ATF, Mexico aim to expand program to trace illegal weapons seized in drug war

By Katherine Corcoran, AP
Wednesday, October 6, 2010

ATF: New accord with Mexico will boost gun traces

MEXICO CITY — U.S. and Mexican officials are just now fully employing a gun-tracing program touted as a key deterrent to weapons-smuggling, nearly three years after it was first announced in Mexico and weeks after an inspector general’s preliminary report called it underused and unsuccessful.

Not enough Mexican investigators had been trained on or had access to the electronic database designed to trace illegally seized weapons to origins in the U.S., a top official at Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said Wednesday.

“It doesn’t mean the system is not working. It’s not working as well as it can,” said ATF deputy director Kenneth Melson. “The information was being submitted by people who didn’t know how to trace guns.”

He and Mexico Attorney General Arturo Chavez Chavez signed a memorandum of understanding on Tuesday that will increase to 30 a month the number of people trained to use the program, known as eTrace, an electronic database that can trace the manufacture, import, sale and ownership of guns.

It will also expand access to eTrace to the Attorney General’s intelligence and data-gathering divisions across Mexico.

About 20 people have been trained to use eTrace in Mexico. U.S. and Mexican officials announced in January 2008 that the system would be introduced in Mexico, but it was not implemented in Spanish until last December.

Melson said the system, when used properly, can provide strategic and intelligence information to fight gun-smuggling, establishing trafficking patterns as well as identifying weapons sources.

“We’re now at a point where we can process much more information quickly, information that will be more accurate and more complete,” Melson said.

More than 28,000 people have died in drug violence since President Felipe Calderon launched a crackdown on organized crime in late 2006, a battle that Calderon says is fueled by a flow of illegal weapons coming from the United States.

From September of last year to July 31, 2010, the Mexican government seized more than 32,000 illegal weapons, though federal statistics don’t indicate how many were submitted for tracing to the U.S., where cartels often recruit “straw buyers” to legal purchases on their behalf and then pay people to bring the weapons across the border.

The ATF says many guns used by Mexican cartels are bought in the United States, with Arizona and Texas being major sources, but it no longer releases estimates of how many because the numbers have become too politicized.

“It doesn’t matter if 20 percent are coming from the U.S. or 80 percent,” Melson said. “We know a lot of guns are going to Mexico and it’s a problem.”

The eTrace program was announced in Mexico in January 2008 as the cornerstone of efforts to “terminate the illegal shipment of arms to Mexico and reduce the violence they cause on both sides of the border.”

That year, Mexico submitted more than 25,000 trace requests compared to about 1,500 in 2005, according to a preliminary report from the U.S. Justice Department inspector general, which investigates programs for waste and fraud in its programs. But the report said most trace requests were unsuccessful because of missing or improper data.

For example, 44 percent of the 1,518 request in 2005 were successful, but only 31 percent of 21,726 requests in 2009 were successful. That compares to a 64 to 68 percent success rate for requests from the ATF’s Houston Field division.

The report defines a successful trace as identifying the dealer who originally sold the gun.

“The ATF’s expansion of its automated system (eTrace) to trace guns seized in Mexico has yielded very limited information of intelligence value,” the report said, noting that 70 percent of the cases developed against gun traffickers involved single defendants rather than larger gunrunning rings.

The ATF attache in Mexico City told inspectors that it’s impossible to say how many guns the bureau’s enforcement and regulatory programs have prevented from coming into Mexico, according to the report.

Melson said the preliminary report, which was leaked to the public, contained a lot of errors, including its definition of a successful trace and of the scope of the Trace program. He said the bureau is in the process of issuing a response with corrections in the coming weeks but couldn’t provide details Wednesday.

“To say eTrace is not working is absolutely false,” Melson said, citing a case of a gunrunner from Minnesota arrested in Mexico as a direct result of an eTrace request from Mexico.

He said building a new program takes time.

“It takes time to change the software, to do the hiring and the training,” he said. “I’m as frustrated as everyone else.”

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