SAN DIEGO — U.S. officials report an alarming increase in the flow of arms across the porous 1,900-mile border into Mexico.
Most of the arms are believed to be destined for participants in Mexico's lucrative--and often violent--drug trade, although authorities say Mexico has also been used as a conduit for arms destined for other Latin American nations.
The gun smuggling, which has always been a problem, has escalated and become more lucrative in recent years as Mexico's drug business has boomed and its participants have found a need for additional firepower, according to law enforcement officers.
Authorities point to various numbers to back their concern. In fiscal 1984, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms' Houston office, which covers more than 1,000 miles of border in Texas and New Mexico, documented 1,480 U.S.-purchased guns that ended up in Mexico; since this fiscal year started Oct. 1, the number is approaching 10,000.
"I don't want to say that things are getting out of hand," said Phillip Chojnacki, special agent in charge of the Houston office, "but we're fairly confident from the cases we've made . . . that it's reaching major proportions. . . . It's gone from a mom-and-pop operation, where relatives would buy a couple of guns so cousin Joe could protect his farm down in the interior, to a real commodity that drug traffickers are looking for."
Officials say the flow of guns is part of a two-way traffic of contraband between the two nations: Drugs come north and guns go south. In some cases, authorities say, the same smugglers who have brought narcotics into the United States return with arms. One agent compared the technique to that employed by cross-country truckers who are hesitant to return home without a load of goods.
"Where you find narcotics trafficking, you find firearms," said David Troy, assistant special agent in charge of the ATF office in Los Angeles, whose territory covers the border areas of California and Arizona. "The narcotics industry today cannot operate without some kind of weaponry attached to (it), both because of the threat of rip-off by their own kind and the threat of enforcement operations."
Another agent noted that weapons sometimes serve as an extremely stable form of currency. "Whereas pesos and dollars may fluctuate, these guns maintain their value," he said.
South of the border, the arms traffic has raised considerable concern among Mexican officials, who are often out-gunned by trafficking rings equipped like sophisticated militias with guns brought in from the United States.
Of particular concern, authorities say, are semiautomatic, military-type weapons such as the AKS, Uzi, AR-15 and MAC-10, which can readily be converted into fully automatic, machine gun-style arms capable of firing hundreds of rounds a minute with a single pull of the trigger. Ammunition, silencers and other accessories are also part of the illicit cross-border trade, they say.
"Both nations must work within their national boundaries to stop problems such as this smuggling of contraband arms across the border," said Francisco Fonseca, a spokesman for the attorney general's office in Mexico City.
In response to the gun traffic, Mexican and U.S. officials have stepped up efforts to trace the origins of weapons seized in Mexico; such trace requests increased from fewer than 200 in fiscal 1984 to more than 1,000 already this year, according to U.S. officials. Authorities use the trace information to launch cases against gun shops that may have been illegally selling guns to Mexican nationals.
Gun-Running Cases Emphasized
Though ATF staffing along the border has remained fairly constant, Jerry Turpen, the bureau's international traffic and arms program manager in Washington, said that agents have been placing a greater emphasis on border gun-running cases. Investigations, however, are generally complex, often involving extensive surveillance and undercover operations by Spanish-speaking agents.
"We've probably dried up a few sources, and probably stopped some traffickers," Turpen said, "but in terms of stopping the traffic, no, we haven't. . . . It's simple economics; the law of supply and demand. The supply is available here and the demand is there."
Apart from the threat within Mexico, U.S. officials are concerned that the high-powered violence could spread to U.S. border areas. In Texas' Cameron County, a well-known transit point for Mexican narcotics, the Sheriff's Department was issued five fully automatic Uzis and four M-16 rifles last year to counter the threat from the other side of the Rio Grande.
"Drug traffickers in this area are using 'em," explained Carlos Tapia, chief deputy sheriff in Cameron County, "and to approach one of these guys with a pea shooter is not only lacking intelligence, but bordering on the asinine. . . . These guys don't have any borders. Their territory is the world."
Scores of Gun Shops