Mexico, U.S. Spar Over Illegal Gun Trafficking

The flow of illegal guns from the United States to Mexico is growing. Mexico makes it extremely difficult to buy a gun legally, and the government is unhappy that Washington has done little to stop gun smuggling, even as U.S. officials press Mexico to stem drug trade between the two countries.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

Illegal weapons smuggled from the United States into Mexico are aggravating a bloody turf war between narcotics cartels. Drug-related violence has killed hundreds of people in Mexico so far this year and paralyzed some border towns. While US officials complain loudly about drug trafficking from Latin America, Mexican authorities are upset about the torrent of illegal weapons from the United States. NPR's John Burnett reports that smugglers work in both directions--drugs go north; guns go south.

JOHN BURNETT reporting:

Earlier this month, federal police in Mazatlan on Mexico's Pacific coast stopped a truck and a Volkswagen sedan at a traffic checkpoint and made an eye-popping discovery. Inside they found three assault rifles, three 9mm pistols, seven live hand grenades, a grenade launcher and a shoulder-fired anti-tank weapon. Six suspects with ties to drug traffickers were arrested. According to the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the heavy weaponry, a favorite of narco-gangsters, was stolen from the US military and purchased on the black market. The firearms were likely bought from US gun dealers. Ramon Basson(ph) is with the ATF in Mexico City.

Mr. RAMON BASSON (ATF): As the drug wars escalate, the demand for higher caliber weapons is escalating as well.

BURNETT: Mexico severely restricts gun ownership. The Mexican army has to conduct background checks and the waiting period for a weapon can be years. So gun fanciers turn to their northern neighbor where gun laws permit the easy purchase of large numbers of high-caliber weapons which experience shows are seldom traceable. The most frequent sources of firearms in Mexico are gun shops and gun shows in California, Texas and Arizona, in that order. Ramon Basson says the weapons are rarely purchased by the smuggler himself.

Mr. BASSON: If he is illegally in the United States, he will hire someone to purchase firearms for him. He will then send the firearms to Mexico.

BURNETT: It's called a straw purchase. The gun runner pays someone living in the United States, say a girlfriend or a cousin, to walk into a gun shop, pay in cash, lie on the federal form about whether the weapon is for themselves, then hand over the gun. Javier Ortiz is chief of intelligence for illegal weapons trafficking with the Mexican federal preventive police. He concedes it's relatively easy to smuggle firearms into Mexico where, unlike at US border crossings, Customs agents do not have X-ray machines.

Mr. JAVIER ORTIZ (Mexican Federal Preventive Police): (Through Translator) The trafficking from the United States to Mexico is hand traffic. They don't bring big loads of weapons. A person who crosses the border brings one, two, three guns with him. Normally, they hide them in the panels of a vehicle or in the air conditioning system, behind the radio. We've also found disassembled weapons inside merchandise such as televisions, even dolls.

BURNETT: Oftentimes, it's the same mule running drugs north who operates a lucrative sideline bringing firearms back across the border. They know which assault-style weapons are most coveted by drug mobsters, says J.J. Ballesteros, a veteran Texas-based ATF agent.

Mr. J.J. BALLESTEROS (ATF): The narcotics traffickers are willing to pay up to four to $500 above the retail price of an AR-15 or an AK-47. So you go out and you buy 10 AK-47s or 10 AR-15s, you can make up to $4,000, $5,000.

Unidentified Man #1: (Spanish spoken)

BURNETT: Typically in Mexico City, a resident who wants a weapon will either bribe a friendly policeman to get him one or come to tapatio, the sprawling open-air flea market where vendors hawk the trademarks of American culture.

Unidentified Man #2: (Spanish spoken)

BURNETT: A bootleg DVD of "Star Wars: Episode III," a pirated pair of Calvin Klein jeans, or if you know the right person, a Smith & Wesson .38.

Unidentified Man #3: (Spanish spoken)

BURNETT: It has long exasperated Mexican officials and some Canadians as well that their restrictive gun laws are undermined by more relaxed US gun rules. In most states, customers can buy multiple firearms as long as they have a valid US driver's license and pass an instant background check that assures, among other things, they're not a convicted felon. Again, Javier Ortiz with the Mexican federal police.

Mr. ORTIZ: (Through Translator) We have found people who, my gosh, have bought 200 weapons from one gun shop. How can that be? US laws permit a person to buy whatever weapon with only a driver's license, and many times that license is phony. And so after the purchase, the authorities may not know what happens to those guns, and the result is that many times they're brought here to Mexico and oftentimes innocent people are killed.

BURNETT: The ATF conducted about 1,800 successful traces last year of crime guns recovered in Mexico. Ninety to 95 percent of those led to American gun dealers according to Javier Ortiz. In October 2003, ATF traced seven assault weapons belonging to a murdered associate of drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman to Simon's Trading Post(ph) in Pasadena, Texas. The dealer, Simon Garza, pled guilty last year to selling weapons to prohibited individuals. His punishment? Five years probation, a $100 fine and he lost his license to sell firearms. That was one of the few traces that led to a conviction. Fewer than half of all traces are successful and only a fraction of those lead to the most recent purchaser. Again, J.J. Ballesteros, with the ATF.

Mr. BALLESTEROS: The existing federal firearms laws make it very difficult for us to do our job in many respects with regards to gun trafficking. We find that a significant amount of crime guns are originating in the secondary market which confounds our efforts to trace.

BURNETT: Gun shows are the typical secondary market, and in most states at a gun show, one person can sell a weapon to another person with no background check and no paper trail. Rick Serrano, chief agent in the ATF office in McAllen, on the Texas-Mexico border, says he thinks most transactions at gun shows in his region are legitimate but he acknowledges they're ideal venues for illicit buyers.

Mr. RICK SERRANO (ATF): You know, it's a perfect opportunity for someone looking for a firearm without having to, you know, have it traced back to them, and it's a one-stop-shopping place.

BURNETT: The ATF recognizes that straw purchases are a big problem in the United States as well as Mexico. The agency, together with the National Shooting Sports Foundation, developed an education campaign for gun merchants called Don't Lie for the Other Guy. One participant is Chuck's Gun Shop in Brownsville, Texas. Owner Chuck Frediew says he's always on the lookout for bogus gun buyers but he says he can only do so much.

Mr. CHUCK FREDIEW (Chuck's Gun Shop): I have no crystal ball that tells me if this gentlemen's going to take this gun to someone else, and as long as he meets the criteria by federal law, then he has every right, by our Second Amendment, to purchase that gun.

BURNETT: The wide-open US gun market comes up from time to time in bilateral security talks between Washington and Mexico City. Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, former national security adviser to Mexican President Vicente Fox, recalled raising the issue with former Attorney General John Ashcroft.

Mr. ADOLFO AGUILAR ZINSER (Former Mexican Presidential Adviser): He said, `Let's be symmetrical. We do share your concern for drugs as much as you share our concern for weapons.'

BURNETT: And how far did you get with that argument?

Mr. ZINSER: Well, in the question of weapons, we didn't get that far. They always told us that there were major regulatory obstacles to do what we want them to do, to attend to a very serious problem, which is the huge amounts of weapons that originated in the United States and that end up in Mexico or in other parts of Latin America.

BURNETT: In response, the Department of Justice sent an e-mail to NPR. It reads, and quote, "Mexico and the United States, through the ATF, continue to cooperate on the identification of firearms and the investigation of illicit purchasers." The department further says US authorities aggressively pursue smugglers and lawbreakers among the nation's nearly 63,000 licensed gun dealers.

John Burnett, NPR News.

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