President Obama prepares to head to Mexico on Thursday having fallen short on several promises he has made to America’s southern neighbor to clean up U.S. gun trafficking — including most recently when he supported scrapping the post-Newtown gun control bill from the Senate floor.
That bill had anti-trafficking provisions that were agreeable to all sides, but Democrats held it hostage to another provision that would have expanded background checks.
Mr. Obama also has failed to push through the Senate a gun trafficking treaty, known by its Spanish initials as CIFTA (the treaty’s English title is the Inter-American Convention against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Ammunition, Explosives and other Related Material), which aims to help stop the illegal trafficking of small arms from the U.S. that help fuel drug violence.
“It is an important treaty that could benefit the U.S.-Mexican bilateral relationship, especially since the control of weapons crossing the border is still a sore point,” said Johanna Mendelson Forman, an analyst on Latin and Central American issues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Mr. Obama will hold talks in Mexico City on Friday with President Enrique Pena Nieto, who took office last year. Trade, guns and drugs are likely to be high on the agenda.
The president also will attend an economic summit with Central American leaders on a visit to Costa Rica on Saturday before returning to Washington.
During Mr. Obama’s first official visit to Mexico in 2009, he announced support for Senate ratification of the inter-American treaty that calls for cooperation among members of the Organization of American States to control illegal weapons.
The agreement was signed by the U.S. more than 10 years ago but was never ratified by the Senate. The Obama administration, with the help of Sen. John F. Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, and Sen. Richard G. Lugar, Indiana Republican, got close in 2009, the first time Mr. Obama visited Mexico.
But the National Rifle Association convinced enough senators that the treaty would serve as a slippery slope, warning that the anti-gun lobby would use the agreement to “attack” gun ownership in the U.S., despite supporters’ insistence that it had nothing to do with the rights of U.S. gun owners.
“The treaty does include language suggesting that it is not intended to restrict ‘lawful ownership and use’ of firearms,” NRA President Wayne LaPierre said at the time. “Despite those words, the NRA knows that anti-gun advocates will still try to use this treaty to attack gun ownership in the U.S. Therefore, the NRA will continue to vigorously oppose any international effort to restrict the constitutional rights of law-abiding American gun owners.”
The Obama administration still considers CIFTA a priority, but with such strong NRA opposition and the nation focused on mass shootings at schools and public areas across the country, the treaty has become lost in the political shuffle.
When asked about the treaty, White House National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said: “Though we do not expect the treaty itself to be a topic of discussion on the president’s trip, the underlying concept of regional cooperation on critical security issues will be. We have long supported ratification of the treaty and will continue to work appropriately with the Congress toward eventually reaching that goal.”
Those concerned about international gun trafficking also worry that a new United Nations treaty aimed at regulating the enormous $70 billion global trade in conventional weapons could eclipse CIFTA entirely.
In early April, the U.N. General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to approve the treaty, which for the first time would force sellers to consider how their customers would use the weapons and to make that information public.
Even though implementation is years away and there is no enforcement mechanism, the treaty’s goal is to curb the sale of weapons that end up being used for genocide, war crimes, terrorism or organized crime.
The treaty, for instance, would make it harder for Russia to assert that its arms deals with Syria are legal and beyond international scrutiny. Russia and China are among the countries that abstained from voting on it.
The NRA and the gun lobby likely will make it difficult to approve the U.N. arms treaty as well. It would take 67 senators to ratify the international agreement, and 50 already have signaled opposition. But proponents of both treaties say the lack of traction on CIFTA shouldn’t doom both international agreements.
“We need both treaties and anything that the Obama administration can do to underscore that we are serious about controlling cross-border weapons will be significant,” Ms. Mendolson Forman said.
But Mr. Obama’s failure to get a background check bill through the Senate does not bode well for either treaty, she noted.
Colby Goodman, an analyst on gun trafficking at the Woodrow Wilson Center, said CIFTA deals only with exports and imports and has nothing to do with background checks for civilian purchases in the United States.
According to a report Mr. Goodman authored and released last week, U.S. firearms trafficking has increased significantly to Guatemala as drug cartels have shifted the flow of cocaine and other drugs to Central America and away from Mexico after a crackdown on traffickers under Mexican President Felipe Calderon.
U.S. arms trafficking to Mexico continues to flow, however, with as many as 426,729 firearms making their way into Mexico from 2010 to 2012, according to a March report by the Igarape Institute and the University of San Diego’s Trans-Border Institute. Many of those weapons are AK-47 or AR-15 variants.