By Jim Forsyth
SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - Nine Texas men and women have been sentenced to prison for purchasing weapons for Mexico's Los Zetas drug cartel, and a dozen others face charges linked to a Department of Justice probe into weapons trafficking, officials said on Wednesday.
U.S. Attorney Robert Pitman said that in many cases, the Texas purchasers were paid a couple hundred dollars for buying a weapon and handing it to a smuggler, he said.
"Firearms smugglers employ individuals in the United States with no criminal histories to purchase firearms, often assault-style weapons, and those weapons are then smuggled into Mexico," Pitman told reporters in San Antonio on Wednesday.
"The consequences of that smuggling can be seen every day in the murders which take place south of the border."
Los Zetas, which are led by Mexican Army deserters who started as enforcers for Mexico's Gulf Cartel and later branched out on their own, are blamed for much of the violence in Mexico, which is believed to have taken the lives of more than 40,000 Mexicans since President Felipe Calderon began an offensive against the cartels in 2006.
The 21 people indicted in the scheme are not typical drug gang suspects with violent criminal histories, said Crisanto Perez, a special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. He said most were otherwise law-abiding young adults who were tempted by "easy money."
There were originally 22 defendants, but one died since she was indicted in connection with the operation, which took place in the summer of 2010, officials said. Eight of the 22 people indicted were young housewives, Perez said.
"There are people out there from the criminal element who are trying to recruit our young people to be straw purchasers," Perez said. "One hundred dollars to buy a gun for someone is not worth ruining your life."
One straw purchaser bought one weapon while another bought 20, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Ben Seal.
The nine men and women sentenced so far have been handed federal prison terms of one to six years. The others face similar sentences if convicted.
The 203 weapons seized in the operation included handguns, AK-47 and AR-15 style assault rifles, and a .50 caliber sniper rifle. Pitman said all of the weapons were purchased legally from licensed dealers, and that if any of the dealers knew the buyers were buying for cartels, they would be charged.
"If the dealer doesn't know that this weapon is being purchased for someone else, and they follow the rules, there's not anything we can do about that," Pitman said, adding that many of the gun dealers tipped off investigators to purchases that seemed out of the ordinary.
Jerry Robinette of Immigration and Customs Enforcement said that squeezing off the straw purchasers was an effective way of cutting down on the violence in Mexico.
"That's where it starts," he said. "If you don't have straw purchasers, you don't have the guns to turn over to smugglers to get them into Mexico."
Seal said none of the guns in the operation were allowed to enter Mexico so they could be traced to cartel leaders, a tactic that has led to widespread criticism of the Justice Department's actions in the "Fast and Furious" gun-walking sting in Arizona.
In that operation, which ran from 2009 to 2011, U.S. government agents lost track of many of the weapons. A congressional panel is investigating Operation Fast and Furious, which was the subject of a heated hearing last week.
(Reporting By Jim Forsyth; Editing by Corrie MacLaggan)