Thursday, March 19, 2009

Border agency draws fire for weapons traffic to Mexico

Border agency draws fire for weapons traffic to Mexico

By Chris Strohm


March 11, 2009

For years, the Homeland Security Department has been criticized for not doing enough to prevent illegal immigrants and drugs from coming into the country across the southern border. Now the department is under heavy fire for not stopping the flow of illegal weapons from the United States to Mexico.Homeland Security officials told lawmakers Tuesday they are quickly trying to clamp down on arms trafficking into Mexico that is fueling a bloody war between drug cartels and the Mexican government.According to the Mexican government, about 90 percent of weapons seized from the cartels came illegally from the United States.One shipment seized in November included 500,000 rounds of ammunition, 288 assault rifles, 287 grenades, two grenade launchers and a rocket launcher used to take out tanks, Mexico's ambassador to the United States wrote recently in a letter to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.U.S. Customs and Border Protection is ramping up its ability to inspect vehicles traveling through checkpoints into Mexico, Jayson Ahern, the agency's acting commissioner, told the House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee at a hearing Tuesday.The effort includes using nonintrusive inspection equipment and dogs to find weapons, Ahern said. He added that the department's fiscal 2010 budget request in April will include initiatives to inspect southbound traffic.But lawmakers expressed frustration over the lack of coordination among U.S. agencies to combat arms smuggling.House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman David Price, D-N.C., demanded a detailed report explaining what CBP is doing, and what Immigration and Customs Enforcement is doing, to address the situation.Price said he wants the report to include what kinds of weapons are being smuggled from the United States into Mexico.Other lawmakers said the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, an arm of the Justice Department, lacks enough resources to inspect firearm dealers in the United States.Ahern said stopping illegal arms smuggling depends on assistance from the Mexican government, especially through inspections at Mexico's border checkpoints.He said after the hearing that CBP is examining what it needs in terms of checkpoint improvements and technology to sustain inspection efforts of southbound traffic over time. He said everything is under consideration, from scanners to personnel.Feinstein and Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., want the Senate to ratify the Inter-American Convention against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Ammunition, Explosives, and Other Related Materials.To date, 29 countries have ratified the convention, including Mexico -- but not the United States.Feinstein and Durbin wrote to Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., and ranking member Richard Lugar, R-Ind., asking them to consider the convention and report it to the full Senate.They said ratification would "provide an unequivocal statement that the United States is serious about stemming the tide of weapons flowing to Mexico."Feinstein asked President Obama in a letter Monday to support ratification of the convention."The bottom line is this: Mexican drug cartels are spewing death and destruction across large swaths of territory along the U.S.-Mexican border which will inevitably spill over to the American side and threaten American lives," Feinstein wrote.Lawmakers emphasized at Tuesday's hearing they worry that violence will spread in the United States due to Mexico's drug wars."This is a war with potentially devastating consequences for the United States," said Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member Harold Rogers, R-Ky."Don't tell me there's no spillover possibility in the United States," he added. "And yet I don't believe we're taking it seriously."Ahern said CBP has developed contingency plans under which it would flow more personnel and technology to the border if needed. He declined to provide details on the contingency plans to reporters after the hearing.

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