be a weapon of choice for Mexican cartels who battle the military and police. It is a favorite weapon among straw purchasers in the United States, who buy guns that are then smuggled south of the border, fueling the violence there.
There is a common saying among law enforcement in Arizona: the people and drugs go north, the guns go south. Earlier this year, Special Agent in Charge of the ATF’s Phoenix office, William Newell, and fellow agent Thomas Mangan gave me a glimpse of their basement vaults, overflowing with guns nabbed by the AFT en route—illegally—to Mexico. The ATF estimates some 95% of guns recovered from criminal gangs in Mexico come from the U.S..
The cramped vaults hold hundreds of guns, some of them piled in garbage bins for future destruction. Newell pointed to a Barrett .50 caliber rifle on a tripod. "The cartels are an army. These are the kinds of guns you'd see in Afghanistan and Iraq," he said. The newest favorite weapon to ship south, Mangan said, is the FN Herstal 5.7 pistol. They’re small, with a fierce reputation. “In Mexico they’re called ‘Mata Policias’ or cop-killers,” said Mangan.
Why are these guns so popular with Mexican gangs? They can accommodate high capacity magazines, with extra rounds beyond the usual 20. And the stock ammunition “because of its shape, its geometry, is hot—there’s a lot of powder in the round,” said Mangan. “It’s state of the art and used by law enforcement and military. Who are the cartels engaging in battle? Law enforcement and military.”
Armor-piercing rounds for the FN are only sold to military and law enforcement personnel, said Mangan, and there are plenty of other pistols that use armor-piercing ammo. But the FN 5.7’s have a particularly notorious reputation. In the vault that day were about 45 recently seized FN 5.7 Herstals. “FN will say its stock ammunition ‘is not armor-piercing’ but we’ve done demos and it does pierce certain types of soft body armor,” said Mangan. (A company spokesperson said in an email that the 5.7 model “is often mischaracterized as a new firearm which shoots armor-piercing ammunition. To be clear: armor piercing ammunition can be shot from any firearm; however such ammunition has been illegal for Commercial sale since 1986 and is only available to Law Enforcement and Military.”)
Because of increased interdiction of the guns, the ATF in 2005 classified the FN 5.7 Herstal as a “weapon of choice” for cartels and criminal gangs, and along the southwest border over the past six months the agency has seized several hundred. The typical end user is more sophisticated than other buyers, said Mangan, willing to pay an average of $900 for the pistol.
The FN Herstals, as most guns headed to Mexico, are bought by “straw purchasers.” Someone buys the guns legally, fills out the forms, gets the background check, but makes the purchase on behalf of someone else, which is illegal. The buyer simply gets a small fee for making the transaction. "Thus it’s an illegal purchase, but not an illegal sale,” said Mangan.
Guns are flowing into Mexico every day, often in small batches. “They call it “traffico de hormigas" said Newell--ant-traffic. "Ants take little bits and pieces of what they need. But it's a constant stream."
A few miles from the ATF office is the Legendary Gun Shop, run by Dave LaRue. He knows how to spot straw purchasers. "We see people come in off the street, often women, buying a $1,800 gun but dressed like a day laborer." He says they often pay in $20 bills. "When I get $4,800 in twenties that usually tips me off." He stopped selling ammo for AK-47s “because everyone who bought it seemed to have those teardrops down their cheeks." LaRue says more than half of the suspicious purchasers who come to him are women, often tattoed and not knowledgeable about guns. He's now keeping the FN Herstals behind the counter because they are too popular among criminal elements. "I hate to be judgmental by judging a person by their appearance or nationality, but I had to take those ones off the shelf," he said.