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Overlooked in U.S.-Mexico talks: Guns illegally crossing the border

U.S., Mexico near immigration deal deadline
  • Curbing the flow of guns made in the U.S. and smuggled into Mexico could help stem illegal immigration, experts say.
  • Data show that 70% of guns used in violent crimes in Mexico came from the U.S.
  • The Trump administration is set on Monday to impose 5% tariffs on all Mexican imports.

Arturo Sarukhan, the former Mexican ambassador to the U.S., has a proposal for President Donald Trump in exchange for halting the flow of migrants crossing the border: Stop American-made guns from pouring into Mexico.

"The U.S. should immediately stop the flow of guns and bulk cash across its southern border," he tweeted this week as the two countries strained to reach a deal ahead of American tariffs going into force Monday on all Mexican imports.

The issue of gun trafficking has long been a point of contention for Mexico. A 2018 analysis from the Center for American Progress found that from 2011 to 2016, 70% of the 106,000 guns used in violent crimes in Mexico and recovered by law enforcement had come from the U.S. And that represents just a fraction of the total number of weapons crossing the southern border. A separate study found that between 2010 and 2012, nearly 213,000 firearms of all legal arms sales in the U.S. were smuggled across the U.S.-Mexico border. That represents 2.2%  of arms sales in the U.S. at the time, valued at around $200 million

"That's the bulk of where organized crime [in Mexico] gets its firepower from," Sarukhan told CBS MoneyWatch. "Eighty percent of what drug traffickers have are weapons illicitly introduced from the United States. It's part of the fundamental question the President continues to miss."

Every American will feel effect of Mexico tariffs, produce supplier warns

The White House is set Monday to impose a 5% tariff on all U.S. imports from Mexico, with the duties escalating in stages to a cap of 25% by October. Economists and corporate executives say that such sweeping tariffs would hurt both economies, raising U.S. prices on everything from cars and auto parts to vegetables, TVs and beer. Mexico has also hinted it would retaliate with its own tariffs on U.S. goods.

President Trump is using the threat of tariffs as leverage to spur Mexico into curbing the flow of migrants across the border, which he says fuels crime. For its part, Mexico contends that U.S.-made weapons smuggled into the country have driven up the country's alarming homicide rate. 

Experts see no single solution to curbing illegal immigration, while emphasizing that many undocumented people entering the U.S. are themselves victims of crime and violence. That's why cracking down on the illegal cross-border gun trade is one way to stem illegal immigration to the U.S., said Eugenio Weigand Vargas, associate director for gun violence prevention at the Center for American Progress, a liberal-leaning think tank.

"There are numerous guns flowing from the United States to Central American countries," he said. "They are generating violence, they contribute to fatalities -- they are related to the fact that people are fleeing those countries and coming to the United States."

Trump: Mexico needs to "step up to the plate"

U.S. policies including universal background checks for firearms purchases and a ban on military-style weapons sales also would help reduce crime in Latin America, Vargas said. 

"An assault weapons ban in the United States would be effective because they are the weapons of choice for criminal groups in Mexico. AK 47-style weapons are often seized, and if Trump is asking for cooperation in terms of immigration and security, he should also be cooperating. The best way he can do that is by reducing the levels of guns that reach these countries."

The Trump administration has done little to signal a willingness to tighten restrictions on guns, a move that might not sit well with many of the president's core supporters. Meanwhile, Mr. Trump this spring announced plans to suspend $450 million in federal aid to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Critics derided the move as short-sighted, noting that the programs are aimed at relieving the kind of grinding poverty responsible for the epidemic levels of crime driving people to flee. 

Complicating things is the fact that neither the U.S. nor Mexico has made their demands clear, according to Height Capital markets analyst Clayton Allen, whose specialty is trade policy and geopolitical risks. 

"It seems like this is an ever-evolving situation and ever-evolving list of asks from both sides," Allen said. "Mexicans are asking Americans to take some steps to stem the flow of weapons over the border -- an ask that's been made by multiple Mexican presidents but has never really come to pass. There's no easy solution, and certainly asking the U.S. to stem the flow of guns from the U.S. to Mexico would be a difficult thing to act on." 

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