The brutal murder of retired Mexican army Gen. Mauro Tello in Cancun earlier this month was a stark reminder of the wave of drug-related violence that is tormenting Mexico and that threatens to spill over into the United States.
The escalating violence unleashed by Mexico´s drug cartels as they struggle to control trafficking routes and expand their illegal business left 5,700 dead in 2008, with homicide rates spiraling out of control in cities along the U.S. border.
Illegal trafficking of arms from the U.S. helps fuel the drug violence. While there are variables in Mexico´s struggle against narcotics-related violence over which the U.S. has little input - such as corruption among the police - working to stem the illegal flow of weapons is something Washington can do. There is a key mechanism in place for doing so; namely, an international convention signed by the U.S. more than 10 years ago but never ratified by the Senate.
This convention, known by its acronym as CIFTA (Inter-American Convention against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Ammunition, Explosives and other Related Material), calls for cooperation among members of the Organization of American States (OAS) to control illegal weapons.
It promotes the exchange of information on such matters, provides training and technical assistance to stem the flow of illegal arms, coordinates mutual legal and law enforcement efforts and strengthens export controls. It also mandates cooperation in tracing illegally manufactured or trafficked firearms and establishes arms trafficking as an extraditable offense in all bilateral extradition treaties.
The need for the U.S. Senate to ratify CIFTA has never been greater. The U.S.-Mexican border is a central route for illicit weapons destined for Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America. It is nearly impossible to purchase guns legally in Mexico, and gun stores in U.S. border states sell twice as many weapons as those in any other U.S. region.
In 2005, the year after the U.S. ban on assault weapons expired, Mexican authorities seized more than 10,000 smuggled weapons, of which 90 percent came from the U.S. A recent Mexican government study spoke of as many as 2,000 guns per day crossing the border. As drugs flow north into the U.S. and arms are smuggled south, rates of violence in Mexico and Central America are skyrocketing, with increasingly more security and law enforcement officials falling victim.
In June 2008, the U.S. and Mexico signed a multi-year, billion-dollar program to combat the threat of drug trafficking and illegal-arms transfers in Mexico, Central America, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, known as the “Merida Initiative.” With this initiative, the U.S. recognized that its own security and well-being are linked to that of its neighbors in the Americas, especially Mexico, and that we have a shared responsibility to counter the threat of narcotics trafficking and drug violence.
But this nascent program will only begin the task of training and equipping the military and civilian forces that are needed to fight drug traffickers and their weapons.
Given the challenge to Mexico´s security by the drug cartels, it is all the more ironic and unfortunate that the U.S. has not ratified CIFTA. The convention was put in force in 1998 and has now been ratified by nearly all the other members of the OAS, including Mexico. The convention reflects U.S. laws and regulations and does not conflict with the Second Amendment rights of the Constitution to bear arms. Its ratification would enhance the value of taxpayers´ investment in the Merida Initiative and promote U.S. interest at home and abroad. The U.S. cannot exhort other OAS members to comply with the terms of a convention that it has not itself ratified.
President Obama will embark on what promises to be his first major regional encounter with our partners in the hemisphere at the Summit of the Americas meeting in Trinidad and Tobago in April. He should use that occasion to state that the United States intends to ratify CIFTA or, better yet, work with Congress to deliver a ratified convention at the summit.
Ratification of CIFTA would send a strong signal to Mexico and to other countries in the region that the U.S. is determined to be a reliable partner in efforts to promote the security and well-being of all citizens in the Americas.
By taking this opportunity early in a new administration to support a multilateral legal mechanism to combat the tools of violence associated with the drug trade, the U.S. shoulders its shared responsibility to work with its Mexican partner on this critical security problem.
• Peter DeShazo is director of the Americas Program and Johanna Mendelson Forman is senior associate of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.