Agencies join forces to stop arms trafficking to Mexico

U.S. officials estimate that more than 90 percent of the cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines that enter the United States are funneled through Mexico across the Southwest border.

A less frequently cited figure is equally alarming to anyone living south of the border: Ninety percent of the weapons seized from the drug cartels by Mexican authorities are traced to the United States. While the cartels are moving drugs north, arms traffickers are moving guns south. It's a symbiotic relationship that threatens security in both countries.

As drug-related violence has soared in Mexico, where President Felipe Calderón's government has cracked down on the cartels, the relationship between guns and drugs is getting a lot more attention in Washington. Administration officials have emphasized the importance of stopping the outbound flow of guns and cash to Mexican drug trafficking organizations. "Clearly the money and weapons are just as important to the cartels, if not more important, than the drugs," says Gil Kerlikowske, the White House director of national drug control policy. "Of course, the purpose of the whole enterprise for the cartels is to garner profits and power; drugs are just a means to those ends."

Mexican officials estimate more than 11,000 murders within the past three and a half years in northern Mexico, where the cartels are battling each other and the law for control of lucrative smuggling routes. Republican Rep. Brian Bilbray, whose Southern California district borders Mexico, told his colleagues on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in July: "The death rate among law enforcement just south of our border was far beyond anything we have seen anywhere else in the world, and we just sort of ignored it because it wasn't on the radar screen for the media."

But the issue has been on the radar screen of federal agencies for some time. The Justice Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Homeland Security Department's Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency have primary responsibility for combating illicit arms sales and trafficking, and both agencies have programs aimed at stopping weapons smuggling to Mexico. But the two agencies have a checkered history when it comes to working together.

A Government Accountability Office report released in June paints a picture of dysfunctional organizations that sometimes operate more like Keystone Kops than skilled law enforcement. In one case GAO cited, ICE agents conducted surveillance on an individual at a gun show who turned out to be an undercover ATF agent working an investigation. In another incident, ATF agents set up a controlled delivery in a sting operation but neglected to tell ICE officials, jeopardizing lives and risking that the weapons would fall into the wrong hands. GAO found that officials at both agencies sometimes refused to share key documents or information on investigations in retaliation for perceived slights.

To be sure, ICE and ATF face a number of challenges outside their control. U.S. firearms laws restrict the kind of data that can be collected on gun sales, making weapons traces complicated, and sometimes impossible. Moreover, efforts to work with Mexican authorities are hampered by corruption and a lack of skilled personnel and resources devoted to arms trafficking there. But those factors make it all the more critical that U.S. agencies learn to work together more effectively.

There's reason to think that will happen, according to leaders at ICE and ATF. As auditors were finalizing GAO's report, the two agencies were negotiating the details of a memorandum of understanding that spells out how they will cooperate on investigations going forward. At the same time, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, with input from Justice and Homeland Security, updated the National Southwest Border Counter-narcotics Strategy. The document in-cludes a section on combating illicit arms trafficking to Mexico, an issue that has never before been addressed as part of a comprehensive governmentwide strategy.

"For the first time, we view drugs coming north and guns and bulk cash going south as two ends of a single problem," Alan Bersin, assistant secretary for international affairs at Homeland Security, told members of the House Oversight Committee in July.

In the December issue of Government Executive, Katherine McIntire Peters looks at coordinated efforts to stop drug and gun trafficking. Click here to read the full story.

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