A member of Congress wants tougher criminal penalties for exporting guns to Mexico illegally as violence along the border increasingly turns against U.S. Border Patrol agents.
The attacks rose by nearly one-third between 2005 and 2009, according to a recent report from the Congressional Research Service.
Both the Mexican and U.S. governments blame the rising violence on drug cartels that use the guns to protect their smuggling routes over the border.
Federal law already prohibits gun smuggling, but Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) says harsh penalties should be included in a new law specifically targeted at shipping weapons into Mexico.
“These reforms are essential to help law enforcement to stop guns from getting into the hands of the world’s most dangerous criminals,” Cummings said at a hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform this week. “Prosecutors and law enforcement agents should not have to bend over backward to imprison those who provide military-grade weapons to murderers.”
Advocates of a clampdown on gun smuggling draw support from a 2010 Congressional Research Service report that says attacks on border agents rose from 773 in 2005 to 1,073 in 2009.
Cummings reached similar conclusions in his own 26-page report this week entitled “Outgunned.”
It says U.S. laws might be contributing to the attacks with misguided policies and by being too lax in halting the gun running.
Much of the congressional attention focused on “Operation Fast and Furious,” an effort by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to track smuggled guns to their ultimate destination among drug cartels.
ATF agents allowed about 2,000 guns to be smuggled into Mexico on the theory they later would be recovered by law enforcement agents from drug cartel leaders and assassins.
Instead, the guns were linked to at least 150 murders. Only about 600 of the guns were recovered.
One of them was found at the Dec. 14, 2010 murder scene of Border Patrol agent Brian Terry in Arizona.
Operation Fast and Furious prompted outrage from the Mexican and U.S. governments.
President Obama said this week that Attorney General Eric Holder never would have authorized the operation if he had known about it beforehand.
Rising border violence appears to result from drug cartels getting more tight-fisted about hanging on to their drug shipments as Mexican and U.S. police crack down on them, according to law enforcement officials.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency recently put out a bulletin to its agents based on intelligence reports that said, “the Gulf Cartel has directed [that] no more ‘drug loads’ in the U.S. will be lost (to law enforcement).”
The Gulf Cartel refers to one of Mexico’s most successful and vicious drug cartels.
Until recently, the cartels often would throw away drugs to eliminate them as evidence that could be used against them if they get arrested.
Now, they are more likely to shoot at anyone who investigates the drug loads they carry, according to law enforcement officials.
In one example on June 9, Border Patrol agents in Texas approached several men they saw unloading about 1,200 pounds of marijuana on the Mexican side of the border.
The men initially threw rocks and sticks, but then the agents reported they heard “at least six” gunshots.
Before the shooting stopped, the Border Patrol agents fired about 300 shots.
Cummings recommends a new law that would punish the intermediaries who buy weapons for drug cartels.
His proposal also would tighten registration requirements for multiple purchases of guns, particularly the AK-47 assault rifles popular with the cartels.
Federal law now requires arms dealers to report multiple purchases of handguns, but there is no specific requirement for reporting AK-47s and similar assault rifles.
Mexico’s customs administrator in the border city of Tijuana, Luis Torres Torres, said this week that his government was dedicating more resources to stopping contraband at the border.
However, he acknowledged that smuggled guns still get through.
He referred to the smugglers as “ants” during a civic meeting in Tijuana this week.