It's not only poverty propelling Mexicans into the US. Rising gun violence by drug gangs, and lately a military surge against them, have driven many to cross the border. And where do these drug cartels get their arsenal of weapons? El Norte, of course.
Lax gun laws and lax enforcement in the United States have made it easy for Mexican gunrunners to buy and transport everything from AK-47s to Stinger antiaircraft missiles, which then allows the cartels to use these high-powered weapons against rival gangs or against a military attack. More than 90 percent of the thousands of guns confiscated yearly in Mexico have been traced to US origin.
A two-part Monitor series on the problem looks at what US and Mexican officials are doing to curtail this "iron river" of weapons, but also what still needs to be done.
Most alarming is the increasing flow of combat-style rifles into Mexico, often just a few at a time hidden in the trunk of a car. That trend is partly a result of Congress allowing the US ban on assault weapons to lapse in 2004. But also worrisome is an increase in Mexican gang agents at US gun shows who brazenly pay citizens to buy weapons for them. The US does not have enough federal officials to catch such acts, while many states have loose rules about sales at gun shows.
An undercover investigation by Garen Wintemute, a University of California professor, found such illegal "straw purchases" are common at gun shows. He used hidden recording devices at 28 shows in five states during 2005 and 2006 to detect 24 illegal sales. Often, such sales happened in plain sight of law-enforcement officers. He found one Phoenix vendor with a sale sign in Spanish, offering various assault rifles.
He says California has stronger gun laws than the other four states, and his research shows the result is less illegal trade and proves that tough regulation can work.
The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives admits it doesn't have enough agents to patrol gun shows for Mexican gang agents, and they usually only go to one if there is a tip of a potential illegal sale.
The Bush administration has waked up late to Mexico's gun problem. Last year, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told Congress he didn't know where most of the confiscated weapons in Mexico come from. Since then, the US has greatly beefed up cooperation with Mexico, especially on sharing intelligence, while the Mexican military has begun to inspect vehicles traveling south from the border for guns. It has even taken over the Mexicali airport to prevent flights of smuggled weapons.
Just as the US expects Mexico to curtail illegal migration, the US needs to do far more to help Mexico in its current campaign against powerful drug cartels and to block these private armies from getting US guns. More than 1,300 people this year have been killed in Mexican drug-gang-related shootings.
The US and Mexico already work together against drug trafficking. But it is weak gun laws in the US – compared with strict ones in Mexico – that help drive the cross-border gun trade. Mexico itself can do more, too, such as curbing corruption among customs agents. But if Americans want to help improve life for Mexicans, they'll need to stand up to the gun lobby in Congress and state legislatures.