Part 1: From southern Minnesota to Mexico

  • Article by: JAMES WALSH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 17, 2010 - 10:01 PM

In small-town Minnesota, folks knew him as the ex-bullfighter who was a family man, a soccer dad. What they didn't know was that he was buying firearms here and smuggling them into Mexico.

(First of four parts)

LAREDO, TEXAS

Paul Giovanni de la Rosa sat in his silver Town and Country minivan and waited to be waved through to Mexico. The outbound lanes on Lincoln Juarez Bridge No. 2 are almost always long -- 30,000 vehicles pass through this busy border crossing each day. But in trip after trip over three years, de la Rosa had no trouble getting through with appliances, furniture and clothing he brought from Minnesota.

Each time, he was asked at the Laredo Port of Entry whether he was transporting guns or ammunition or cash. Each time he said, "No." He had never been pulled over for a more rigorous inspection. Until now.

Just before noon, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer directed de la Rosa to the side of the road for a "secondary search" of the van, which had a sofa and luggage wedged in the back. De la Rosa was asked to step out and wait.

How had his life -- he was once a bullfighter of rising celebrity and now a small-town dad and soccer coach from Minnesota with a lovely family -- reached this precarious moment at the southern end of Interstate 35?

Federal agents have dubbed the route the Iron Pipeline, a conduit running from Minnesota and other states to Mexico along which guns are transported by the thousands each year to arm the drug lords responsible for the epic wave of violence that is engulfing towns south of the border.

In exchange, the cartels send drugs north -- cocaine, crack, meth -- where they spill out onto Twin Cities streets, an accelerant for gang violence and turf battles to divvy up the business.

The 36-year-old de la Rosa was an unlikely merchant in this deadly cross-border trade. The grandson of diplomats, he was born in the United States and raised by a family of stature and integrity.

Now his home was Medford, a community north of Owatonna, where he lived with his wife and kids in a modest split level. He and his wife were active at their children's school. To teachers and neighbors, Paul de la Rosa was that nice, involved dad who was away a lot on business.

But, in just a few minutes on this bridge in Texas, he was about to become known as something else.

What de la Rosa did not yet know was that U.S. Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) agents had been tracking his movements for two years, ever since a series of gun buys at Cabela's in Owatonna and Hart Bros. Weaponry in Albert Lea triggered their interest.

In the shade at the side of the bridge, a brown German shepherd named Aras waited in his kennel. Highly trained to sniff for guns and cash, the dog methodically worked his way through the contents of cars and vans where either could be concealed inside innocent-looking couches, dishwashers -- in just about anything.

When Aras smells something of interest to his handlers, he alerts them by simply sitting down.

Guns flow south

In the bloody drug wars terrorizing towns on the U.S.-Mexican border, guns from Minnesota and other states are the weapon of choice for the cartels.

The fact is, it's nearly impossible to get a gun legally in Mexico.

The country has some of the most restrictive gun-control laws anywhere. All privately owned guns must be registered with the Mexican military. There is only one gun store in the country, run by the military. In Nuevo Laredo, just across the Rio Grande from Laredo, carrying even a pocket knife is illegal.

Yet, the "narco-cartels" are fully armed and dangerous.

The ATF says that 90 percent of the guns recovered in Mexico and successfully traced -- more and more often "military grade" -- are from the United States.

The fighting for territory and trade by the drug cartels armed with those guns has killed nearly 23,000 Mexicans since 2006, when President Felipe Calderon began a crackdown against the gangs.

The violence has bloodied the streets of Nuevo Laredo. Five years ago, the police chief was gunned down in an ambush hours after being sworn in. Shortly after, the mayor fired half of the police force for alleged ties to the drug cartels.

The streets once bustled with tourists searching for trinkets and tequila bars. Now tourists are rare, with Mexican soldiers and marines patrolling every evening. Signs encouraging local residents to turn in crooked cops and politicians are posted everywhere.

Calderon's government has pleaded with U.S. officials to do more to stem the flow of arms across the border. The United States responded with more than $1.3 billion to aid the fight against the cartels, along with search dogs and high-tech equipment to beef up border inspections.

The search for guns and cash has become "a 24-7 job for us," said Gene Garza, Laredo port director for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

It was into that swirl of tensions that de la Rosa drove his van from Minnesota. As he waited, an X-ray truck slowly circled another line of vehicles pulled off the road for further inspection.

The checkpoint

Almost any part of a vehicle can hold caches of weapons, Customs and Border Patrol officers have learned.

They take their time in the search, peering under the hoods, knocking on side panels, checking for hidden compartments as vehicle owners and drivers stand waiting, just as de la Rosa was waiting now. They find guns secreted in all kinds of merchandise headed across the border, especially big, bulky items like that couch in de la Rosa's minivan.

Some officers lower scopes into gas tanks. Others use screwdrivers to remove air vents and radios, methodically disassembling potential hiding places. What the agents can't figure out, their search dogs find with their noses, sniffing eagerly and then suddenly sitting to signal that contraband is hidden somewhere.

The stakes for each van or car searched might seem small for the intensity the border agents bring to the effort. But to them each vehicle is a piece of a giant puzzle, a smuggling network that transports an untold number of guns to Mexico each year. The ATF believes there is no way to know how many guns are heading south, says Francesca Perot of the ATF's Houston Field Division. But Mexican officials have said at least 2,000 guns are smuggled across the border each day.

"The border is open and there are just too many ways," Perot said of the 19 ports of entry between the Gulf of Mexico and Eagle Pass in southern Texas alone. "All along the border, there are little ports where they can go through. And these people are smart. They have certain individuals who do this all the time."

Like street gangs in the United States, Perot said, the cartels "look for guys with no record" who look clean to buy their guns. Men like de la Rosa.

He had struggled recently to find anything approaching the kind of financial success he had nearly realized years ago in the bullfighting ring. In 2007 and 2008, de la Rosa and his wife claimed annual household incomes in Minnesota of only $25,000 and $26,000.

Running guns to Mexico, on the other hand, could net a successful smuggler tens of thousands of dollars in a year -- money that could pay for the trappings of a suburban lifestyle. It was the kind of money that could convince even a smart man that it might be worth the risk of getting caught.

The agents were ready for their secondary search of de la Rosa's minivan. The handler opened the kennel door and led the search dog, Aras, over to see what he could find.

The dog started his "sniff." In the back of the van, he focused his attention on that couch.

Then Aras sat.

James Walsh • 612-673-7428

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