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Georgia, Vt. Century International Arms
Excerpted from "Romanian Weapons Modified in the U.S. Become Scourge of Mexican Drug War," The Center for Public Integrity's February 2011 report.
Official logo of Century International Arms
The town of Georgia, Vt., is the manufacturing and warehouse hub of Century International Arms, headquartered in Florida. Founded in the 1960s and run for years by two brothers-in-law, William Sucher and Manny Weigensberg, Century has long been considered the largest importer of surplus firearms and accessories in North America -- and the Romanian-made WASR-10, a variant of an AK.
Today, Century advertises a broad assortment of rifles, including versions of classic guns originally from Poland, Czechoslovakia and Israel.
Importers like Century have a well-honed process for some of their guns.
They start with slimmed-down "sporting" versions of their foreign rifles that can pass the import test. Then, once the weapons are legally in the United States, a few foreign parts are replaced with American ones.
The alchemy yields a gun that -- at least according to regulations enforced by Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives [ATF or BATF] -- is American-made. It can then be loaded up with more features such as a high-capacity magazine and bayonet because under the law it is no longer an import.
Mark Barnes, an attorney in Washington who represents Century, said the closely held company had "elected not to comment" for this story.
Romarm SA, the state-owned arms and ammunition firm in Romania that supplies the weapons to Century, said its policies ensure that the arrangement comports with U.S. law.
"Century buys guns destined for the civilian market, guns which are based on the well known military models known by Century’s clients," the company said in a statement. "The guns are modified in accordance with the severe legislation in the U.S.; these models were approved by the specific institution in the U.S. that monitors all the imports of guns and ammunition."
Century is not the only importer selling a high-powered rifle from abroad that, as altered, would be barred under the import laws. The PS 90 made by FN Herstal undergoes a similar transformation. A fully automatic version of the rifle was originally designed for NATO as a lightweight option for delivering high-velocity ammo capable of piercing body armor.
In a statement, the U.S. unit of FN Herstal said that it is in full compliance with all ATF regulations, including the one covering imported and domestic parts, known as Section 922(r).
"The PS90 meets ALL BATF 922(r) regulations and is approved by BATF as a sporting firearm," the company said.
Experts say the reasons driving the demand for the WASR-10 are manifold. The gun can be fitted with a folding stock that makes it shorter and more concealable. It can also be easily upgraded. A study [PDF] by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars last summer found that many of the rifles recovered in Mexico had been converted to select-fire machine guns.
The economics are also compelling. An AK-47 sold in Mexico fetches three to four times its purchase price along the U.S. Southwest border, or between $1,200 and $1,600, according to the study. In the interior of Mexico, the authors found, the rifles are even more desirable, fetching a $2,000 to $4,000 premium above their purchase price.
Over the last four years, more than 500 of the WASR-10s imported by Century Arms have been recovered in Mexico after being purchased in the U.S. That means Century's WASR-10 accounts for more than 17 percent of the total guns recovered in Mexico since 2006 -- the highest of any other recovered gun or rifle.