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POLITICS: Mexican Cartels Armed by U.S.

Marina Litvinsky

WASHINGTON, Jun 18 2009 (IPS) - Many of the firearms fuelling Mexican drug violence originated in the United States, says a new report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released Thursday.

According to U.S. and Mexican government officials, these firearms have been increasingly powerful and lethal in recent years. Many are high-calibre and high-powered, such as AK and AR-15 type semiautomatic rifles.

“It is simply unacceptable that the United States not only consumes the majority of the drugs flowing from Mexico, but also arms the very cartels that contribute to the daily violence that is devastating Mexico,” said Rep. Eliot L. Engel, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, who commissioned the first ever report on this topic from the GAO.

While it is impossible to know how many firearms are illegally smuggled into Mexico in a given year, about 87 percent of firearms seized by Mexican authorities and traced in the last five years originated in the U.S., according to data from Department of Justice’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).

Many of these guns come from gun shops and gun shows in southwest border states, like Arizona, California and Texas.

U.S. and Mexican government and law enforcement officials stated most firearms are intended to support Mexican drug trafficking organisations, which control most of the U.S. drug market, and which are also responsible for trafficking arms to Mexico.

“I don’t think there are that many surprises (in the report),” said Maureen Meyer, associate for Mexico and Central America at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).

“I think it is one additional important analysis of different weaknesses that exist in the U.S. system,” she added, contending that there the report presents “obligations for both countries”.

Gun violence in Mexico has increased dramatically in the last two years, with the number of drug-related murders more than doubling from around 2,700 in 2007 to over 6,200 in 2008.

Growing criminal activity in Mexico, particularly in communities across the southwest border, has raised concerns that the violence might spill over to the U.S.

President Barack Obama has expressed concern about the increased level of violence along the border, particularly in Ciudad Juarez and Tijuana, and has called for continued monitoring of the situation.

The Obama administration’s recently released 2009 National Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy calls for deploying new technology, stepping up intelligence gathering and increasing interdiction of ships, aircraft and vehicles that are smuggling drugs, gun and cash.

It includes, for the first time, a chapter on combating illicit arms trafficking to Mexico. Since the 1970s, the United States has collaborated with Mexican authorities and provided assistance to Mexico to combat transnational crimes associated with drug trafficking, including illicit firearms smuggling.

However, counter-arms trafficking efforts have been a modest component of broader bilateral law enforcement cooperation.

In the past, the Mexican government has considered illicit arms trafficking a problem that originated in the U.S. and thus needed to be dealt with by U.S. authorities. However, it now regards illicit firearms as the number one crime problem affecting the country’s security and has taken on a greater focus in combating arms trafficking in recent years.

“The arms issue… is a subject that was not considered when discussing drug trafficking, however today it is part of the dialogue we have with our colleagues from the United States,” said Genaro García Luna, Mexico’s secretary of public security

According to the report, the U.S. government faces serious challenges in combating illicit arms sales in the U.S. and stemming their flow into Mexico. Officials identified key challenges related to restriction on collecting and reporting information on firearms purchases, a lack of required background checks for private firearms sales, and limitations on reporting requirements for multiple sales.

U.S. law enforcement assistance to Mexico does not target arms trafficking needs, limiting U.S. agencies’ ability to provide technical or operational assistance. The biggest drug enforcement aid package the U.S. has given Mexico, the 1.4 billion dollar Merida Initiative, provides general law enforcement and counternarcotics assistance to Mexico, but does not provide dedicated funding to stop weapons smuggling.

Additionally, agencies generally have not systematically gathered, analysed, and reported data that could be useful to help plan and assess results of their efforts to address arms trafficking to Mexico. Officials said a number of efforts that could be helpful in combating arms trafficking – such as establishing and supporting a bilateral, multiagency arms trafficking task force – have not been undertaken.

“It is mind-boggling that for a year and a half, we have had no inter-agency strategy to address this major problem, but instead have relied on uncoordinated efforts by a variety of agencies,” said Engel.

The report found that U.S. assistance has been limited due to Mexican officials’ incomplete use of ATF’s electronic firearms tracing system, eTrace, an important tool for U.S. arms trafficking investigations. The ability of Mexican officials to input data into eTrace has been hampered partly because a Spanish language version of eTrace, under development for months, has still not been deployed across Mexico.

According to Mexican and U.S. government officials, extensive corruption at the federal, state, and local levels of Mexican law enforcement impedes U.S. efforts to develop effective and dependable partnerships with Mexican government entities in combating arms trafficking.

Mexican federal authorities are implementing anticorruption measures, measures – including polygraph and psychological testing, background checks, and salary increases – but government officials acknowledge fully implementing these reforms will take considerable time, and may take years to affect comprehensive change.

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