Guns, drug cartels, federal agents and the apocalypse collide in a Deming firearms store
It was an overcast winter day when Mexican President Felipe Calderón stood at the main international crossing in Ciudad Juárez and unveiled a massive sign aimed at the U.S. side of the border. It made for a dramatic photo opportunity. A white sheet billowed behind billboard-sized letters fashioned from the twisted remains of guns that Calderón said were confiscated by law enforcement. They spelled out the words “No More Weapons.”
At that time, violence attributed to drug cartels had claimed more than 47,515 lives in Mexico, according to government estimates. The bloodshed, said Calderón, could not be stanched until the neighbor to the north adequately addressed its contributions to it. He cited the U.S.’s voracious demand for illegal drugs and unrestrained market for assault weapons that eventually fall into the hands of Mexican drug cartels.
The next day, on Feb. 17, Jeff Knox issued a different rallying cry. The gun lobby activist and director of the Virginia-based Firearms Coalition called on 4,000 individual and organizational supporters to contribute to the cause of the Reeses in Deming, N.M. Rick Reese, his wife, Terri, and their two sons, Ryin and Remington, had all worked in the family’s New Deal Shooting Sports store. And in August last year, they were all arrested on multiple counts of conspiracy, false statements, gun smuggling and money laundering.
Federal agents seized their 85-acre property and everything on it. U.S. Department of Justice prosecutors alleged that the family had sold guns and ammunition knowing they were destined for Mexican drug cartels.
It was crucial that Second Amendment supporters get active on the family’s behalf, wrote Knox, because their case represented a gross miscarriage of justice. He pointed out that at the same time that federal officials were ducking accountability for the failed Operation Fast and Furious in neighboring Arizona, U.S. attorneys were fighting to keep the Reeses in jail for crimes they hadn’t yet been convicted of.
Fast and Furious on Trial
The Reeses’ trial opened last month in Judge Robert Brack’s U.S. District Court room in Las Cruces with a lot at stake on both sides. Convictions would make a sizable notch in the belt of prosecutors. Their case has revolved around sworn testimony from multiple informants with ties to the Juárez Cartel, months of undercover investigation, and secret recordings of the Reeses purportedly making illegal sales to undercover agents.
Guilty verdicts would also support a separate civil case that would forfeit the Reeses’ property in Deming to the federal government, including 85 acres of real estate (shooting range and all), more than 1,400 firearms, nearly 2 million rounds of ammunition, about $117,500 in funds (mostly cash), and $117,823 in gold and silver coins.
The Reeses, meanwhile, have retained a team of five prominent defense attorneys. Robert Gorence is himself a former U.S. Justice prosecutor. Another is Pete Domenici Jr., the son of the senator who helped get Judge Brack appointed to his spot on the bench.
In a detailed pre-trial motion, the defense team echoed the indignation of gun activists like Knox. Their argument, as articulated at one point by Ryin Reese’s attorney, Jason Bowles: The government’s investigation of the family was connected to Operation Fast and Furious and therefore amounted to “excessive governmental involvement in the creation of a crime.”
Operation Fast and Furious was a political flash point from the moment it was revealed that ATF agents overseeing the gunrunning sting had allowed illegally obtained guns to “walk,” or cross into Mexico. And like Operation Fast and Furious, the Reeses’ story quickly became politicized. Their case also allegedly involved “straw purchases” of guns—illegal sales where the actual buyers (who can’t pass a criminal background check or don’t want their names tied to the transaction) find someone else to buy for them.
Special Agent William Newell oversaw operations for the ATF in Arizona and New Mexico at the time Operation Fast and Furious was underway, the Reeses’ defense attorneys pointed out. And under Operation Fast and Furious, the government had not only instructed gun dealers to carry out sales to people they suspected might be straw buyers, but had ultimately allowed those guns to “walk” into Mexico—and into the hands of violent cartel members.
In the Reeses’ case, their lawyers argued, charges should be dismissed. They contended that undercover government agents had posed as straw buyers, lied on official paperwork and entrapped the family for doing exactly what other agents under Newell’s command in Arizona had instructed gun dealers to do: complete gun sales to suspected straw buyers as long as their paperwork checked out.
Judge Brack, a conservative judge known for quoting from the Bible during sentencings, discarded their arguments outright. “No one in this country is defending Fast and Furious,” he told the crowded table of defendants and their lawyers. “But there’s no evidence that guns were allowed to ‘walk’ in this case, and if there isn’t a link, we need to move past it.”
As the trial opened, the defense switched tactics. They took pains to illustrate what they said was the true nature of the prosecution’s key witness. Jose Roman-Jurado, a Mexican national with legal resident visa status, had gotten caught trafficking marijuana and assault weapons for the violent enforcement arm of the Juárez Cartel. He was, the Reeses’ defense team assured the jury, a convicted criminal intent on lying about the Reeses in order to protect himself.
Caught in the Crosshairs
Taking in all the action from the courtroom gallery (and, by extension, the blogosphere) has been a shifting array of Reese supporters. Among them is Bev Courtney, a licensed firearms instructor and founder of Las Cruces’ American Gun Culture Club. Courtney met the Reeses after their store was recommended, and the family impressed her. “Sometimes gun shop owners have a disrespectful attitude. They weren’t like that.”
After their arrest, Courtney helped raise money for the family’s defense fund. She also sent a mass email to all of her gun club contacts.
“I wrote, In light of Fast and Furious and what the feds are doing there, it makes you wonder who’s really breaking the law,” says Courtney. “Boy, I really got a response from that. And then people started forwarding it out.”
The ATF has been on her radar for years, she says—ever since confrontations between the government and armed citizens at Waco and Ruby Ridge. The prosecution of the Reeses, Courtney says, is another example of the feds’ unconstitutional attempts to interfere with gun sales and ownership. “The government seems pitted against its own citizens,” she says. For her, it amplifies a burning question: “Why is the federal government against guns among the population when they’re part of our heritage, our freedom, our safety and security?”
Those issues were all jockeying for top positioning in Rick Reese’s consciousness when Bob Venners published a profile about him back in 2005. In a photograph accompanying the story, Rick is sporting dark glasses out on his sun-baked shooting range, his prematurely white hair stark against the sky. His handgun is confidently raised toward some unseen target in the distance. Venners, who has since moved from Deming to Michigan, says via phone that he was shocked to get word that the family had been arrested.
“Rick was very patriotic. That’s what struck me,” says Venners. “Never tearing down the government, per se. It was usually the ATF that he had problems with. They just hassled him to no end, and he had lots of bad things to say about them,” he says. “I think he felt that they were trying to shut down all of the gun shops in the country and infringe on his Second Amendment rights, and his livelihood. That really got him going.”
At the time when Venners was a regular customer, levels of violence in Mexico were starting to ratchet up and business at New Deal Shooting Sports was steady. Venners describes the shop as a hub for community activity and spirited debates. Terri and the boys usually helped out behind the counter while Rick chatted with customers. One day you might stop in to find state troopers discussing the inventory with a couple of border patrol agents, says Venners, while another day you might run into boar hunters stocking up on ammo.
Rick readily engaged in any discussion about politics. He also didn’t hesitate to hold forth on what some would consider a fringe perspective: He feared the impending collapse of society as we know it.
Venners’ article about Rick in the Desert Sun is titled “Is the Sky Really Falling?” In it, Rick outlines his predictions for the encroaching end-times, which might involve deadly pandemics and natural disasters.
“Far more likely, however, Reese argues, would be the disaster brought on by a meltdown of world confidence in the American economy,” writes Venners, paraphrasing the gun store owner. “This in turn would trigger a banking crisis, worldwide monetary instability, out-of-control inflation and a weakening of the American dollar. Bank closings, riots and civil unrest would mark the beginning of a wholesale slide into anarchy.”
Rick’s theories about the collapse of economic systems were pretty on target, Venners says today. “And I’ll be honest, when I wrote that piece, I had ulterior motives of getting him to talk about his survivalist stuff. He was really wary of talking about it. I don’t blame him, especially now.”
Indeed, driving down the washboard road that runs along the Reeses’ property six miles southeast of the Deming town center, what some might view as fringe survivalism and paranoia don’t seem so out of place. The border stretches 30 miles south along the horizon of a vast desert expanse. Juts of rock in the mountain range looming to the east look like bared teeth. The cloudless sky, the stares of passing drivers and the heat are severe.
Venners says Rick’s demeanor in his store would change from chatty to hyper-vigilant the moment he suspected a browsing customer was from the other side of the border.
“He wouldn’t talk then, because his and wife’s eyes had to be on them at all times. He told me, When those guys come into the shop, I’m so glad that the state police or the local police or the Border Patrol are there too, because all they’d have to do was pull a gun and they could take everything.” Venners pauses. “He was very afraid of that.”
It’s not clear whether Rick instilled that same level of caution in his other family members. The undercover informant and agents focused most of their investigative attention on Remington and Ryin, who were 19 and 24 years old, respectively, at the time of their arrest. They were both charged with more counts of criminal activity than either of their parents. Rick received just three of the 28 total felony counts the Department of Justice leveled at his family.
Shots in the Dark
The Reeses’ case has inflamed gun rights advocates and gun store owners nationwide, but federally licensed firearms dealers along the border are keeping an especially close eye on the outcome, says Robert Chall, owner of New Mexico Guns in Albuquerque. He says that while the ATF agents he’s dealt with have been professional and helpful, keeping his business in operation within the parameters of federal laws is a constant challenge.
The fact that undocumented immigrants can legally obtain state-issued driver’s licenses in New Mexico is a major source of stress, Chall says. If a license matches information a buyer provides on the ATF’s official firearms transaction record form and their federal criminal background check comes back clean, it’s legal for him to complete the sale. “But what if they have never been arrested under the name on their license?” asks Chall. “We have absolutely no way of determining whether they really are who they say they are—none.”
Chall says he’s also concerned that new federal mandates for tracking sales of long guns, such as high-powered assault rifles, violate the Second Amendment. “We’ve been forced to provide information for two or more long gun purchases in a 14-day period, which constitutes registration,” he says.
Targeting dealers as the source of the massive volume of arms possessed by Mexican cartels is “totally bullshit,” Chall adds. “Excuse my French. But those cartels have billions of dollars at their disposal. Are they really going into mom-and-pop stores in the United State and buying guns in one- or two-piece increments?”
Chall isn’t the only one with competing theories about where cartels have been getting their guns.
A piece published by CBS News counted 18,709 guns in 2009 alone that were approved by the State Department for “direct commercial sale” from U.S. arms manufacturers to the Mexican government, despite a lack of mechanisms to track them.
And Mexico is now the largest new market for legal U.S. arms trades, according to a report published last month by the Center for International Policy.
“U.S.-subsidized weapons transfers topped $300 million in 2010 to a country that received little or no U.S. weaponry in the early 2000s,” the report says. “The cruel irony of this process is that it puts U.S. weapons on both sides of the conflict, as the cartels take advantage of loose gun laws to buy weapons in the U.S. even as Washington dramatically increases its weapons transfers to government forces.”
Further muddying the waters is the massive monetary and training aid the U.S. continues to grant Mexico—amid mounting evidence that the cartels have infiltrated every level of law enforcement and even the military.
Texas Public Safety Director Steven McCraw testified before the U.S. Committee on Oversight, Investigations and Management last August that Mexican cartels "incorporate reconnaissance networks, techniques and capabilities normally associated with military organizations.” That includes weaponry like rocket-propelled grenade launchers. And just two months ago, four previously high-ranking officers in the Mexican Army were arrested on suspicion of ties to the Beltrán-Leyva Cartel.
Meanwhile, closing arguments in the Reese family trial are expected to conclude this week. But what will the impact of their possible conviction and forfeiture of property be? Will it be heralded as a resounding response to Felipe Calderón’s macabre billboard?
No matter the outcome, the U.S. government in all of this strikes an odd resemblance to Rick Reese in that photo from 2005: Aggressively postured, full of bravado. But the true target of the confrontation has been cropped out of the picture; perhaps they’re both shooting into the wind.
By Elizabeth W. Hughes
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