U.S. and Mexico struggle to stop flow of weapons across border

Rival mafias fighting to control drug sales, marijuana and poppy fields, meth labs and lucrative smuggling routes are targeting local officials.
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, October 6, 2010; 10:19 PM

MEXICO CITY - Efforts to stem the smuggling of weapons from the United States to Mexican drug cartels have been frustrated by bureaucratic infighting, a lack of training and the delayed delivery of a computer program to Mexico, according to U.S. and Mexican officials.

In the past four years, Mexico has submitted information about more than 74,000 guns seized south of the border that the government suspects were smuggled from the United States. But much of the data is so incomplete as to be useless and has not helped authorities bust the gunrunners who supply the Mexican mafias with their vast armories, officials said.

According to U.S. agents working here, Mexican prosecutors have not made a single major arms trafficking case.

In an address before a joint session of Congress this year, President Felipe Calderon asked the United States to reimpose a ban on the assault-style rifles favored by Mexican drug cartels and to work harder to stop weapons flowing from gun shops and gun shows along the southwest border into Mexico.

Obama administration officials have responded with a surge in spending to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Department of Homeland Security, and promises to curb cross-border gunrunning.

"Mexico is facing an unprecedented and a terrible struggle" against arms traffickers, money launderers and organized crime, Mexico Attorney General Arturo Chavez said Tuesday, standing beside U.S. ambassador Carlos Pascual. "We have to fight these criminals together. Positive results have been attained, but we need to do more and move faster."

Mexico has some of the strictest gun laws in the world. It is extremely difficult for citizens to legally buy or possess pistols or rifles. The country has just one gun store, operated by the military.

And yet it is awash in weapons, from the ubiquitous 9mm handguns found in the glove box of every thug in Mexico to .50-caliber sniper rifles capable of downing a helicopter. Both guns are sold legally in the United States and are easily obtainable in the worldwide black market in arms. More than 28,000 Mexicans have died in drug violence in the past four years.

As a pillar of a $1.4 billion aid program to Mexico to fight the surging violence and corrupting power of the drug cartels, the U.S. government announced three years ago that it would provide Mexico with its proprietary eTrace Internet-based system. On Tuesday in Mexico City, U.S. and Mexican officials signed a memorandum of understanding allowing for its full implementation.

The ATF describes the system as "a cornerstone" of its effort to fight arms trafficking to Mexico. Users enter basic data about a weapon, such as its make, model and serial number, and then receive vital intelligence from the ATF about where and when it was manufactured and sold, and to whom.

But translating the program into Spanish took two years. And since its delivery almost a year ago, only a dozen Mexican agents have been trained to use it.

The U.S. government provided free laptops to the agents in the Mexican attorney general's office, but the handful of ATF agents working in Mexico City had to enter much of the data themselves. U.S. officials say the Mexicans have only sporadically used the tool, and when they did, they often entered incomplete information that made it impossible to trace the weapons.

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