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Mexico: United States must battle cross-border weapons trade
MEXICO CITY — Mexico blames Americans for arming the world's most powerful drug cartels, a complaint supported Friday by a U.S. government report that found nearly all of Mexico's escalating drug killings involved weapons from north of the border.
President Felipe Calderon said his police and soldiers are dangerously outgunned because U.S. authorities are failing to stop the smuggling of high-powered weapons into Mexico. His attorney general called for more aggressive prosecutions of gun smugglers, saying the U.S. constitutional right to bear arms doesn't protect them.
"The Second Amendment was not put there to arm foreign criminal groups," Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora said Thursday.
Calderon has complained for two years that the U.S. isn't carrying its weight in the cross-border drug war, despite the fact that American drug users ultimately finance the cartels.
"I'm fighting corruption among Mexican authorities and risking everything to clean house, but I think a good cleaning is in order on the other side of the border," Calderon said.
President Obama's administration is beginning to respond. On Wednesday, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder promised to enforce a long-ignored ban on importing assault weapons, many of which are resold illegally and smuggled into Mexico to resupply the cartels.
Calderon applauded Holder's announcement as "the first time ... in many years that the American government is starting to show more commitment."
When the U.S. enforced the assault weapons ban, only 21 percent of the weapons Mexico seized from traffickers were assault rifles, Medina Mora said. Today, more than half are, and Mexican law enforcement officials are paying with their lives — some 800 have been killed in the past two years.
Drug-related killings claimed 6,290 lives last year in Mexico — more than double the 2007 toll, and more than 1,000 have been killed so far this year, he added.
Both Calderon and his top prosecutor said the U.S. should aggressively enforce gun laws and pressure sellers to keep weapons in the hands of law-abiding citizens.
Their complaints were supported by a U.S. State Department report Friday that weapons bought or stolen in the U.S. were used in 95 percent of the killings.
The report also said cartels are increasingly carrying out contract killings inside the United States, part of a wave of violence that also includes a sharp rise in kidnappings in Phoenix.
Holder announced Wednesday the Drug Enforcement Administration had rounded up 755 suspected Sinaloa cartel members and seized more than $59 million in drug money in the past 21 months.
Congress is also paying attention. Lawmakers included $10 million in the economic stimulus package for Project Gunrunner, a federal crackdown on U.S. gun-trafficking networks.
The Brookings Institution has estimated that 2,000 guns enter Mexico from the United States every day. The ATF says more than 7,700 guns sold in America were traced to Mexico last year, up from 3,300 the year before and about 2,100 in 2006.
Cartels turn to the U.S. because Mexico's gun laws are much stricter — gun buys must be pre-approved by the Mexican defense department and are limited light weapons, no higher than the standard .38-caliber. Larger calibers are considered military weapons and are off-limits to civilians.
North of the border, cartel representatives often pay U.S. citizens to purchase assault rifles for them at gun shows where background checks aren't required and sales aren't easily traced. The cartels have found this weapons source so reliable that hitmen simply toss expensive assault weapons aside while fleeing assassinations.
Obama said during his campaign that he respects the Second Amendment, but favors "common sense" gun laws. Advocates on both sides of the U.S. gun control debate took that to mean he'll eventually endorse new limits on ownership of assault weapons and background checks at the gun shows.
David Johnson, the assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement, presented the report in Washington. He said the new administration doesn't believe the constitution protects gun traffickers who deal to Mexico.
"It is something we can do something about, and we are taking some steps to do some things about it," he said.