Pubdate: Wed, 01 Oct 2008
Source: Corpus Christi Caller-Times (TX)
Copyright: 2008 Corpus Christi Caller-Times


Illegal guns being funneled into Mexico through Southern California
are arming a violent drug war that could weaken the Mexican
government, a top federal official said.

U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Acting
Director Michael Sullivan said that stopping the gun trade should be
the agency's top priority and an obligation of U.S. foreign relations.

"If nothing is done, it could severely impact Mexico's ability to
maintain a stable government. We're seeing a record number of
(Mexican) law enforcement agents killed," Sullivan said at his
agency's Glendale office recently.

The ATF is zeroing in on shipments of American-made firearms moving
across the border through the southwestern United States. Increased
enforcement of the gun trade could mean greater oversight of gun
retailers and gun shows, and more inspections for Americans traveling
to Mexico.

ATF officials said they believe the gun trade and drug cartels are
intertwined with Southern California gangs, said Karl Anglin, ATF Los
Angeles assistant special agent in charge.

California State University at San Bernardino criminal justice
associate professor Brian Levin agreed the arms and drug trade create
a network of crime in local cities and threatens the Mexican
government's democracy.

"This is something that has unfortunately slipped under the radar for
the average American," Levin said. "One of the main elements of drug
trafficking is the threatening use of arms. It shouldn't be any
surprise that increasing violence in Mexico is leading to violence in
the U.S."

San Bernardino, Calif., has ranked in the top three regions in the
country for guns seized by the ATF from criminals and gang members,
San Bernardino police Lt. Brian Boom said.

"There's firm evidence that independent drug traffickers moving the
guns live in (inland parts of Southern California) and a lot of the
guns stay here," said ATF Special Agent Maxwell Muse, based in San
Bernardino. "We haven't got the mother lode yet, but we know it's
happening. When these gang members get involved in the drug and gun
trade, it makes for a deadly mix."

ATF estimates that 95 percent of the weapons currently in Mexico are
American made and a portion are moving south of the border through
inland Southern California. The gun trade fuels multiple drug cartels
that rule the border and help move drugs between Canada and Colombia.

The majority of guns moved through California come from other states,
such as Arizona and Nevada, where laws are less restrictive than
California's 30-day waiting period and assault rifle ban. The weapons
can then be transported south, but local authorities believe a portion
of them remain in California cities.

U.S. dealers are able to turn a quick profit of up to about $5,000 per
gun sold in Mexico, Sullivan said. They can either move the guns in
exchange for cash or as part of a deal to bring drugs back into the
United States.

"What we have is a relationship between the narcotics trafficking with
the gun trade moving south," Anglin said. "It turned out to be a
bigger problem than we thought. It's all related -- we know drugs are
coming north on the same route where the guns are moving south."

Riverside and San Bernardino counties serve as a transfer point for
some of an estimated 7,000 assault rifles and handguns being moved.
"That route is a natural path for criminal organizations to move the
guns southbound," Anglin said.

The guns are purchased by individuals who can legally buy them, who
then turn them over to a smuggler. In Mexico, legal gun purchases are
restricted to law enforcement and the military.

The American guns can be sold at five times what they cost to purchase
in the United States, Sullivan said. Guns purchased in the U.S. are
carried over the border sometimes individually or a few at a time,
hidden in cars.

The Mexican attorney general announced last week plans for the
government there to begin searching 10 percent of the 230,000 vehicles
leaving the U.S. daily. The previous inspection rate varied. The
announcement comes after an escalation of violence on the Mexican side
related to the drug trade and guns that have been smuggled from the
U.S., Sullivan said.

"We're seeing government leaders assassinated and officers killed on
the border. The effort is not limited to Mexican officials. We
recognize we should be equally committed and we're beefing up our
division to counter that," Sullivan said.

U.S. officials are working with Mexican authorities to trace serial
numbers and ballistics of guns seized there back to where they were
purchased in the states, and, potentially, to the buyers who sent them
to Mexico.

ATF is also increasing inspections of gun retailers and gun shows in
the United States to monitor sales records and specific buyers who may
be purchasing large numbers of weapons.

The ATF previously inspected gun retailers every 10 years but has
increased them to every six years. The agency's goal is to do
inspections every three to five years to closely monitor buyers who
may be moving the guns to Mexico.

ATF officials work to extradite suspected gun smugglers caught in
Mexico back to the United States to face prosecution, including
Mexican citizens.

"Our goal is shutting this operation down," Sullivan said. "Every
piece of the puzzle might take down a single individual or a whole
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MAP posted-by: Larry Seguin