Firearms flow from U.S. to Mexico

BROWNSVILLE, Texas — Federal agents are barely able to slow the river of American guns flowing into Mexico.

In two years, a new effort to increase inspections of travelers crossing the border has netted just 386 guns — an almost infinitesimal amount given that an estimated 2,000 slip across each day.

The problem came into focus again last month when a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent was killed on a northern Mexican highway with a gun that was purchased in a town outside Fort Worth.

Stopping the flow of American guns, bullets and cash has long bedeviled authorities on both sides of the border.

At a White House news conference in March 2009, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano joined President Obama in announcing plans to better help Mexico cope with a brutal drug war that has now killed more than 34,000 people since 2006.

"You've got to interdict the arms. You've got to stop them from going into Mexico," Napolitano said at the time.

Since then, Customs and Border Protection officers — who usually spend their days checking people and cars coming into the U.S. —have teamed up with Border Patrol agents and, sometimes, sheriff's deputies in border communities to scrutinize travelers leaving American soil.

They have made little progress.

In fiscal year 2009, Customs and Border Protection agents at all border crossings separating the 2,000-mile border, from Brownsville on Texas' Gulf Coast to San Diego, seized 107 guns.

The next fiscal year, ending Sept. 30, they seized 279. Those are the most-recent, borderwide figures available.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives reported seizing 2,633 guns in 2009 at its offices in the four southwestern border states, the most recent figures available, but those were captured before making it into border traffic — and even if they had, they would have amounted to a little more than a day's worth that get through.

A November 2008 study by the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank, stated that 2,000 American guns are smuggled into Mexico each day. The report was the last comprehensive estimate on the subject, though it did not include information on how that figure was reached.