WASHINGTON — The United States lacks a coordinated strategy to stem the flow of weapons smuggled across its southern border, a failure that has fueled the rise of powerful criminal cartels and violence in Mexico, a government watchdog agency report has found.
The report by the congressional Government Accountability Office, the first federal assessment of the issue, offered blistering conclusions that will probably influence the debate over the role of U.S.-made weaponry as violence threatens to spill across the Mexico border.
According to a draft copy of the report, which will be released today, the growing number of weapons being smuggled into Mexico comprise more than 90% of the seized firearms that can be traced by authorities there.
The document also cited recent U.S. intelligence indicating that most weapons were being smuggled in specifically for the syndicates -- and being used not only against the Mexican government but also to expand their drug trafficking operation in the United States.
"The U.S. government lacks a strategy to address arms trafficking to Mexico," the report said in blunt terms. "Individual U.S. agencies have undertaken a variety of activities and projects to combat arms trafficking to Mexico, but they are not part of a comprehensive U.S. government-wide strategy for addressing the problem."
Obama administration officials said that, although they could not comment on the report before it was released, they have taken steps to reduce the flow of weapons, long a source of frustration to Mexican authorities.
This month, for instance, the administration announced a Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy that included a section on arms trafficking.
The GAO report's authors, however, said that strategy and similar Obama administration efforts were in the early stages and unlikely to significantly improve the situation quickly. They also said the Merida Initiative -- $1.4 billion in initial aid allotted under the George W. Bush administration -- had provided no dedicated funding to address the issue of weapons trafficking.
In the meantime, illegally obtained U.S. weapons -- including an increasing number of automatic rifles -- are being used to kill thousands of Mexican police, soldiers, elected officials and civilians, the report said.
Jess T. Ford, the GAO's director of international affairs and trade, is scheduled to deliver testimony on the findings at a House hearing today.
Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere that is holding today's hearing, said he was troubled by the findings.
"It is simply unacceptable that the United States not only consumes the majority of the drugs flowing from Mexico but also arms the very cartels that contribute to the daily violence that is devastating Mexico," said Engel, who requested the report.
The GAO singled out the two agencies primarily responsible for combating weapons trafficking for criticism -- the Justice Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The auditors said those agencies had not effectively coordinated their efforts, in part because they lacked clear roles and responsibilities and had been operating under an outdated interagency agreement. As a result, the agencies duplicated one another's initiatives, leading to confusion.
They also lack the kind of systematic analysis and reporting of weapons trafficking data -- such as how many firearms they have seized that were destined for Mexico -- that would allow authorities to better investigate and prosecute cases.
In response, Justice Department and Homeland Security officials acknowledged that they were working to address some shortcomings the GAO identified.
ATF Assistant Director W. Larry Ford said that his agency and ICE were working to complete a memorandum of understanding "to maximize our joint effectiveness to combat violent crime along the Southwest border."
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said interagency cooperation "has been a priority of mine since I became secretary."
"Any agreement between ICE and DEA will increase our ability to secure the border, curtail drug trafficking and make our country safer," Napolitano said in a statement. "I am very optimistic that we will reach an agreement soon."
But the GAO criticisms go beyond operational concerns. Some findings cited laws and policies in the U.S. and Mexico that could make it difficult to institute lasting reforms such as lax U.S. laws for collecting and reporting information on firearms purchases, and a lack of required background checks for private firearms sales.
Moreover, they said, the United States was not doing enough to help Mexico with fighting weapons trafficking and related corruption on its side of the border.
The two countries have not established a bilateral, multiagency arms-trafficking task force, and Mexico has not fully implemented the ATF's electronic firearms tracing system -- "an important tool for U.S. arms trafficking investigations in the United States," Jess Ford planned to say in his testimony, according to the report.
Another significant challenge, according to Ford, was corruption within the Mexican government.
"Despite President [Felipe] Calderon's efforts to combat organized crime," Ford will say, "extensive corruption at the federal, state and local levels of Mexican law enforcement impedes U.S. efforts to develop effective and dependable partnerships with Mexican government entities in combating arms trafficking."