By Jim Forsyth
SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - Nine Texas men and women have been sentenced to prison for purchasing firearms 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 purchasers were paid a couple of hundred dollars to buy a weapon and hand it to a smuggler.
"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.
"The consequences of that smuggling can be seen every day in the murders which take place south of the border."
Los Zetas, which is led by Mexican Army deserters who started as enforcers for Mexico's Gulf Cartel and later branched out on their own, is blamed for much of the violence in Mexico.
More than 45,000 people have died in drug-related violence since Mexican President Felipe Calderon launched an army-led crackdown on the cartels after taking office in late 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 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.
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 and Xavier Briand)