NUEVO LAREDO, Mexico — The most popular instruments of robbery, torture, homicide and assassination in this violence-racked border city are imported from the United States.
"Warning," reads the sign greeting motorists on the U.S. side as they approach the Rio Grande that separates the two countries here. "Illegal to carry firearms/ammunition into Mexico. Penalty, prison."
The signs have done little to stop what U.S. and Mexican officials say is a steady and growing commerce of illicit firearms in Mexico -- 9-millimeter pistols, shotguns, AK-47s, grenade launchers. An estimated 95% of weapons confiscated from suspected criminals in Mexico were first sold legally in the United States, officials in both countries say.
Guns are the essential tools of a war among underworld crime syndicates that claimed between 1,400 and 2,500 lives in 2005, according to tallies by various newspapers and magazines.
The biggest criminals in Mexico are engaged in an arms race, with an armor-piercing machine gun as the new must-have weapon for the cartels fighting one another for control of the lucrative trade in narcotics, U.S. and Mexican officials say.
In 2005, Nuevo Laredo residents endured the specter of more than 100 suspected drug-cartel executions in their city, and the release of a horrific videotape in which a suspected drug-cartel gunman executes a "prisoner." The city has become a tragic symbol of the gun violence sweeping through the entire country.
"It's obvious where all the arms are coming from," said Higenio Ibarra Murillo, a Nuevo Laredo business owner in the city's historic downtown district. "We don't make any guns or rifles here" in Mexico.
Buying a weapon legally is extremely difficult in Mexico. The country's defense secretary issues all gun licenses -- the wait is a year or more, and the cost about $1,900. Licenses must be renewed every two years.
There are fewer than 2,500 registered gun owners in the entire country. Yet Mexican police confiscate an average of 256 weapons every day from suspects, officials from the attorney general's office said recently.
Javier Ortiz Campos of Mexico's Federal Preventive Police says traces by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives on weapons confiscated in Mexico often lead to the gun shops, gun shows and flea markets of Texas. The U.S. state has some of the most liberal gun laws in the country and a porous, 1,240-mile-long border with Mexico.
"Over there they even sell guns at Wal-Mart," Ortiz Campos said. The weapons confiscated in Mexico come mostly from U.S. border cities such as Laredo, El Paso and Brownsville, he said. But many come also from Houston and San Antonio.
"We're finding a lot of weapons from Houston, because the buyers get a better price there than at the border," Ortiz Campos said.
Organized-crime groups in Mexico often buy their weapons in bulk via "straw purchasers" in Texas, where there is no limit on the number of firearms a resident can purchase, said a U.S. official who asked not to be named.
Typically, the Mexican buyer will pay a Texas resident $50 to $100 to acquire the weapons, the official said.
In one case, Mexican and U.S. authorities working together traced 80 confiscated firearms to a Mexican national who paid Texas residents to buy weapons on his behalf, the official said.
Police recovered one 9-millimeter handgun last year at the scene of a shootout between officers and suspected drug-cartel hit men outside the Mexican border town of Reynosa. A trace of the weapon by ATF agents led to another Texas man who had bought 160 weapons. That man is facing gun-trafficking charges in the U.S.
Last year, ATF officials in Arizona arrested a man trying to buy 30 U.S. military hand grenades. The man told undercover agents the grenades were intended for drug traffickers in the northern Mexican state of Sonora. In August, a Tucson man was charged with smuggling AK-47s and AK-47 parts into Mexico.
Large caches of weapons routinely turn up here and in other border communities. Twenty assault rifles were seized in Tijuana on Dec. 20; that same day, Mexican army troops in the state of Sinaloa detained a group of men who were armed with five AK-47 rifles and one AR-15 rifle.
In Nuevo Laredo last month, Mexican police stumbled upon an arsenal in the hands of suspected organized crime members that included grenades, semiautomatic handguns and seven AR-15 assault rifles.
No store in Nuevo Laredo sells handguns or rifles over the counter. But if you take a 15-minute walk over the border to Laredo, you'll find the Bushmaster AR-15 rifle on sale at one gun store for $1,199.
The salespeople at the store speak Spanish, but the sign over a display case of semiautomatic handguns is in English: "If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns."