Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean, North America

MEXICO: US Arms Fuel Drug Cartels’ Firepower

Diego Cevallos

MEXICO CITY, Feb 14 2008 (IPS) - An estimated 2,000 firearms and thousands of rounds of ammunition are smuggled into Mexico every day, 90 percent of them from the United States, according to official statistics. The main buyers of the sophisticated weaponry are the increasingly violent drug cartels.

Smuggled across the border from the north are anti-tank M72 and AT4 anti-tank missiles, MGL grenade launchers, RPG-7 rocket launchers, and Herstal machine guns – high-powered weapons that form part of the world’s most powerful military arsenals.

The threat posed by Mexico’s drug traffickers lies in their capacity to penetrate and corrupt state bodies and society as a whole, and in their economic strength, but also in their weaponry, an area in which they now enjoy unprecedented power, Saúl Méndez, a private consultant on security issues, told IPS.

Large arsenals of weapons uncovered by the military and police in recent operations and the current high level of drug-related violence highlight the failure of measures adopted in Mexico and the United States to crack down on the illegal arms trade, said Méndez.

On Feb. 7, soldiers found a major arms cache in a rural area in the northern state of Tamaulipas, near the U.S. border, which included 89 assault rifles and more than 80,000 rounds of ammunition.

And four days later, 44 high-powered weapons were seized in the western state of Sinaloa and the neighbouring Nuevo León.

Several suspected drug traffickers were arrested Wednesday in Mexico City with an arsenal that included an anti-air machine gun with munitions capable of penetrating any kind of armour, as well as 10 fragmentation grenades. In January, another group of traffickers had been arrested in the capital with 20 assault rifles and 12 grenade launchers.

According to the Chamber of Deputies national defence committee, during the administration of Vicente Fox (2000-2006), an estimated 4.3 million firearms were smuggled into Mexico, while only 29,360 were confiscated.

In 2007, after President Felipe Calderón took office, 4,205 assault rifles, 4,433 small firearms and 518 grenades were seized.

Georgina Sánchez, a political scientist at the Autonomous Metropolitan University who is an expert on security issues, said the presence of firearms in Mexico “is much more widespread and serious than the authorities admit and the public realises.”

In a January report, the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations said that despite the State Department’s pledges to curb weapons smuggling into Mexico, the problem had actually worsened in the past few months due to the “arms race” between Mexican drug cartels.

The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives said this month that arms trafficking to Mexico is the top problem they are facing today.

“I am asking for greater cooperation from the United States. Drug trafficking is not only a Mexican problem. We are the neighbours of the world’s largest market for drugs, and we are paying the cost,” President Calderón said on a visit to the United States this week.

So far this year, 343 people have been murdered in execution-style killings or firefights between drug gangs and the police or army, the local press reported.

Drug-related killings totalled 2,800 in 2007, and nearly 12,000 over the last seven years.

Although Mexico and the United States have worked together to combat the trafficking of weapons for over a decade, the flow has not let up.

Mexican Attorney General Eduardo Medina acknowledged in January that the problem was serious. Weapons from the United States have given drug traffickers “considerable firepower that leads to the murders of law enforcement officers and officials and members of the security forces,” he said.

Earlier this year, Mexican and U.S. officials announced new joint programmes to clamp down on arms smuggling.

During a visit to Mexico in January, U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey acknowledged that his country is the main supplier of arms to Mexican drug trafficking gangs, and promised to work to change that.

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