US targets gun flows into Mexico in bid to stem drug violence

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Attorney General Eric Holder visit Mexico Thursday to meet with their counterparts.

Denis Poroy/AP
Customs and Border Protection officers stood by guns confiscated along the US-Mexico border. US and Mexican officials will hold a news conference on the issue Thursday in Cuernavaca, Mexico.

In the latest flurry of activity to help stem the drug-related violence that has engulfed Mexico and begun to spill over the US border, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Attorney General Eric Holder are meeting with their Mexican counterparts today in the city of Cuernavaca.

A centerpiece issue of the visit will be a new US pledge to help stem the flow of guns and other high-powered weapons into Mexico. The US is promising to beef up "exit controls" – improving detection systems at the border and at ports of entry – to help Mexico fight the drug-trafficking organizations behind more than 7,000 deaths since January 2008.

The meeting comes as Mexico, which has long criticized lax gun laws in the US but has offered little in terms of inspections and intelligence, has started to formulate its own policy on the illegal gun trade, even launching a border inspection pilot program last month.

"The complaints [against the US] are old, yet Mexico never had a structured policy to do anything about arms flow until recently," says Georgina Sanchez, executive director of the think tank Collective for the Analysis of Security with Democracy. "Both societies are just realizing how important the illegal gun trade is. And it is very good in principle that both are agreeing to talk and coordinate about these problems."

***US officials now estimate that drug traffickers operate in some 230 American cities, and the Obama administration has underscored a sense of "co-responsibility" for the narco-related violence that has engulfed Mexico and begun to spill over the US border. The trip to Mexico by Ms. Napolitano and Mr. Holder follows one by Secretary of State Hillary Clintonlast week. President Obama is due to visit later this month.

Focus on gun trade

The issues to tackle are immense and complex: there is demand for drugs in the US; corruption within police and judicial systems in Mexico; and grisly violence that overshadows all. Mexico is making some headway; On Thursday, the federal Attorney General's office announced the arrest of Vicente Carrillo Leyva, just a week after offering $2.1 million for his capture as a most-wanted drug suspects.

But the meeting Thursday, to focus primarily on the gun trade, gives Mexico a chance to address a key complaint: that no matter how hard they fight drug traffickers, their efforts will be undermined if the US continues to arm them.

It is no small task to access a gun in Mexico, at least legally. There are no commercial guns stores – those who want guns for self-protection or hunting must petition to the Mexican defense department. Intense background checks including psychological exams are carried out. Most of the guns in delinquents' hands in Mexico cross its borders illegally and circulate on the black market.

Even as Mexican President Felipe Calderón has deployed tens of thousands of troops across the country in an unprecedented push against drug traffickers, the weapons the traffickers employ are increasingly sophisticated.

90 perecent of guns recovered in Mexico traced to US

The US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) reports that more than 90 percent of guns recovered in Mexico are traced back to the US. That includes thousands of semi-automatic rifles or other high-powered weaponry – typically purchased in stores or at guns shows legally in the US and smuggled over the border, usually in a pattern called "ant traffic" – so-named because they trickle in under car seats a few at a time.

"Janet Napolitano is promising to close the border to prevent the introduction of arms into the US. It's not an overall solution, but it's a partial one, and very positive for Mexico," says Eduardo Valle, a Mexican newspaper columnist and former drug official in the Mexican attorney general's office.

US to upgrade border surveillance

Last week, the US unveiled a border protection plan that calls for increased traffic inspections southward, including for every rail car heading to Mexico. The US will employ technologies such as mobile X-ray to inspect cars and license-plate readers to identify smugglers. Napolitano, who began her trip Wednesday in San Diego, announced plans to spend more than $400 million for the upgrading of entry ports and surveillance systems along the border.

During the visit in Mexico, officials are also expected to discuss ways to target "straw purchasers," those who buy guns for smugglers, as well as continuing cooperation with the ATF and other agencies to trace weapons back to sellers in the US.

Mexico to extend pilot inspection program

The talks come as Mexico, which has little control over the people and products flowing into its territory, launched a pilot program in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, to inspect vehicles, including weighing them for anomalies and reading license plate to share intelligence with other agencies. According to Mexican Customs, the program will be extended to other points of entry along the northern border, as well as the southern border, which is also a point of entry for many illegal weapons from Central America, by the end of the year.

It is a small step but an important one, says Armand Peschard-Sverdrup, a Mexico expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, since currently only about 10 percent of vehicles are checked along the 2,000-mile border. Cars pass through a light system; only if the light is red, which it rarely is, must drivers stop at a second point for inspection.

Still, corruption must be tackled

Inspection commitments by both countries is no magic bullet. Ms. Sanchez says, for example, that a full clampdown on illegal gun smuggling is not possible until corruption in customs on both sides of the border is tackled.

And some question the effectiveness of inspections as long as weapons are so easy to access in the US. The Obama administration is considered tougher on arms. "The Bush administration was pro-arms," says Sanchez. "In principle, this is changing with Obama."

But no one expects the president to trample heavily on the right to bear arms. Even though Holder had discussed renewing the ban on assault weapons in February, the subject is not expected to be on the agenda in Mexico Thursday. It's still a tricky political issue, says Mr. Peschard-Sverdrup. "The exit controls are an indirect way of addressing the issue without encroaching on the right to bear arms or anything that can be perceived or used politically by the NRA [National Rifle Association] or the Republicans as a wedge issue here in the US."

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