Are Mexican drug traffickers armed with US guns?
Most are, say US officials. But the NRA says the Obama administration is inflating the scope of the problem and threatens to undermine the Second Amendment.
Atlanta and Mexico City
For two years, Uriel Hernandez and his associates purchased an assortment of handguns, shotguns, and assault rifles in the San Antonio area and shuttled them across the Mexican border. In all, 200 weapons were smuggled in – an operation that got Mr. Hernandez a gunrunning conviction in US federal court April 2.Skip to next paragraph
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In the last four years, the US has prosecuted more than 380 similar cases of gun smuggling to Mexico. But now the source of the weapons used in Mexico's drug violence, which has claimed more than 7,000 lives since last January and is creeping into US cities, is emerging as a key – and controversial – issue in the relationship between the two countries.
In recent weeks, US and Mexican officials have reached an unprecedented mutual agreement on the problem, including plans to create a shared ballistics database to track weapons used in crimes, and X-ray scans of southbound trains. But gun-rights advocates say officials are exaggerating the responsibility the US bears in arming Mexico's drug cartels and are attempting to undermine the Second Amendment to the US Constitution.
A similar debate erupted during the Clinton administration, says Raul Benitez, a security expert at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, when the president tightened controls on the sale of assault weapons. "The debate stopped under [President] Bush. With the Obama administration, it has started again, especially as the US recognizes its role in stopping arms-trafficking," he says.
At the center of the debate are claims that most of the weapons Mexican drug traffickers employ – creating sensational headlines as cartels battle the Mexican military – come from US sources. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) says more than 90 percent of the guns seized in Mexico that can be traced, originated in the US. In 2008, the Mexican government sent the ATF 11,000 arms for tracing. According to an ATF spokesmen, all were successfully traced.
(Click here for a .pdf copy of ATF's March 24 testimony to Congress about gun trafficking to Mexico.)
Dispute over source of guns
Guns sold illegally in Mexico reportedly are bought legally in US gun stores along the border by so-called "straw purchasers," such as those employed by Hernandez in San Antonio.
Gun-rights advocates say the 90 percent figure is exaggerated, since Mexican officials estimate that only about one-third of the arms seized are handed over to the ATF to be traced. And, they say, not all of those can be traced because the serial numbers have been filed off. Chris Cox, chief lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, says he believes some quarters in the US are overstating the figure for political aim. "[Second Amendment rights] aren't going to be used as a scapegoat for the mayhem that's happening in Mexico," says Mr. Cox. "The idea that if we pass one more gun law in the US, these cartels are going to put their guns away – if it wasn't so sad, it would be laughable."
Instead, Mr. Cox says, Salvadoran gunrunners, Mexican Army deserters, and the global underground arms markets involving Chinese, Russian, and US military arms are just a few of the ways that Mexican criminals acquire weapons.
Mexico's southern border with Guatemala has long been an entry point for such weapons and today could account for 10 to 15 percent coming through, says Mr. Benitez. During the 80s and 90s, the arms used in Central American wars were a prime source for Mexico. But today, he says, the great majority streams from north to south, particularly for the crime networks operating along the northern Mexico border.