SIERRA VISTA, Ariz. – High-powered automatic weapons and ammunition are flowing virtually unchecked from border states into Mexico, fueling a war among drug traffickers, the army and police that has left thousands dead, according to U.S. and Mexican officials.
The munitions are hidden under trucks and stashed in the trunks of cars, or brazenly concealed under the clothing of pedestrians who walk across the international bridges. They are showing up in seizures and in the aftermath of shoot-outs between the cartels and police in Mexico.
More than 90 percent of guns seized at the border or after raids and shootings in Mexico have been traced to the United States, according to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Last year, 2,455 weapons traces requested by Mexico showed that guns had been purchased in the United States, according to the ATF. Texas, Arizona and California accounted for 1,803 of the traces submitted by Mexican authorities.
No one is sure how many U.S.-purchased guns have made their way to Mexico, but U.S. authorities estimate the number in the thousands.
The body count, meanwhile, is rising. Since a military-led crackdown on narcotics traffickers began 18 months ago, more than 4,000 people in Mexico have died from drug-related violence, including 450 police officers, soldiers and prosecutors, as well as innocent bystanders, cartel members and corrupt officials, according to Mexican officials.
Tom Mangan, a senior ATF special agent in Arizona, said firearms move south “just like the drugs that head north. The cartels are outfitting an army.”
More than 6,700 licensed gun dealers have set up shop within a short drive of the 2,000-mile border, from the gulf coast of Texas to San Diego – which amounts to more than three dealers for every mile of border territory. Law enforcement has come to call the region an “iron river of guns.”
Mexican authorities have been pressing the United States to do more to help a border force they describe as overwhelmed and often intimidated.
“Just guarantee me that arms won’t enter Mexico,” Mexico’s public-safety chief, Genaro Garcia Luna, told a radio interviewer recently. Stop the flow of guns from the U.S., he said, “and the gasoline for the crimes that we have will run out.”
Both sides blame so-called “straw buyers” who purchase weapons for traffickers at small gun shops and large gun shows.
The U.S. and Mexico are pledging cooperation to halt the weapons flow; but both nations want more from each other. The U.S. is urging Mexican officials to be more vigilant at the border, and to thoroughly inspect and arrest crossers who carry weapons from the United States. They have posted warning signs at the border, but few pay any heed.
William Hoover, the ATF’s assistant director for field operations, told Congress his agency is working with Mexican law enforcement officials on an “eTrace” system to track guns found in Mexico. The process allows the U.S. to start criminal investigations against anyone in the U.S. who has sent a weapon to Mexico.
Mexico wants the U.S. to tighten gun laws in border states. They also want more checks on straw man purchasers.
Since weapons began heading south in bulk three to five years ago, U.S. agents have made some key arrests. Unfortunately, many of them came after the weapons had been used in cartel warfare in Mexico.