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.

Gregory Bull/AP/FILE
After a massive arms seizure of drug-cartel weapons last fall, a soldier stood guard over 288 assault rifles. The US says more than 90 percent of the guns seized in Mexico that can be traced originated in the US.

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.

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.

When asked about the disputed "90 percent" statistic during a visit last week to Mexico, US Attorney General Eric Holder said one thing is clear, even if the actual percentage is not: The "vast majority" of guns seized in crimes in Mexico come from the US, he told reporters.

Those fighting for tighter gun laws say the sourcing dispute is being used to obfuscate the main issues. "We've never denied that there are many sources of guns, particularly the purely military machine guns and hand grenades," says Tom Diaz, a senior analyst at the Violence Policy Center in Washington, who called for stricter gun laws in recent congressional testimony. "But that argument is a red herring," he says. "It's quite clear, whatever the number is, the one quantifiable number that we really know for sure are the number of guns traced directly to the US. We're talking about thousands of guns."

No commercial gun shops in Mexico

While more than 6,000 private gun shops line the US side of the border – three per square mile, according to Mr. Diaz – Mexico has no commercial shops. In Mexico, would-be buyers must petition the defense department and undergo extensive background checks.

Mexican Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora said this week at an Associated Press annual meeting that the US should reimpose its assault weapons ban, which expired in 2004. He told the gathering that nearly 52,000 firearms have been seized in Mexico in the past two years, and of that more than half were assault weapons.

"The Second Amendment was never meant to arm foreign criminal groups," he said.

Such statements anger US gun-rights advocates.

Bob Barr, a former congressman and presidential candidate from Georgia, wrote in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently that "playing off the fear understandably engendered by the pervasive and gory drug violence playing itself out in Mexico, the gun-control crowd is using that phenomenon to move for more gun control on our side of the border. In the eyes of antifirearms advocates like Illinois Sen. Richard Durbin, Americans should feel guilty about, if not responsible for, drug gangs in Mexico shooting each other and corrupt government officials in perverse numbers — because some of the guns may have been purchased in the US."

Gun control won't stop bad guys

Erich Pratt, director of government affairs for the Gun Owners of America in Springfield, Va., says he believes the dispute over the source of guns has taken some momentum away from gun-control advocates. "The 90 percent figure was at the crux for calling for resurrecting the semi-automatic ban, so this does take some wind out of their sails," he says. "There comes a point where we finally have to realize that all the gun control in the world is not stopping bad guys from getting guns and using them."

But Diaz of the the Violence Policy Center says officials realize that the source of weapons is only one part of a much more insidious problem that must be addressed from all angles. "I think the [Obama] administration realizes the problem is much deeper than this argument about where the guns come from. They understand the real problem is the almost paramilitary power of these drug-trafficking organizations, and they understand they are intimately wired into street gangs everywhere in the US. This is an explosive situation and we have to do something about it."

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