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Reuters exclusive

U.S., Mexican efforts to battle gun trafficking falter

CULIACAN, Mexico/WASHINGTON - Efforts to combat illegal gunrunning from the United States to Mexico have stumbled in recent years, hampered by a lack of cooperation between U.S. and Mexican officials, according to a report from a U.S. federal watchdog agency obtained by Reuters.

The draft report from the Government Accountability Office, finalized after the latest arrest of Mexican drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, also criticized U.S. law enforcement agencies for not ensuring they are effectively working together to fight arms smuggling by Mexico's ruthless drug cartels.

Squabbling between U.S. authorities and Mexico over Guzman has put an intense focus on the issue of cooperation. Mexico, which refused to extradite him to the United States when he was arrested in 2014, was formally starting extradition proceedings against Guzman after his latest capture.

"Efforts to stem firearms trafficking between the United States and Mexico were scaled back as the administration of Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto reconsidered bilateral law enforcement cooperation," the report said, citing U.S. and Mexican officials.

Mexico tightly restricts gun sales but the flow south of U.S. weapons helped fuel battles between drug gangs and security forces that have killed more than 100,000 people since 2007.

Experts say operations to stem the flow of guns south have had little success, pointing to the botched "Fast and Furious" sting in which U.S. agents lost track of guns allowed to enter Mexico between 2009 and 2011.

The GAO report was commissioned by U.S. Representative Eliot Engel as a follow-up to a similar GAO study in 2009. The agency is expected to release it later on Monday.

"Congress has a responsibility to do much more to stop the illegal flow of guns across the U.S.-Mexico border," said Engel, a Democrat. Calls to tighten U.S. gun laws have run into stiff opposition in Washington, largely from Republicans despite high-profile mass shootings in the United States.

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Pena Nieto dialed back cooperation with U.S. authorities after taking office in late 2012. U.S.-Mexico law enforcement ties, long undermined by mutual distrust, had improved under Pena Nieto's predecessor, Felipe Calderon.

Upon taking office, Pena Nieto's administration balked at the extent of U.S. involvement in Calderon's war against drug gangs and his team limited U.S. law enforcement access.

The report said collaboration between the two countries has improved in the last year, but cited concerns about corruption among Mexican authorities. Pena Nieto replaced his attorney general last year with an official more open to working with the U.S. government than her predecessor.

Of nearly 105,000 guns seized in Mexico and submitted for tracing from 2009 to 2014, 70 percent came from the United States, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) cited in the study.

Another 17 percent were traced to other countries, while 13 percent could not be tracked, possibly due to the failure of U.S. gun shops that closed down to turn over records.

Available data showed a drop since 2011 in the number of weapons confiscated by security forces in Mexico and traced to the United States.

The report also said the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and ATF have failed to ensure their agents are effectively cooperating on arms trafficking investigations.

The GAO said it found persistent gaps in information-sharing between ATF and ICE, and confusion about their roles even after the 2009 GAO report pushed them to improve teamwork.

Mexican lawmakers and experts claimed lax U.S. gun control is the main reason for the ease with which traffickers buy and move guns. They also blamed corruption among Mexican customs agents.

"The fight against arms trafficking has been a failure," said Raul Benitez, a security expert at the National Autonomous University in Mexico.

Reporting by Michael O’Boyle in Culiacan, Mexico and Patricia Zengerle in Washington Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe

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Mike Blake/Reuters

A U.S. Border Patrol agent sits in his truck along the border with Mexico in San Ysidro, Calif., in February 2015.

15% of U.S. guns in Mexico traced back to Arizona

Nearly 15 percent of the firearms seized in Mexico and traced to sales in U.S. gun shops came from Arizona, said a GAO report released Monday.

The GAO reviewed data from the Department of Justice's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and found that from 2009 to 2014, nearly 74,000 firearms were purchased in the United States and smuggled into Mexico.

More than 4,800 rifles and pistols were bought at Arizona gun shops and smuggled into Mexico.

In just one recent incident, Nogales police officers seized 10 AK-style rifles from a car driven by a 16-year-old boy last Friday. In the trunk were the rifles, along with magazines and hundreds of rounds of ammunition.

Arizona's cross-border weapons trade pales in comparison to Texas, which was the source of more than 41 percent of the firearms recovered. ATF officials connected 13,628 weapons to purchases in Texas, and another 6,153 from California.

Combined, gun shops in the three border states were the source of nearly 75 percent of the firearms tracked by ATF from seizures in Mexico. Around 17 percent of the weapons found in Mexico came from other countries, and ATF could not identify the source of the remaining 13 percent.

The GAO noted that "high caliber" rifles, including derivatives of the AK-47 and AR15 were the preferred weapons for drug trafficking organizations. Purchased legally in gun shops and at gun shows in the United States, the weapons would be trafficked illegally in Mexico, where the weapons would be modified for full-automatic fire, the GAO said.

The GAO also noted a change in smuggling efforts, showing that smugglers are increasingly turning to smuggling parts of weapons, including buttstocks, receivers, barrels and other parts.

This includes cast parts that need additional machining to become part of a weapon, as well as flat stamped plates that have to be bent into shape before they can become part of a weapon, the GAO said.

— Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com