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US guns arm Mexico's drug wars

The Calderón government is asking for – and getting – more US support in cracking down on gun smuggling.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 19, 2007

Mexico City

Marcelo Garza y Garza, the top state police investigator in Nuevo Leon, walked out of a church in an upscale neighborhood in Monterrey to take a cellphone call last September, when two bullets struck the back of his head.

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The shots came from a semiautomatic pistol that did precisely what its colloquial name – matapolicia, or "police killer" – suggests. Mr. Garza y Garza died immediately.

"Police killers," so named because they were created to penetrate bulletproof vests, are among the newest weapons streaming into Mexico from the United States. Some 200 seized in Mexico last year – including the one used in the Garza murder – had been purchased in the US, and many more are in circulation, say authorities.

These guns, though, are a fraction of the high-powered weaponry purchased legally or illegally in stores and at gun shows in Texas, Arizona, and California and smuggled by the thousands into Mexico. Moreover, the demand for combat-style guns is on the rise, as drug traffickers arm themselves to the teeth to compete for control of trade routes into the US and, more recently, to resist a massive military crackdown that began when President Felipe Calderón took office in December.

In some ways this is an old border story.

Drugs have always gone north. Guns go south. But as Mexico's drug wars spiral so violently out of control that beheadings are tallied in local papers, the Calderón administration is demanding that the US do more to stanch the gun smuggling and to amend gun laws that, it says, are interfering with Mexico's fight to disarm organized crime.

"There is a contradiction," says a Mexican senior official speaking on condition of anonymity. "The US says they are so worried about drug trafficking, but the US is the one arming the drug traffickers."

Amid violence that has even spilled onto American soil, the US government is answering the call. US-Mexico cooperation on the matter, say many involved in the effort, has reached an unprecedented level, including gun tracing, personnel training, information-sharing, extraditions, and the establishment of joint task forces.

Still, US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales acknowledged in June, at a meeting of his counterparts in Mexico and Central America, that the US could do more to stem the deadly flow of illegal guns across the border.

"That is something being discussed at the highest levels, particularly given that the Calderón administration has demonstrated to be very bold" against drug traffickers, says Armand Peschard-Sverdrup, director of the Mexico Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington research organization.

A death toll of 1,400 this year

The stakes for Mexico are high – and getting higher. At least 1,400 people here have been killed in drug-related violence since January, and the tally has been rising for three years running. The arrests of high-level leaders of the Tijuana, Gulf, and Juarez cartels, during former President Vicente Fox's term, have led to a power struggle as organizations splintered and are now jostling for control of lucrative trade routes into the US.

Government officials can get a reading on the street situation from the kinds of guns being used and confiscated. In the 1980s, they saw mostly handguns, drug traffickers' weapon of choice. Now narcotraffickers are arming themselves, literally, for war.