Special Agent Pete Vukovich walked up to the gun counter at Cabela's in Owatonna. All around him, people were shopping for firearms -- for hunting, for protection, for sport. There was even a room for vintage firearms.
Vukovich was seeking information about a frequent customer whose buying habits didn't feel right.
Employees there had told agents with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) that over the past year or so, Paul Giovanni de la Rosa had bought 31 firearms on 12 occasions. Nine times he had paid with cash -- from $588.48 to $2,268.32 per visit.
Agents spent two years employing every device at hand to understand how de la Rosa might fit into the growing trade of people legally buying guns in the United States and illegally smuggling them to powerful drug cartels in Mexico.
"These guns are not just coming from Texas and Arizona," said Bernard Zapor, special agent in charge of the ATF's St. Paul Field Division. "They're coming from places like Minnesota and Colorado."
It was a gun purchased from that Owatonna Cabela's that would flag the ATF that de la Rosa was part of what they had begun to refer to as the Iron Pipeline, where guns were sent south and drugs and cash were sent north in return. The gun he bought in Cabela's on Nov. 5, 2007, would be recovered by Mexican authorities two months later and traced back to him by the ATF.
For two years, de la Rosa would be a rare window into that "gray market" for the ATF agents. The agents would track him through the paperwork required during gun purchases. They would persuade a judge to let them trace his cell phone signal. They would get another judge to let them intercept his phone calls.
A shadowy network fueling so much violence in Mexico and the United States was about to come into focus.
A childhood friend
Laredo was de la Rosa's border crossing of choice.
From June 2007 through November 2009, he drove back and forth through there at least 20 times. He was never stopped.
With 30,000 cars streaming through the Laredo crossing each day, de la Rosa was willing to gamble that he would not be among the unlucky stopped randomly for extra scrutiny.
There was nothing about him to arouse suspicion. He was clean-cut and dressed "business casual," one gun store owner said. On his last trip, he was driving a 2000 silver Chrysler Town & Country minivan.
In the span of two-plus years, de la Rosa would smuggle more than 100 firearms into Mexico, he would later admit.
His primary customer, he would tell the ATF, was a childhood friend named Arturo Chavez, who lives in Texcoco near Mexico City.
De la Rosa has refused interview requests, but court records and agents who pursued him describe a man under increasing financial pressure.
To Zapor, that is the heart of it: "It's the money that's compelling."
After a bit of the high life as a young matador in Mexico, he had seen what money could buy, but found little of it north of the border. He and his wife claimed a total household income of just $25,000 in 2007 and $26,000 in 2008. Their mortgage payments alone totaled $12,000 a year. Their car payments added another $5,000 a year. They had four children.
Yet, de la Rosa had spent $45,000 on firearms over nearly three years.
For the agents watching him, those numbers just didn't add up. That money had to be coming from somewhere, and they suspected they knew where.
Affidavits filed by David Carricker, an ATF special agent, say de la Rosa began buying guns in quantity about a year after he bought a house in May 2006. Chavez and others paid him $500 to $1,000 for every gun he smuggled into Mexico. In all, de la Rosa would receive about $70,000 over the years.
It's hard to buy that many guns without the ATF noticing. Federally licensed gun dealers must fill out ATF Form 3310.4 when someone buys two or more handguns in a five-day period -- alerting the ATF to people who might be trafficking firearms.
By March 18, 2009, agents persuaded a federal judge to sign an order allowing them to use de la Rosa's cell phone signal to track his travels. In October 2009, they upped the ante, asking another federal judge to allow them to intercept his calls. The judge agreed.
That's when the agents heard de la Rosa take gun orders from his Mexican customers.
Like any successful retail enterprise, running guns requires an inventory of merchandise, free-flowing cash, business travel.
De la Rosa amassed it all.
Forms from his gun purchases and Customs and Border Protection records show that in just the last six months of 2007, de la Rosa bought a total of seven guns on three trips to Hart Bros. Weaponry in Albert Lea, Minn. He bought 12 guns on various trips to Cabela's in Owatonna. He received a wire transfer from Mexico. On a November trip back to Minnesota from Mexico, he flew. On Dec. 12, 2007, he crossed back into the United States by car.
Records show de la Rosa was even busier in 2008 and 2009 as his business grew.
In 2008, he took at least six trips to Mexico, made at least 14 purchases totaling 30 firearms and received a wire transfer of $7,000 into his bank account from Mexico. In 2009, he was wired at least $22,000 from Mexico, bought at least 28 firearms and made multiple trips across the border.
Over the years, he bought 32 FN Herstal Five Seven, 5.7-millimeter pistols. They're popular with Mexican drug cartels because they use a rifle round with more "stopping" power, the ATF says. A bullet from one can rip through body armor.
Milan Hart, owner of Hart Bros. in Albert Lea, said he never asks his customers why they buy guns. He said he knows gun-loving, law-abiding folks who own 1,000 firearms or more. He said de la Rosa bought expensive guns -- the Five Seven sells for $1,000 or more. The PS90s cost $1,800 or more.
They can sell for five times that amount in Mexico.
What de la Rosa did not know was that ATF agents were watching his every move.
They had seen him stop at an appliance store to get a refrigerator/freezer -- right after buying two FN Herstal pistols at Cabela's before he left for Mexico.
They saw men in de la Rosa's driveway stripping insulation out of an RV -- days after he told a Mexican customer he would use the RV to make a delivery.
On the morning of Monday, Nov. 16, 2009, just hours before his minivan would be stopped at Lincoln Juarez Bridge No. 2 in Laredo, a federal judge in Minnesota signed another warrant -- authorizing agents to search him and his vehicle.
It was just before noon as de la Rosa's van crawled through traffic at the border. Everything seemed fine.
He drove through the first checkpoint. All was going as usual.
Then, at the second checkpoint, an officer waved him over. The secret enterprise and small-town life of Paul de la Rosa, Minnesota dad and gun runner, was about to crumble.
ATF agents had tracked him from Minnesota to Laredo. Officers asked him to step out of the van. They opened the back as an officer approached with the gun-sniffing dog, Aras. The dog sniffed and immediately sat down -- the signal to his handler that he had found something. Officers pulled what they said was a very heavy sofa from the van, ripped it open and found boxes of weapons.
They placed de la Rosa under arrest.
He has pleaded guilty to providing false information on firearms forms in connection to the case and awaits sentencing. According to the ATF, de la Rosa is the first Minnesotan caught running guns to Mexico on the Iron Pipeline.
He won't be the last, said Zapor, the special agent in charge from St. Paul: "Let's just say we're keeping an eye on some things."
James Walsh • 612-673-7428Coming Wednesday: How guns from Minnesota translate into violence in Mexico.
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.