U.S. Guns Behind Cartel Killings in Mexico

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By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, October 29, 2007

TIJUANA, Mexico -- Assassins blasted Ricardo Rosas Alvarado, a member of an elite state police force, with a blizzard of bullets pumped out of AK-47 assault rifles.

Alvarado crumpled at the wheel of his sedan, yet another victim of the weapons known here as "goat's horns" because of their curved ammunition clips, and which can fire at a rate of 600 rounds per minute. The killing, Mexican authorities said, was a panorama of blood, shattered glass and torn metal that brutally showcased the firepower of Mexico's drug cartels. But that was just the warm-up.

Two hours later, a small army of cartel hit men descended on a federal police office and bunkhouse in this crowded city at one of the world's busiest border crossings. None of the officers, who had recently been sent here to crush the drug gangs terrorizing the city, were killed in the hail of more than 1,200 bullets, authorities said. But police veterans understood the message delivered to the newcomers: "Welcome to Tijuana. Our guns are bigger than your guns."

The high-powered guns used in both incidents on the evening of Sept. 24 undoubtedly came from the United States, say police here, who estimate that 100 percent of drug-related killings are committed with smuggled U.S. weapons.

The guns pass into Mexico through the "ant trail," the nickname for the steady stream of people who each slip two or three weapons across the border every day. The "ants" -- along with larger smuggling operations -- are feeding a rapidly expanding arms race between Mexican drug cartels.

The U.S. weapons -- as many as 2,000 enter Mexico each day, according to a Mexican government study -- are crucial tools in an astoundingly barbaric war between rival cartels that has cost 4,000 lives in the past 18 months and sent law enforcement agencies in Washington and Mexico City into crisis mode.

These drug traffickers, with their steady supply of U.S. weaponry, are the target of President Bush's proposed $500 million U.S. aid package to help Mexico battle cartels. Officials with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, or ATF, hope that some of the money will be used to give Mexican police chiefs greater access to U.S. databases for gun traces. Currently, the traces can be made only through federal police headquarters in Mexico City. Many police chiefs do not even bother to make requests because of the inevitable bureaucratic delays.

Corrupt customs officials help smuggle weapons into Mexico, earning as much as $1 million for large shipments, police here say. The weapons are often bought legally at gun shows in Arizona and other border states where loopholes allow criminals to stock up without background checks.

The arms traffickers have left Mexico awash in AK-47s, pistols, telescope sighting devices, grenades, grenade launchers and high-powered ammunition, such as the so-called cop-killer bullets believed to be able to penetrate bulletproof vests.

"You're looking at the same firepower here on the border that our soldiers are facing in Iraq and Afghanistan," Thomas Mangan, a spokesman in Phoenix for the ATF, said in an interview.

Weapons have been smuggled into Mexico for decades. For instance, the .38 Special used in 1994 to assassinate presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio here in Tijuana was traced to a gun sale in Arizona. Mexico is a rich market for smugglers because it bans high-caliber automatic weapons -- even police are prohibited from using them -- and has strict gun laws that make it extremely difficult for members of the public to buy handguns.

But law enforcement officers on both sides of the border have never seen anything like the flood of guns now surging into Mexico. The increase has been stoked by the cartel war and by the ease of buying high-powered weapons since the U.S. assault weapons ban was not renewed in 2004, William Newell, a special agent in charge of the ATF's Phoenix office, said in an interview.


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