Mexico has been the focus of the H1N1 flu outbreak, but the rash of killings carried out by the country's drug trafficking gangs continues to be an urgent problem. Many of the guns used by hit men working for the drug cartels have been traced back to the United States and U.S. officials are trying to crack down on smuggling of weapons into Mexico. But the effort may have limited impact on violence in Mexico.
Border guards now searching for guns
Crossing the border from Mexico to the United States can sometimes involve long waits as Customs and Border Protection agents examine papers and search vehicles. But these days the crossing into Mexico also takes a little more time as federal agents target some vehicles to search for guns.
"We are basing a lot of what we are doing out here on intelligence, just information we are gathering from working in this environment....and we are targeting vehicles that we suspect might be conducting that type of business," explained Bill Molaski, director of the Port of El Paso.
The searches at this particular border crossing have only produced one handgun so far, but the effort is praised by Mexico's General Consul in El Paso, Roberto Rodriguez.
"It is a good start to see what the American authorities are doing, especially stopping the trafficking of guns. Most of the guns used by the gangs in Mexico are coming from the United States," Rodriguez said.
US gun store owners deny they are source of gangs' weapons
But American gun store owners say it is unlikely gangs are getting many weapons from them.
Charles Wagnon, who owns Tex-Guns in Austin, Texas, says no one comes here to buy an arsenal.
"There is certainly not anybody here buying anything in any kind of quantity to pass them on," he said.
Wagnon says he cannot obtain or sell fully automatic rifles or grenade launchers like the ones being used by criminal gangs in Mexico.
Analyst: gun store purchases account for very few Mexico crimes
He says some semi-automatic weapons can be converted to full automatic, but only by someone with expertise.
"There are guns that are, apparently, easier to convert than others, but not without a good bit of knowledge," Wagnon explained. "I certainly have no idea who is out there doing that sort of thing."
International security analyst Fred Burton, who works for Stratfor (Strategic Forecasting) in Austin, says gun store purchases probably account for very few of the weapons used in Mexico crimes.
"If you think about the volume of weapons the narcos [narcotics traffickers] have in their possession any time there is a bust, what you see is an extraordinary number of automatic weapons of Chinese manufacture, Russian manufacture and you do see some weapons that have been stolen or purchased illegally here in the United States," Burton said.
Mexican military cited as gun source
He says many of the U.S. guns in criminal hands come from the Mexican military, which has a high rate of desertion.
"You have soldiers defecting with not only issued military weapons, it could be issued ammunition, issued grenades," he said.
Burton notes that one of the most fearsome drug gangs in Mexico, the so-called Zetas were members of an elite military unit that switched sides and have used their training and their weapons against their former comrades.
Many guns used by Mexican soldiers come from direct commercial sales by American companies, approved by the U.S. State Department, something Burton says should be examined more closely.
"I think that is going to be an issue as we look at some of the foreign aid initiatives into Mexico," Burton said, "meaning what are we issuing to them, what are we selling the Mexican government and where are the weapons going?"
No system for tracing, identifying guns
Initial claims that 90 percent of guns used by criminals in Mexico came from the United States turned out to be based on faulty data analysis. The real figure is probably less than half, but hard to determine because there is no coordinated system between Mexico and the United States for tracing and identifying guns.
That is something Mexican Consul Roberto Rodriguez says should be addressed.
"We need to find a way to cooperate with each other in order to trace the guns in a proper way," Rodriguez said.
He says talks are under way between the two nations on how to establish a better system for law enforcement agencies in each country to share information on guns with each other.