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California and the West

Mexican Congress Takes Aim at Illegal Guns From U.S.

Weapons: Angry over flow of arms coming south, many linked to drug trafficking cartels, lawmakers are expected to approve harsher penalties for smugglers.

September 07, 1998|JAMES F. SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MEXICO CITY — Next time you pop across the Mexican border for a visit, remember to leave your AR-15 semiautomatic assault rifle at home.

This year, 123 U.S. citizens have been arrested in Mexico on weapons charges, according to the U.S. Embassy here, and about 70 Americans--including an Orange County man--are now being held, accused or convicted of violating the country's strict Firearms and Explosives Act.

In some cases, people honestly forget that they have a gun in the trunk or bullets in the glove compartment, U.S. and Mexican authorities acknowledge. But other cases are more sinister: Mexico is awash in guns smuggled in from the United States and used by organized crime syndicates, many of them linked to brutal drug cartels.

The Mexican Congress is close to giving final approval to a new law that would give border officials more discretion in cases in which visitors obviously have inadvertently brought weapons with them. But be warned: The law also will make the penalties even harsher for those who do try to smuggle arms into Mexico. Already, those convicted face up to 30 years in prison. The law will make more weapons offenses subject to such tough prison terms.

Just as Washington is dismayed about illegal drugs flowing north from Mexico, so the Mexican government is angry over the flood of illegal weapons coming south. More than 1,000 illegal weapons a month were seized from 1995 to mid-1997, nearly 40% of them linked to drug trafficking cartels, according to the Foreign Relations Ministry.

Pointing to the flow from the north, Mexican officials like to note, for example, that the gun used to assassinate presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio in 1994 was traced to Texas.

"Just as the Americans pressure us on certain issues, we are going to do the same thing and make this fair," Jesus Silva Herzog, a former ambassador to the U.S., told a radio interviewer last year. "While there has been a lot of racket about the movement of drugs from Mexico to the United States, we have been insisting on the need to study the movement of arms into Mexico."

His comment came just days after customs officials in San Diego seized two truckloads of illegal weapons, including grenade launchers and automatic rifles, that were about to be smuggled into Mexico.

Scott McClung, the Orange County ship captain arrested last month on charges he transported two AR-15 rifles and three shotguns into Mexico, doesn't fit neatly into either common profile: forgetful, innocent or purposeful gun-runner. Yet his case illustrates the potential dangers for U.S. citizens who bring guns to Mexico.

In a jailhouse interview hours before his indictment on the weapons charge, McClung, who runs deep-sea religious voyages for youths, said he knew the Mexican gun and maritime laws and complied with them. Ships may dock with arms aboard if the weapons are declared upon landing, but they may not be brought ashore.

The 36-year-old skipper said he declared his guns--aboard for protection against pirates, he said--as soon as his ship reached the harbor of the resort island of Cozumel on Aug. 10 during an unexpected stop because of engine trouble. He collapsed and was hospitalized after being ordered to stand trial.

McClung, who remains in an island hospital while awaiting trial, charges that he is the victim of a local prosecutor who thought he could solicit a quick bribe. The prosecutor argued that McClung made no declaration of weapons aboard. Beyond that, the prosecutor has said he is prohibited from commenting on the case, including the accusations against him, other than to note that a trial judge considered the evidence presented by both sides and ruled that McClung must stand trial--and be held without bail until then.

McClung's 71-year-old father, Eugene, who also was jailed with his son for nine days until charges against the elder man were dropped, said: "I don't have any problem with them controlling the flow of guns into the country. All they need to do is abide by their own laws."

The gun issue has long been a sore point in U.S.-Mexican relations, to the extent that Mexican officials prepared the legal change earlier this year to alleviate some of the irritants.

"There are different perceptions [about weapons] in the U.S. and Mexico," a senior official in the attorney general's office said. "In Mexico, we believe that carrying a gun implies the potential to commit a crime. Historically, the U.S. has had greater political stability. Here, since the '60s and '70s, there have been guerrilla uprisings, and there is more and more violent crime, with firearms, that ends up in killings."

The Mexican Senate approved the bill in April, and the lower house is expected to give its assent by November. Among other provisions, the law would allow nonresidents who are considered innocent bearers of arms to be turned back or fined rather than face automatic arrest and prosecution.

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