TOPICS > Politics

American Cross-border Gun Traffic Fuels Mexican Drug-related Violence

June 16, 2009 at 6:25 PM EDT
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NewsHour special correspondent Jeffrey Kaye reports on the American gun trade that is fueling drug-related violence in Mexico and new efforts to stop it.
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JEFFREY KAYE, NewsHour special correspondent: The Mexican city of Juarez, just across the border from El Paso, Texas, looks like it’s under military occupation. Police and soldiers patrol streets and man roadblocks.

The show of force which began in March is designed to intimidate violent drug cartels who are fighting each other and the police. A woman killed recently as she drove a car filled with passengers was one of three murder victims on the same day.

Last year in Ciudad Juarez, there were 1,600 killings. That’s more than double the murder rate in the most violent city in the U.S.

While the army presence in Juarez has led to a drop in violence, homicides linked to organized crime are still a daily occurrence, and drug cartels remain well-armed militias.

Police have determined that thousands of weapons they’ve seized were smuggled into Mexico from the United States. Since Mexico has strict gun control laws, its government demanded the U.S. reduce the flow of firearms across the border.

The Obama administration has pledged millions of dollars to trace and interdict weapons, weapons like these. At the El Paso County sheriff’s shooting range, Deputy Eduardo Gutierrez demonstrated the cartel’s weapons of choice: high-caliber rifles, such as the rugged AK-47, and pistols…

OFFICER: Line it up. All you’ve got to do is line up your sights…

JEFFREY KAYE: … such as the Belgian-made Herstal 5-7, which has been called a cop-killer.

But stopping the flow of weapons is not an easy task. Both nations have stepped up vehicle inspections at the border with limited results. Between El Paso and Juarez, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents conduct periodic check points of Mexico-bound traffic. Dogs sniff for weapons and currency. Agents question some drivers and use a mobile X-ray device on selected vehicles.

WILLIAM MOLASKI, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, El Paso: So far, you know, we’ve not had much success as far as intercepting the weapons and/or currency.

JEFFREY KAYE: To what do you attribute that?

WILLIAM MOLASKI: I really don’t have an explanation for it. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that we’re re-establishing ourselves out in the outbound arena, along with gaining the increased intelligence that we would need to be a little bit more successful in this area.

Governments collaborate

JEFFREY KAYE: The Mexicans are installing more high-tech devices to catch gun-runners, but as of now surveillance on the Mexican side is sparse. Cars that get red lights are stopped, but inspectors check only 1 vehicle in 10. Mexican soldiers run a secondary checkpoint for cars and drivers they deem suspicious. Still, the returns are small.

The governments are also working together. By examining bullets from seized weapons, as well as markings on the guns themselves, they look for information they hope will lead to traffickers.

Miguel Garcia Seldovar is a ballistics expert with the Mexican attorney general's office. Garcia said he notes the markings on the firearms. The data he collects goes to the National Tracing Center in Martinsburg, West Virginia. There, agents with ATF, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, run checks. But the system, known as eTrace, has its limits because there's no national gun registry.

BALLISTICS EXPERT: The information you get back is telling you, here's the dealer that originally had the firearm and here's the first retail purchaser.

JEFFREY KAYE: ATF agents such as this investigator in the Houston office -- we were asked not to show his face -- then begin their police work by talking to the gun dealer.

BALLISTICS EXPERT: Sometimes you hit a homerun and the bad guy's the one who went in and bought the gun. Other times, you go and you talk to three different people. You know, "I sold it to so-and-so." "So-and-so says I sold it to this guy." And this guy says, "I don't remember what I did with it. I traded somebody a TV for it. I don't know." And then it's just -- that's it. It just dies.

JEFFREY KAYE: There are over 54,000 licensed U.S. gun dealers, more than all of the McDonald's restaurants in the world. The ATF considers firearm sellers essential links in the investigative chain.

Emmett Kelly is owner of the Gun Emporium in Conroe, Texas. Lee Wade is the store manager.

So this is your record?

STORE MANAGER: This is my record.

Investigating gun dealers' records

JEFFREY KAYE: While these records are computerized, many gun dealers keep handwritten forms. ATF inspections of records can be few and far between.

How closely does the ATF keep watch on what you do?

EMMETT KELLY, gun dealer: Well, since I've been in business, they've been in here and audited me three different times.

JEFFREY KAYE: And you've been in business for 10 years?

EMMETT KELLY: I've been in business for 10, going on 11 years.

JEFFREY KAYE: Acting ATF Director Kenneth Melson acknowledges that the oversight of federal firearms licensees, or FFLs, is not what it should be.

KENNETH MELSON, acting director, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives: The vast majority of FFLs have a lot of integrity and they keep the records that they should, and they're a partner with us in our gun-trafficking investigations. But there are a couple, you know, 2 percent or 3 percent, perhaps, that aren't compliant with the rules and the regulations.

JEFFREY KAYE: Tom Diaz of the Violence Policy Center, a pro-gun control group based in Washington, D.C., says the system makes it too easy for gun traffickers.

TOM DIAZ, Violence Policy Center: Two propositions cannot both be true at the same time. That is that relying on federally licensed dealers to stop gunrunning and record levels of gunrunning existing at the same time, they both can't be true. They're mutually exclusive. Either the dealer system works or it doesn't. The evidence is that it does not.

JEFFREY KAYE: Since Texas is home to more weapons dealers than any other state and is considered a center for gunrunning, this spring, about 100 ATF agents and investigators descended on Houston. They're part of a plan to temporarily beef up the agency's nearly 4-year-old Project Gunrunner.

SPEAKER: Good morning. I want to thank everybody for coming in.

Chasing down a backlog

JEFFREY KAYE: For 120 days, the agents were to fan out along the Southwest border, largely to chase down a backlog of leads. But in a briefing, federal prosecutor Mark White reminded agents of the high burden of proof required in making cases against straw buyers, U.S. citizens with clean records paid to buy guns for Mexican drug cartels.

MARK WHITE III, assistant U.S. Attorney: You're proving somebody's state of mind. It's difficult to do unless you get a confession from the person making the purchase.

JEFFREY KAYE: Cases lacking outright admissions of guilt, he warned, are difficult to prosecute.

MARK WHITE III: I can't prove somebody guilty of making a false statement in connection with a firearms purchase simply because they bought, you know, 5 or 10 AR-15s. It's legal to do that.

JEFFREY KAYE: Agents are also likely to do more undercover work at gun shows, where personnel weapons, including high-caliber firearms, can be sold without records or paperwork changing hands. ATF officials describe the 120- day reassignment of agents as a surge, but skeptics question the impact it might have on gunrunning.

Manny Marquez is a deputy sheriff with El Paso County.

DEPUTY SHERIFF: Cartels, they watch the media. For 120 days, they know they're not going to be able to do very much. After these 120 days, they might wait and then they're going to start right up again.

JEFFREY KAYE: So they'll take a four-month vacation, essentially?

DEPUTY SHERIFF: You might say that.

JEFFREY KAYE: Why announce that it's a 120-day deal?

KENNETH MELSON: Well, because we want them to know that we're here for a surge and that we have them in our sights right now. This is not a one-time shot or an effort that's going to go away.

We have committed, along with the administration, to stop the gun trafficking going south. And we're going to do whatever we have to do with our resources or with additional resources that we may be getting from Congress and the president to go ahead and stop this gun trafficking.

JEFFREY KAYE: But despite any extra resources, police agencies are up against the laws of supply and demand. High stakes provide traffickers plenty of incentive to keep the supply chains for narcotics and weaponry flowing across the border.