MEXICO CITY— Amid plans for a regional push against drug traffickers, U.S. officials are vowing to intensify efforts to stop the southward smuggling of the guns feeding Mexico’s rampaging gangland violence.
“It’s not just a Mexican problem,” said Dewey Webb, the agent in charge of the Houston district office of the U.S. Bureau for Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, or ATF.
“We share that border. We share the responsibility for stopping these weapons coming into Mexico,” Webb said. “In Houston, it’s our number one priority.”
Last week, U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales met with senior Mexican and Central American officials to strategize on a regional anti-narcotics campaign. Gonzales promised that as part of that drive, American officials would enhance efforts to stop the flow of U.S.-sold weapons to Mexican gangs.
Webb and other senior ATF agents from border states conferred with their Mexican counterparts here this week on ways to improve cooperation.
The meetings come as President Felipe Calderon’s administration struggles to contain the underworld fighting that has taken as many 1,200 lives so far this year and killed more than 2,000 people last year.
Mexican officials, who have been critical of U.S. anti-narcotics efforts in recent months, claim to have traced to the United States as many as 95 percent of the weapons seized from drug gangs.
About half the weapons confiscated here in recent years have been traced back to South Texas, said Webb, whose district covers most of the Texas-Mexico border.
A gun bought in Houston, for instance, was used in the killings of police officers in the Pacific Coast resort of Acapulco earlier this year. Many of the weapons recovered following a shootout last month near the town of Cananea, near the Arizona border, were tracked to South Texas, Webb said.
“The level of violence, the caliber of the weapons used, the type of weapons being used, the frequency in which they’re being used — that’s what’s new,” Webb said in an interview here.”That’s the reason we’re ramping up and putting more resources into this.”
Since taking office in December, Calderon has deployed 30,000 soldiers and federal police to cities along the U.S. border, the Pacific resort of Acapulco and his home state of Michoacan. Though popular with the public — recent polls show an 85 percent approval rate — the military offensive has failed to stop the violence, or, presumably, the flow of drugs to the United States.
The weapons trade has been a lucrative one along the U.S- Mexico border since 1968, when tougher gun laws were enacted in Mexico, Webb said.
A semi-automatic rifle like an AK-47 or an AR-15 that sells for about $400 in Texas can be sold for up to $1,500 in Mexico, he said.. The weapons can be modified easily to become fully automatic. But most of the guns recovered from crime scenes in Mexico remain unmodified semi-automatics, he said, meaning that one bullet is fired with each squeeze of the trigger.
U.S. state and federal laws have helped the gunrunning business along. For instance, while initial weapon sales from authorized dealers are recorded by law in Texas, no records are required for their resale.
And though documentation is required if a person buys more than one gun within five days from the same dealer, no one keeps track of an individual’s purchases made in the same time frame from various dealers.
To skirt reporting requirements, gunrunners often use people with no criminal records — paying them hundreds of dollars per weapon in the process — to buy guns for them.
In one recent Texas case, ATF agents arrested a couple, their daughter and a family friend for making as many as 170 so-called “straw purchases” on behalf of smugglers. A McAllen gunshop owner was convicted of falsifying documents on 100 weapons headed for Mexico.
Southbound guns often are moved across the border in small loads hidden in cars or cargo that often receive receive rudimentary inspection by Mexican customs officials. Though many smugglers are small-time operations, Webb said his office targets more sophisticated groups moving larger numbers of weapons.
“We focus on the large groups because most of those are dealing directly with the drug trafficking organizations,” Webb said. “We focus on what has the most potential for violence.”