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As federal officers took their time searching Paul Giovanni de la Rosa's silver minivan, a steady stream of motorists passed by, unaware that anything beyond a routine inspection was happening at the side of the road.
They had no reason to suspect that the man waiting as the agents combed through his van was among what federal officials say is a growing number of American gunrunners who supply the rich bosses of the Mexican drug cartels with firearms they cannot obtain in their own country.
Each day this iron pipeline pumps 2,000 firearms into Mexico, into the hands of drug lords protecting a narcotics trade worth as much as $30 billion a year, Mexican officials say.
At the busy Laredo Port of Entry, most simply pass through, as de la Rosa had more than a dozen times before at the end of trips down Interstate 35 from Medford, Minn., to Mexico.
On this day, however, Nov. 16, 2009, de la Rosa's segment of the iron pipeline was about to go dry. From 2007 to the end of 2009, he had smuggled more than 100 guns into Mexico and received $70,000. But that was about to end.
It was a turn of events his parents would find unfathomable for a son who started out with such promise.
Looking back, Manuel de la Rosa recalled a moment of truth in his son's life nearly two decades ago that may have paved the way for his descent into gunrunning.
Minnesota was not yet on the map of his son's life. Paul de la Rosa was a talented young bullfighter in Mexico, with aspirations to become a legend. To those who knew him best, that notion did not seem beyond his grasp.
Fame and defeat
Born in Fairfax, Va., in 1973, Paul de la Rosa had been raised in a family to whom family was everything.
His mother's parents had worked at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico as diplomats. As a child, he lived for a while in Louisiana and California. After his parents separated, he returned to live with his father in Mexico City.
De la Rosa was 7 when his father, a bullfighter at the time, met an American university student from Minnesota who was studying in Mexico. Kathy de la Rosa became stepmother to Manuel's children. He was a strict father, teaching his children respect and manners and discipline.
Paul absorbed their doting instruction, his parents say. Even as a small boy, "Rivelino" -- his baptismal name -- was known as a nice child who made good decisions. "In reality, there is nothing of darkness in Paul's life," says his father.
When Paul was 13 or 14, his grandfather began teaching him to be a bullfighter "behind our backs," Manuel said. But he didn't really mind. With no small amount of pride, Manuel de la Rosa says of his son: "He was very good." Still, his father made him work hard to earn the ears or tail of the bull that signified a stellar performance in the ring.
For seven years -- the last two as a professional -- he plied the art of his father and his grandfather with skill and flair, winning fans and acclaim in the bullring. At 19 or 20, he went to Spain to fight. He returned to perform before screaming crowds in Mexico City at the famous Plaza Mexico.
He met and married a beautiful young woman from a well-to-do Mexican family. He and Brenda de la Rosa had a son. The entire extended family lived together in Texcoco, near Mexico City.
Then came his chance for greatness. He was scheduled to fight on the same program as the bullfighting sensation "El Juli" -- an opportunity to display similar prowess in the ring. Showmanship is everything in bullfighting, so de la Rosa had to prove he could fight the bull with great panache that day.
But poised on the brink of glamour and fortune, he fell short. His performance was off, failing to catapult him to the top ranks of bullfighting. There would be no more ears, no more cheers, no more stardom.
"Paul was not successful that day -- the moment of truth," Manuel de la Rosa said, shaking his head. "If he would have triumphed that day, things would have been completely different."
Brushing so close to celebrity and wealth would leave de la Rosa with a hunger for living well that would be hard to satisfy in more workaday jobs -- and willing to attempt a more risky venture.
A fresh start in Minnesota
De la Rosa drifted for a while. Then, in the summer of 1999, de la Rosa accompanied two sisters to Minnesota, so they would not be alone.
He found work at a nursing home and sent for his family. He attended technical college and added a second job.
But nothing he found in Minnesota equaled the life of a bullfighter. Six years ago, Manuel said, his son told him he wanted to return to Mexico as a matador.
His father's reply was blunt: "You are 15 kilos overweight, have four children and a bad knee," Manuel said. "Those days have passed you by."
Paul tried his hand at owning a restaurant in Waseca. Bankruptcy followed. He took a job at a furniture and flooring store. Then he drove truck for a moving company.
Manuel and Kathy de la Rosa had started a business in Waseca exporting cars to Mexico. A few years later, Paul also began buying cars and transporting them.
He and his wife bought a home in Medford in 2006 and settled in to raise their children. At Christmas and in the summer, they took regular trips to stay with Brenda's family in Mexico City.
What his parents didn't know was that their son had begun smuggling guns to Mexico -- hidden in the vehicles and other merchandise.
His father says he first learned of Paul's gun smuggling when his son was arrested at Laredo. Border agents found the couch in the back of his silver Town & Country minivan, crammed with 14 firearms and 200 rounds of ammunition.
Even then, his parents could not believe it. They did not accept that it was true until they heard their son admit to it in court and plead guilty.
His parents say it still is hard to reconcile the good boy, the good husband, the good father their son is with the gunrunner he has admitted to becoming.
They are torn between knowing their son must be held accountable for his crimes and hoping the judge takes his goodness into account when Paul is sentenced. Tears welling in his eyes, Manuel de la Rosa says the reasons Paul's life followed this path are a mystery to him.
"God knows why things happen," is all he can say.
COMING TUESDAY: Federal agents close in.
James Walsh • 612-673-7428
A Minnesota gunrunner on the Iron Pipeline.
A life of promise turns sour.
The feds close in.
How guns from Minnesota translate to violence in Mexico.