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Bush aide urges weapons ban to slow Mexican drug war

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The former head of U.S. Customs and Border Protection called Monday for the U.S. to reinstitute the ban on assault weapons and take other measures to rein in the war between Mexico and its drug cartels, saying the violence has the potential to bring down legitimate rule in that country.

Former CBP Commissioner Robert C. Bonner also called for the United States to more aggressively investigate U.S. gun sellers and tighten security along its side of the border, describing the situation as "critical" to the safety of people in both countries, whether they live near the border or not.

Mexico, for its part, needs to reduce official corruption and organize its forces along the lines the U.S. does, such as a specialized border patrol and a customs agency with a broader mandate than monitoring trade, Mr. Bonner said in an exchange of e-mails.

"Border security is especially important to breaking the power and influence of the Mexican-based trafficking organizations," Mr. Bonner said. "Despite vigorous efforts by both governments, huge volumes of illegal drugs still cross from Mexico.

"In turn, large quantities of weapons and cash generated from illegal drug sales flow south into Mexico, which makes these criminal organizations more powerful and able to corrupt government institutions," he said.

Mr. Bonner, a former federal judge who also headed the U.S. Customs Service and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) under the Republican administrations of Presidents George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush, said the still-raging battle "will determine who controls the legitimate institutions of government."

"While better border law enforcement and interdiction of drugs, weapons and cash will not alone defeat the drug cartels, these steps, as part of a larger strategy, can and will weaken them and make it easier for the Mexican government to destroy them - just as was done over a decade ago with the destruction of the Medellin and Cali cartels in Colombia," Mr. Bonner said.

"But successful efforts will require closer collaboration between U.S. and Mexican border law enforcement agencies, and this will depend on strengthening law enforcement capacity in the border region, including enhancing the professionalism of enforcement agencies to make them more corruption-resistant," he said.

President Obama has described ongoing efforts to secure the U.S.-Mexico border as "vital to core U.S. national interests." He has expressed his concern over the increased level of violence and the impact it is having on communities on both sides of the border.

Under the Merida Initiative -- a security agreement including the U.S., Mexico and the countries of Central America to combat drug trafficking, transnational crime and money laundering -- the United States is investing $700 million on law enforcement and judicial capacity to improve border security and reduce the illegal flow of guns and drugs across the border.

The Department of Homeland Security, under the Secure Fence Act, is building the necessary infrastructure to deter and prevent illegal entry on the Southwest border, including pedestrian and vehicle fencing, roads and technology.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has said that gaining effective control of the nations borders is a "critical element of national security."

An armed conflict between the Mexican government and the drug cartels in that country, who now control almost all of the illicit narcotics trade in the U.S., has raged since 2006. The U.S. Justice Department has described the Mexican cartels as the greatest organized crime threat to the U.S.

The Mexican government has estimated that 1,000 federal forces, police and prosecutors have been killed since 2006 and that civilian deaths during that same period have topped 15,600.

Mr. Bonner, now in private law practice in Los Angeles, said that better border security will require both countries to align the structures of their border agencies to make them better able to work together.

Citing a recent report by the joint task force of the Pacific Council on International Policy and COMEXI, the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations, Mr. Bonner said Mexicos success depends on how effectively both nations manage their shared border.

He said:

• Mexico should strengthen its customs agency by converting it to a multifunctional agency capable of addressing security threats, such as cross-border smuggling of weapons and cash - a move the Mexican government has begun.

• Mexico should move toward restructuring its law enforcement institutions along the border to create a direct counterpart to CBP, which was created after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to unify border enforcement authorities.

• Mexico should establish a Mexican federal frontier police, dedicated to securing the areas between Mexicos ports of entry - much as the U.S. Border Patrol does for the United States.

"Organizational changes are not enough, however," Mr. Bonner said. "The United States also needs to intensify its efforts to curtail the smuggling of firearms and cash into Mexico."

He said some studies have shown that many of the weapons obtained by Mexican drug traffickers come from the U.S., and much of their funding comes from U.S. drug sales. He called for U.S. authorities to begin more aggressive investigations of U.S. gun sellers and to reinstitute the ban on assault weapons.

The federal assault weapons ban was passed on Sept. 13, 1994, during the Clinton administration and prohibited the sale to civilians of certain semi-automatic firearms, so-called assault weapons. The law expired on Sept. 13, 2004, and an effort by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, to extend it for another 10 years was defeated 80-9.

At least three other efforts to pass new legislation banning the weapons have not been successful. In February, Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr. said the ban should be reinstated, but Mr. Obama has since said he would not push its reinstatement even though it "made sense."

Mr. Bonner also said the U.S. should expand assistance beyond the Merida Initiative and focus on helping Mexico strengthen its law enforcement capacity at the federal and state levels, reducing its vulnerability to corruption or "bribe or bullet" intimidation by the cartels.

"The border is not just about security," Mr. Bonner said. "We must also make the border more efficient for lawful travel and trade .... This goal is achievable - while actually improving security -- by adding infrastructure and resources, modern detection technologies and intelligent risk-management strategies enabling us to facilitate low-risk trade and travel while more effectively identifying high-risk vehicles, cargo and travelers for additional screening."

The joint Pacific Council on International Policy and COMEXI task force recommended, among other things, that both nations adequately staff ports of entry, saying staffing shortfalls should never contribute to bottlenecks.

It also said that both nations should expand existing ports of entry and build new ones, encourage partnerships between the public and private sectors to help accomplish this, and streamline the border-crossing approval processes.

"It is time to tackle these problems and improve our shared border. These are bold recommendations to be sure, but they are achievable," he said. "And they will have profoundly positive benefits for both the United States and Mexico."