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Record number of guns in Mexico traced to the US

The number of confiscated weapons that originated in the US is on the rise.

Mexican federal police present weapons and ammunition along with Anahi Beltran, whom they arrested during their seizure, at a news conference at the federal police center in Mexico City April 14, 2009. Beltran was arrested in Santa Ana in Mexico's state of Sonora. (Daniel Aguilar/Reuters)

SAN ANTONIO — In 2008, a year during which more than 7,000 Mexicans were killed in drug violence, a record number of weapons confiscated in Mexico were traced to U.S. retailers, according to the latest available government data obtained by GlobalPost.

The number of traced firearms that originated in the U.S. — 12,073 — is by far the most ever recorded in one year since the U.S. Bureau of Tobacco, Alcohol, Firearms and Explosives began tracing Mexico's seized guns in 2005.

The 2008 figure is more than the last three years combined, and it brings the total number of guns confiscated in Mexico and traced to American sources to 22,848.

The tracing numbers, which the ATF plans to officially release in a report next month, are significant in that they provide the only statistical indication of the extent to which American guns might be arming Mexico's cartels.

The ATF uses the results of traced weapons, which reveal an original seller, as starting points for investigations into “straw buyers,” who legally qualify to purchase firearms but then turn them over to smugglers who don’t.

ATF officials say the banner number of weapons last year reflects an improvement in U.S.-Mexico cooperation, a new political emphasis in Mexico to conduct more traces so that American agents can arrest more smugglers, and more firearm seizures from drug traffickers. Texas was the state with the largest percentage of guns smuggled to Mexico, at 41 percent, followed by California and Arizona.

“We basically educated everyone on the importance of tracing and how we can use this as a system to get leads and stop these traffickers,” said J. Dewey Webb, special agent in charge of the Houston ATF division, which covers a long swath of the Texas border. “Also, there could be more guns on the market down there right now (than) in the previous year. There was a big push and increase in fighting among the drug trafficking organizations, and they’re going to have a higher demand for weapons.”

In recent weeks, ATF tracing statistics have become increasingly politicized within the U.S. as gun control advocates cite them as grounds for new legislation. Second Amendment rights activists have challenged whether the traces prove American guns make up a large enough percentage of the total number of guns confiscated in Mexico to warrant gun control laws.

Fueling the domestic debate is the fact that no one can really say how many guns in total Mexico has seized, making it impossible to place the number of U.S.-traced weapons in the larger context of Mexican weapons seizures. Mexican authorities have provided widely varying numbers of total guns confiscated.