International news 19 December 2008

U.S., Mexico bicker over weapons ban that expired in '04

Houston Chronicle

Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle Washington Bureau
Dec. 19, 2008, 8:52PM

WASHINGTON A senior U.S. law enforcement official said Friday the Bush administration never assessed whether a decade-long assault weapon ban had reduced the flow of high-powered guns into the hands of Mexican drug gangs.


"I don't think we've ever really tracked it," said William McMahon, of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.


Since the expiration of the ban in 2004, Mexican drug syndicates have built up their stockpiles, Mexican officials say. They have long maintained that the weapons many bought in Texas and smuggled into Mexico have escalated the country's drug-fueled violence that has killed more than 5,400 people this year.


U.S. officials, by contrast, have insisted that the overriding challenge is to stem the relentless flood of illegal narcotics to American users.


The controversy flared Friday when the U.S. secretary of state and the Mexican foreign minister appeared at a joint news conference.


Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the ban's expiration had no bearing on Mexico's violence.


"I follow arms trafficking across the world, and I've never known illegal arms traffickers who cared very much about the law," Rice said. "And so I simply don't accept the notion that the lifting of the ban somehow has led arms traffickers to increase their activity."


But Mexican Foreign Secretary Patricia Espinosa said authorities in her country would favor restoration of the ban.


"If on the U.S. side there were a legislative decision to adopt an initiative like that, we would obviously be very attentive to that," she said.


Gun rights' groups suspect that President-elect Barack Obama may try to revive the ban on some automatic weapons. Obama's transition team listed "making the expired federal assault weapons ban permanent" as one of the goals of the incoming administration.


Rice and Espinosa met to coordinate implementation of the first phase of the Merida Initiative. The three-year, $1.4 billion U.S. assistance program was crafted by President George W. Bush to help Mexico combat the drug-smuggling gangs.


Of the initial $400 million due Mexico under the Merida Initiative, $340.2 million has been cleared for distribution.


But timetables for equipment procurement and spending schedules mean that none of the direct assistance has reached Mexico so far, said a State Department official speaking on condition of anonymity.