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As Mexico drug violence runs rampant, U.S. guns tied to crime south of border

Many dealers tip off ATF when they suspect "straw purchases," in which a person buys for someone who is prohibited from owning a gun, a common practice in Mexican gunrunning cases. Many of the dealers "view themselves as the first line of defense," said Lawrence Keane, general counsel and vice president of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a firearms industry trade group.

The foundation and the National Rifle Association aggressively challenge statistics that show 80 to 90 percent of the weapons seized in Mexico are first sold in the United States, calling the numbers highly inflated. After being criticized by the gun lobby, ATF stopped releasing such statistics this year.

"To suggest that U.S. gun laws are somehow to blame for Mexican drug cartel violence is a sad fantasy," said Chris W. Cox, executive director of the NRA Institute for Legislative Action.

Cox said guns are coming to Mexico from other Central American countries and from former Mexican soldiers who have U.S. weapons and are now working for the cartels.

ATF disagreed, saying the biggest factors are the high number of dealers along the border and the convenient location.

"When you look at the highway system in Mexico, the main highways that come into the United States are through Laredo and Brownsville," Webb said. ". . . As long as it is cheaper and easier to come to the United States to buy them, that's going to be the source they'll go to."

Guns from the United States "have been feeding the violence and overwhelming firepower being unleashed by drug traffickers," said Arturo Sarukhan, Mexico's ambassador to the United States. "We need to defang drug trafficking organizations of these high-caliber and semiautomatic and automatic weapons, and we need to do it now."

The flow of guns

To examine the gun flow from the United States to Mexico, The Post reviewed hundreds of court documents and federal reports and interviewed Mexican officials and dozens of current and former U.S. law enforcement officials.

ATF in 2006 launched Project Gunrunner - a program that now involves more than 220 agents who make criminal cases against gun traffickers and about 165 inspectors who check gun dealers for compliance with federal regulations. The agency has conducted about 1,000 inspections in the border region, leading to the seizure of more than 400 firearms. Two dealers have lost their licenses to sell guns.

On the criminal side, a recent Justice Department inspector general's report called the program weak and ineffective, with most of the cases brought against single defendants hired to buy small numbers of firearms.

U.S. law enforcement has traditionally focused on seizing drugs moving north from Mexico, not guns moving south. In 2008, only 70 guns were seized at U.S. border crossings.

The cornerstone of the $60 million program is gun tracing - tracking weapons to the dealers who originally sold them. It has long been considered a powerful tool for combating trafficking.

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