Illegal Guns Flood Mexico as Drugs Flow North to U.S.
ALEX CHADWICK, host:
This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.
Coming up, tech contributor Xeni Jardin and what is coming with the games people play.
First, we're joined by NPR's John Burnett in Austin, Texas, for a conversation about guns.
JOHN BURNETT reporting:
Hi, Alex. Good to be here.
CHADWICK: We asked you on the show today for more on this report I heard on "Morning Edition" earlier: gun smuggling across the border with Mexico. And you know, I immediately thought, `Ah, guns coming into the United States illegally.' But no.
BURNETT: It's the opposite. Drugs go north and guns go south from United States gun dealers in most cases. And what I found out in about three weeks of reporting is that it's a classic relationship when you have one jurisdiction that has strict gun laws, which is Mexico, where gun ownership is severely restricted, and you have a neighboring jurisdiction with very permissive gun rules, which would be the United States. What's happening is weapons are being bought in the United States--illegally, I might add--and then smuggled across the border into Mexico. Most popular would be pistols, Colt .38s, Smith & Wesson .38s; after that, Chinese AK-47s, AR-15s, which are the civilian version of the M-16--these are assault-style, military-style weapons. And they're basically--many of the drug runners who bring narcotics north will then hide a gun or a disassembled gun in a hidden compartment in his pickup truck, and then take it south. And as one Mexican official told me, it's really not that hard to smuggle weapons into Mexico because Mexican customs do not have X-ray machines that they pass vehicles through. US customs do have X-ray machines and catch a lot of the kind of hardware that goes north.
CHADWICK: Just on the general subject of gun violence along the border, John, it seems to me I read more and more reports about battles going on, especially on the Mexican side of the border in the last couple of years--real armaments there.
BURNETT: There's a turf war going on between drug cartels in Mexico. It's been going on for several years, but it has gotten particularly nasty, and especially in Nuevo Laredo, which is a very important port and pathway for narcotics going north. And so when you have warring drug cartels, they need high-caliber weaponry. And so that's why these illegal guns from the United States are even more valuable. There have been civilians killed; a crime reporter on a radio station in Nuevo Laredo, Guadalupe Garcia, was murdered recently. In some cases, the drug runners down there are using even military-class weapons--grenades and grenade launchers, which are not acquired from gun shops but are acquired on the black market, usually stolen from the US military by soldiers and then sold into the black market. But those have become quite popular, kind of a fetish that some of these drug gangsters have for military-style weaponry.
CHADWICK: We know that US officials have been very strong in their denunciation of the drugs that come north from Mexico; they've been leaning on Mexican authorities to try to do something. What are the Mexicans saying to the US about this gun flow, and is the US doing anything about it?
BURNETT: This has been a point of contention between Mexico City and Washington for a number of years. And different diplomats have brought this up to the United States with very little satisfaction. The Department of Justice tends to answer that this is a regulatory issue, that this falls under our Second Amendment, and this is really not on the table. What has happened is that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the old ATF, has become more aggressive in tracing crime guns found in Mexico and in investigating smugglers and crooked gun dealers who enable these weapons to go south. And that has placated the Mexicans somewhat.
CHADWICK: Can they quantify in any way how many guns are coming? Do they put a number on things? Can they say it's this many or that many? And what are they going to do about it?
BURNETT: Alex, I tried to get that number when I was in Mexico City, and it's a wild number. It literally goes from, like, you know, whether, you know, from two million to 10 million illegal guns in circulation. It's really hard to say. What they can say is that the ATF and the US Embassy in Mexico City traced about 3,600 guns just last year. About half of those traces were successful. Almost all of them led to US gun dealers.
And I do want to add quickly, traditionally, the way these are bought is a smuggler will hire someone else to go into a US gun shop or to a gun show; they will purchase the weapons; the smuggler will then take possession of them and move them south. So in most cases, the US dealers are not knowingly selling weapons illegally to gun smugglers.
CHADWICK: But they're winding up in Mexico anyway.
BURNETT: In great numbers.
CHADWICK: NPR's John Burnett in Austin, Texas. Thanks, John.
BURNETT: Thank you, Alex.
CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick. More just ahead on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.
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