U.S.-Mexico task force seeks renewed ban on assault weapons

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 13, 2009

A binational task force on U.S.-Mexico border issues will call Friday on the Obama administration and Congress to reinstate an expired ban on assault weapons and for Mexico to overhaul its frontier police and customs agencies to mirror the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The recommendations are among a broad set of security, trade, development and environmental proposals that come as President Obama and his Mexicans counterpart, Felipe Calderón, move to deepen engagement on issues including economic recovery, climate change, illegal immigration and narcotics trafficking.

Robert C. Bonner, the U.S. co-chairman of the private task force, which included several former senior government officials from both countries, said the changes could be included in a follow-up to the Merida initiative, a $1.4 billion three-year commitment of U.S. aid to support Mexico's crackdown on drug cartels that ends next year.

The proposals "will transform management of the border from a source of contention and frustration into a model of cooperation," states a report by the Los Angeles-based Pacific Council on International Policy and the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations titled, "Rethinking the U.S.-Mexico Border." The 30-member task force blamed lack of collaboration for violence, billions of dollars in lost economic opportunities and a public perception of a "broken" system.

The study comes as Mexico's struggle to combat narco-traffickers and public corruption from the multibillion-dollar North American drug trade has forged a tighter relationship between the neighbors. In reaction, policy analysts and think tanks, most recently the School of the Northern Border in Mexico and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, have developed border development proposals.

Skeptics say U.S. attention to its troubled partner is outpaced by what it spends to combat drugs in places such as Colombia or Afghanistan, while the southbound flow of weapons into Mexico -- where private gun ownership is illegal -- has been a flashpoint as Mexico's death toll from drug-related violence has topped 15,000.

In Mexico City in April, Obama pledged to push the Senate to ratify an inter-American arms-trafficking treaty but backed away from a campaign promise to reinstate a ban on assault weapons that Congress let expire in 2004. Obama said that it would be too difficult politically to enact new gun legislation soon and that enforcing existing measures would have a more immediate effect.

Mexican officials want a ban, saying that 90 percent of guns seized in drug crimes in Mexico and submitted for tracing to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives originate in the United States, including most assault rifles.

Bonner, who led U.S. drug enforcement and customs agencies under Republican administrations from 1990 to 1993 and from 2002 to 2005, said the task force sought to identify bold steps for each side. Bonner took over the panel from Alan D. Bersin, whom Obama has nominated to lead U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Task force co-chairman Andres Rozental, former deputy foreign minister of Mexico, said Mexico should realign and strengthen 16 agencies that share border responsibilities to combat corruption and improve coordination with the DHS, as Canada did after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Mexico has taken some steps, including hiring 1,400 new customs agents.

Mexico is the third-largest U.S. trading partner and the No. 2 destination for U.S. exports, he noted. The panel recommended adding private border crossings that collect tolls and prioritizing jointly planned improvements based on economic benefit.

If the United States legalizes most of its illegal immigrants and allows for a flexible flow of legal workers, Mexico should stop illegal immigration from its side of the border, the panel said.

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