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Mexicans Too Have a Problem Border: Awash in US Guns

Enrique Becerra wanted a shotgun.

Not to go around in the street shooting up people, the Mexico City lawyer says, but to continue a long tradition of family sport shooting and "keeping firearms in the house for security." So ignoring Mexico's strict laws that all but prohibit gun ownership, the young man ordered an Italian 12-gauge Perazzi from a Laredo, Texas, gun dealer and paid an American $100 to smuggle it across the border.

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Mr. Becerra (not his real name) is one of tens of thousands of Mexicans who, for reasons ranging from self-defense concerns to the criminal, depend on a flourishing illegal arms trade to satisfy their needs. In recent weeks, the hue and cry over contraband may have been focused on illegal drugs, but Mexico and other Latin American countries increasingly worry about the flood of pistols, machine guns, grenade launchers, and other firearms invading their towns.

The proliferation of guns and explosives - and the frighteningly easy access to them - led Mexico last fall to propose to its Latin American partners a convention against illicit firearms trafficking. The idea quickly won favor with neighboring countries also feeling the effects of illegal-arms proliferation. It is now being considered by the Organization of American States - including the United States - and could be adopted by OAS members as early as June.

"This is one of those rare topics in the hemisphere where countries are generally in agreement, making progress possible," says Carlos Rico Ferrat, the Mexican Foreign Relations Secretariat's arms trafficking expert. Particularly promising for Mexico is Washington's interest in the convention, since the US is the source of so many of Mexico's illegal arms.

In Mexico, some of the guns come in one at a time, in what authorities call "ant trafficking." Thousands more are smuggled in containers holding hundreds of illegal but highly prized arms.

Possessing a gun is illegal in most cases in Mexico, and anything more powerful than a .380 caliber rifle is strictly reserved for use by the Army and other security forces.

Still, it's not so much the Becerras of the world that have Mexican authorities pushing neighboring countries to help crack down on the illegal gun trade.

Increasingly, guns are being used by street criminals in holdups, kidnappings, and other crimes. Mexico's guerrilla groups are thought to depend principally on supplies from the large arsenals left over from Central America's now-doused civil conflicts. And Mexican authorities say the country's drug traffickers depend largely on arms from the US to supply their fearsome firepower.

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In the past two years, 60 Mexican drug agents and police have been killed by suspected drug thugs. In 1995, 7,200 illegal weapons were seized in non-drug-related crimes alone - up from 28 in 1992.

"At my social level, people don't usually carry arms, but just about everyone has them in their house," says Becerra. "But if you go into Doctores [a central Mexico City neighborhood] or similar barrios, everybody carries a gun."

Mexico's illegal arms trade is not new. In 1993, Guadalajara's Roman Catholic Cardinal Juan Jose Posadas Ocampo was gunned down in a drug-gang shootout by a weapon smuggled in from the US. A year later, presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio was assassinated in Tijuana, also with an illegal gun from north of the border.

But the problem briefly moved center stage last month after two Mexico-bound truck containers stuffed with thousands of automatic rifles and grenade launchers were seized in a San Diego warehouse. US Customs Service officials called the arms cache one of the largest uncovered in US history.

Tide of guns flows from north ...

Coming on the heels of intense US criticism of Mexico's antidrug-trafficking program, the Mexico-bound gun shipment raised irate criticism of US efforts against illegal arms trafficking. This wasn't helped by US Customs officials speculating that another four containers might already have slipped across the border.

"When we talk about drugs they [Americans] say it [the problem] is the supply, and when we bring up arms they respond that it's the demand. In other words, we can never win," Mexico's ambassador to Washington, Jess Silva-Herzog, told reporters shortly after the San Diego arms discovery.

American arms dealers are supplying Mexico's drug-trafficking organizations with high-powered weapons, Mr. Silva-Herzog charged. Mexican officials believe that in some cases drugs-for-guns deals exist between drug lords and gun dealers.

Nevertheless many Mexican officials remain reluctant to discuss the problem, either because it raises the same issues of demand that they say the US ignores in the drug war, or because the growing number of firearms challenges the myth of a peaceful, unarmed society.

Others, like Mr. Rico, say the task of controlling Mexico's illegal arms trade is especially difficult when gun trade and ownership are so much easier in the US. With 6,000 legal gun shops in the four US states bordering Mexico, he says, control is particularly difficult.

... and south

Despite the focus on the US border, however, unreleased studies by Mexican officials also suggest that the country's southern border with Guatemala is at least as important a hotbed of arms contraband. A recent report by the Attorney General's Office (which justice officials did not want to comment on) says that arms shipments are easily transferred across the largely unpopulated and jungle-covered border.

The report, cited in the Mexico City daily El Financiero, says the problem on the southern border is especially serious because of the huge pool of arms circulating around formerly war-torn Central America. Honduran military officials estimate, for example, that more than half-a-million AK-47 rifles exist in just Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador. In Honduras alone, with a population under 4 million, as many as 1 million illegal weapons are thought to be in circulation.

It was such daunting statistics that led Mexico to propose a hemispheric arms-trafficking convention. Among other things, Rico says, the convention should begin to establish a consensus about just what kinds of arms are to be considered illegal for international trade, and set rules of notification for arms shipments for both sending and receiving countries. The draft convention calls for an annual assessment among hemispheric officials of progress in curtailing arms trafficking.

Yet because large financial interests are at stake, as with the illegal drug trade, no one believes denting the arms trade will come easy. Rico notes that the gun shipment seized in San Diego originated in Vietnam, traveled to Germany, passed through the Panama Canal, and then landed in Long Beach before heading south for Mexico. "Someone was going to a lot of trouble and spending a lot of money to get this shipment," he says.

Mexican officials say that in Guatemala, for example, military officials or civilians closely linked to the military hierarchy control a network of more than 100 outlets, usually disguised as sporting-goods stores, where firearms can be purchased.

But Guatemala's military doesn't have the corner on the arms market. Mexico's Becerra says that in his country's gun-collecting circles it's easy to procure a large variety of arms. "And often," he adds, "it's military officials doing the selling."

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