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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.

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Some worry, though, that Mexico is becoming too dependent on the US to correct the gunrunning problem and its related ills, instead of focusing on its own weaknesses. Mexico's decision in January to extradite 15 suspected drug-cartel leaders to the US is a case in point, says Erubiel Tirado, a security expert at the Iberoamerican University in Mexico City. "It is an implicit recognition of the big failure of the whole prosecuting system to control the phenomenon," he says. "We decided to give up the effort and send the main cartels to the US."

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In some matters, US can't help

Not all blame can be laid at the US doorstep, say many experts in Mexico. "There is less control [along Mexico's southern border] and more routes," says Eduardo Valle, a former assistant to the attorney general in the early 1990s. "This is the part that no one talks about." Even if 90 percent of the guns that end up in Mexico originate from the US, a share of those weapons arrive via Central and South America – some of them brought in by big-time arms dealers, he says.

Corruption by Mexican officials, too, remains a problem. A recent report by the legislature's National Defense Commission blamed customs for the illegal flow of arms into Mexico. The chief of Mexico's Customs Department, Juan Jose Bravo, declined repeated interview requests through a spokesman. But in a press conference in early July he said the department would be unveiling new plans to modernize customs and help prevent gun smuggling.

"The basic issue is that guns are sold legally on the US side," says Cuauhtémoc Sandoval, a congressman who sits on the commission. "The corruption in customs, and the incapacity of the Mexican state to control it, allows them right through."

Taming the violence, the guns, and the cartels requires reforming Mexico's institutions, analysts say. "There is no organized crime without the complicity of state structures, at any level, at any position," says Mr. Tirado, the security expert. "Because of corruption [and] weakened institutions, because of lack of professionalization in police structures … now we have the Mexican Army on the streets."

In the short term, cooperation with the US is the most promising strategy, many say. Still, there's much room for progress. Only a small portion of firearms recovered in Mexico is traced, though that number is increasing each year, says William Hoover, ATF assistant director for field operations, who headed an ATF delegation to Mexico recently. Even when Mexico runs a trace on a gun, says another ATF official, the process is only successful about 40 percent of the time.

The ATF has just two agents stationed permanently in Mexico, even as the presence of other organizations such as the US Drug Enforcement Agency has grown.

For all the kinks yet to be worked out, the symbiosis between the two nations is heartening to those working in the field.

"The bilateral cooperation between the US and Mexico has never been better," says J.J. Ballesteros, the ATF Southwest Border Program manager in Texas for gun trafficking into Mexico. "They came and opened up their investigative files, which prompted us to do the same. We saw positive results … and with each positive result this inspires more and more cooperation."

Friday: View from the US.

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