A US national who received smuggled AR-15 parts in Mexico and assembled the weapons for two of the country's most violent cartels shows that such firearms, known as ghost guns, have the potential to become a part of cartel arsenals.
Andrew Scott Pierson, of Oklahoma, had parts for AR-15 weapons smuggled to his auto repair shop in the Mexico border city of Nuevo Laredo, where he converted them into functioning weapons used by the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación - CJNG) and the Northeast Cartel (Cartel del Noreste - CDN), according to a sentencing memo filed in a US federal court in Arkansas. Pierson received a 12-year prison sentence on April 20 for his role in the arms trafficking conspiracy, in which he ordered the firearm parts on the internet, had them delivered to Laredo, Texas, and then had them transported over the border.
When authorities raided Pierson's shop in 2018, they discovered a slew of parts and machinery used to manufacture and complete so-called ghost guns, including metal bending presses for assault rifle receivers and partly milled AR-15 and AK receivers.
The assault weapons even came with a counterfeit label of Colt, the top gun manufacturer in the US.
Weapons assembled in Mexico have been used in past cartel shootings. The CJNG gunmen in the dramatic 2020 assassination attempt of Mexico City Police Chief Omar Garcia Harfuch used some weapons that were built in-country, according to a March Milenio report in which officials with the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) were consulted.
More than two dozen gunmen ambushed Harfuch's armored vehicle, shooting at it more than 400 times with assault rifles and grenade launchers.
According to the Milenio report, the ATF said that Mexico's crime groups, including the CJNG, are sourcing weapons assembled in Mexico.
"In recent years we've found weapons that were made in Mexico and that were given US brand names to raise their value, but these are homemade," Timothy Sloan, the head of the ATF in Mexico, told Milenio.
Earlier in 2017, Milenio reported that seven homemade weapons were uncovered in the state of Michoacán. Each of them bore the pirated Colt logo.
InSight Crime Analysis
Ghost guns currently comprise a fraction of cartel weaponry. But Mexico can little afford to see a wave of ghost guns being assembled in the country, given increasing firepower and gun violence by crime groups.
Ghost guns have become synonymous with firearms that do not carry serial numbers and that are assembled from kits bought online. The critical component in their manufacture is an unfinished receiver, the lower piece of the weapon that contains the firing mechanism. Though the administration of President Joe Biden has promised to rein in the manufacture and sale of such parts, the receivers -- sometimes referred to as "80-percent receivers" -- are not considered firearms and are not subject to the same regulations. Minor modifications, however, can turn them into fully functioning weapons.
While most often bought online, ghost gun receivers can also be milled by people with the right equipment, such as a Ghost Gunner CNC machine that authorities found at Pierson's auto shop.
Nevertheless, Ioan Grillo, author of the book "Blood Gun Money," told InSight Crime that ghost guns only account for a small percentage of cartel weaponry.
While the weapons can only be traced back to a crime through ballistics analysis, they are still not the preferred option for organized crime groups in Mexico. According to Grillo, they remain a relatively unreliable choice when compared to tried and tested firearms manufactured in the US.
"There's no real need for them to do it right now," Grillo said of ghost guns being manufactured by cartels. The cartels "can still very easily buy assembled and serialized firearms from stores in the United States and bring them to Mexico."
The manufacture and assembly of weapons in Mexico is not a new phenomenon. Such weapons were discovered in 2014 in the CJNG's home state of Jalisco.
However, customization of rifles and grenade launchers to make them more lethal is much more common among cartels, Grillo explained. "A very common thing is to convert semi-automatic rifles to fully automatic rifles." Similarly, they maintain armories where grenade launchers can be adjusted to fire larger fragmentation grenades.