They have become status symbols of influence and money: Men in dark, shiny suits, eating peanuts or reading comic books, hovering around dark, shiny limousines.
Mexicans call them guaruras - the Aztec word for bodyguards. One Cabinet minister admits not having 12, while four prominent and wealthy brothers jointly employ 42 to guard their compound, wives and children. In Mexico today there are in fact uncounted thousands of them.
With their jackets hiding neat little man-stoppers, and semiautomatic six-pounders under their car seats, guaruras are among the most eager customers of the vast U. S. firearms industry.
But along with guaruras, Mexico's willing clientele of U.S. arms dealers also include farmers, dop smugglers, police government officials, rightists, leaftists or anyone else with a stake in defense or attack.
In a country with a gun mystique even surpassing that of the United States, the gun is a natural accessory for many Mexican males. Private arms collections are plentiful and the latest U.S. made precision model is a prized possession.
Buying a bullet or pistol in downtown Mexico City used to be as easy as ordering a beer. But the tough 1972 gun control law, aimed at reducing the high rate of violent crime, banned importation, manufacture and sale of weapons - except those used for sport - and closed down the gun stores. Yet it could not halt the brisk import of firearms.
Instead, the trade shifted to the already flourishing black market, where the military and police deal alongside freelance smugglers. Police officials state openly that here are as many illegal arms as there are television sets in this country. "You can call it a nationwide cottage industry," said one police officer.
Earlier this month, testimony before a U.S. Senate committe confirmed that vast amounts of Mexican firearms are smuggled across the 2,000-mile U. S. border. But key officials in the attorney general's office dispute the claims made by Peter Bensinger, director of the Drug Enforcement Administration, that there is an important direct barter trade of guns and drugs
"Sure the two countries trade in depth." said one highly placed official. "Mexico sends heroin, the U.S. sends guns. But it's simplistic to talk about barter. One kilo (2.2 pounds) of heroin fetches $80,000 at the border. Imagine paying that with guns."
The authorities here do not question that growers and dealers in the profitable marijuana and opium business here are major users of fire arms.
"Automatic rifles are part of these people's normal work tools.But we find they get two or three, usually as a gift or as a bonus from their U. S. contacts." said a narcotics agent from Culiacan, the reported center of heroin laboratories in Mexico.
"Dope brings money so you can just as easily talk about dope for cars, dope for TV sets, dope for whatever. Just look around Culiacan and you see the latest model of everything."
There are no reliable statisics on the number of firemans among this country's 63 million inhabitants, although the Mexico City police chief recently suggested there may be 30 million.
Under the 1972 law, each household may obtain a license for only one small-caliber pistol. All other weapons are reserved for use by army and police. After public pressure, the legislators agreed to consider the car as an extenstion of the home, so that a family's licensed pistol may be kept in the glove compartment. But it is extremely difficult for a civilian to obtain a license.
The Defense Ministry, where firearms must be surrendered or registered, reports that its 1,500 registration offices have recorded more than 2 million weapons since the law was passed. But ministry sources agree that this reflects only a small part of the arms in circulation.
Although Mexicans have traditionally owned guns, the arms trade proliferated as rural and urban guerrillas began to kidnap businessmen and politicians in the early 1970s. Not only did the guerrillas buy arms, so did the fast-growing army of private body guards.
As gangsters involed in narcotics acquired powerful AR-15, M-1 and M-16 military rifles, the police were forced to update their arsenals. Since supplies in police heaquarters were mimimal and outdated, police officials turned to importing arms for themselves.
"There are plenty of arms around now." said a police lawyer, "but our main problem remains ammunition. An ordinary street cop is only given five bullets by his superiors. If he wants more he has to buy them himself."
Even for the superior, the problem is often red tape.
"To get ammunition we have to apply to the army. It may take three months to get a reply. And in the end you buy it back from the army anyway so you might as well get your own from the start," a narcotics agent said.
For most Mexicans who have the money to spend, getting hold of smuggled ammuntion or almost any caliber of firearms has been easy enough, "contraband is like a national sport." Mexicans often comment, and its quick profits have attracted hundreds of people who have devoted themselves full-time to the sport.
Two Mexico City residents recently traveled to Tijuana, on the California border. One said they ordered a "color television, a pocket calculator, an M-1 and a 38-Super plus plenty of ammunition from a local contact. We paid cash in advance. The next day it was all delivered right in our hotel room for less than $1,000."
To stem the gunrunning, Mexican diplomats have frequently asked for U.S. help. U.S. officials in turn say they do not get the information they need from the Mexican side.
"We have often said that if we get the registration number on a confiscated weapon it will help us to track down the gunrunner," said a U.S. embassy official, "but the Mexicans are their reasons may be." [TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCES] reluctant to do that, for whatever.
In a recent interview in San Diego, Cal., a U.S. Customs official said he saw little hope to stop the arms flow as long as arms can be bought or stolen so easily in the United States.
"Gunrunning into Mexico is as old as the border itself. There is no southbound search in the U.S. and there are plenty of ways to get it through on the Mexican side. It goes from putting a pistol among the groceries to tying rifles under a truck. There's just too much border here, and if the guns could be stopped then we could also stop the drugs."