US guns arm Mexico's drug wars
The Calderón government is asking for – and getting – more US support in cracking down on gun smuggling.
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Grenades have been hurled into newspaper offices and local police stations. Guns like the one that killed Garza y Garza in Monterrey are increasingly being turned on police, judges, and journalists. The notorious May shootout that killed nearly two dozen in the town of Cananea, 35 miles south of the border with Arizona, had a clear-cut connection with cross-border weapons smuggling: Of the 23 guns that were recovered, about three-quarters were found to have been purchased in Texas and the rest in Arizona and California, say US authorities.Skip to next paragraph
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That comes as no surprise to Mexican officials: Of all the confiscated firearms that are run through traces in Mexico – some 5,000 to 10,000 annually – more than 90 percent are first purchased in the US, they say.
Guns are not easy to obtain in Mexico, at least legally. Citizens who want arms for self-protection or to hunt must present petitions to the Defense Department, undergo extensive background checks, and buy their weapons – all of them relatively low-caliber – from the institution itself, says Raul Benitez, a security expert at the Center for North American Studies at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. There are no gun stores. After a gun is legally purchased, it cannot be moved. Owners must keep them at home.
Some weapons seized from drug traffickers, such as grenades, are stolen from the Mexican military. But drug traffickers have little interest in weapons carried by the military, because they are of lower caliber than the semiautomatic weapons from the US, says Martin Gabriel Barron, a researcher at the National Criminal Sciences Institute in Mexico City. The semiautomatics are then often modified to fire like machine guns.
Most guns cross into Mexico via "ant traffic," three to five weapons at a time, stashed under car seats. Once over the border, weapons fetch double or triple the price paid in the US, says Mr. Benitez. There are plenty of buyers – kidnappers, thieves, people who simply want a gun without enduring the red tape to do it legally – but many contraband guns end up in the hands of drug traffickers. The only people who can afford matapolicias, at about $1,200 a pop, are the narcotraffickers, says a US official who asked to remain anonymous because he works in counterarms investigations.
US responds to Mexican pressure
Mexican presidents have long complained of US policies that they say make it difficult to cut off the weapons trade, but the Calderón government has been the most vocal critic, many say. In June, Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora called US policies on guns "absurd."
"The Mexican government has been applying a lot of pressure on the US government," says Mr. Peschard-Sverdrup of CSIS.
As a result, cooperation is reaching new levels. The US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) is training Mexican federal and state police and customs officials to properly trace weapons to the US via a technology called E-trace, and is developing a version in Spanish that will leave less room for error. The US has donated dogs that can detect 19,000 types of explosive power. The ATF intends to provide X-ray scanning equipment for beefed-up inspection of vehicles entering Mexico from the US. Both countries are working toward sharing information in real time about organized-crime investigations.