Violence along the U.S.-Mexico border is undergoing what U.S. law-enforcement authorities call "an unprecedented surge," some of it fueled by weapons and ammunition purchased or stolen in the United States.
Federal, state and local law-enforcement officials from Texas to California, concerned about the impact of illegally imported weapons into Mexico, say they already are outmanned and outgunned by ruthless gangs that collect millions of dollars in profits by smuggling aliens and drugs into this country.
"These gangs have the weapons and the will to protect their lucrative cargoes," said Sigifredo Gonzalez Jr., the sheriff of Zapata County, Texas, who founded and served as the first president of the Texas Border Sheriff's Coalition. "With automatic weapons, grenades and grenade launchers, they pose a significant danger."
Last month, Mexican military officials in Matamoros, just south of Brownsville, Texas, stopped a tractor-trailer containing weapons and ammunition, along with a pickup truck fitted with armor and bulletproof glass.
The weapons included 18 M-16 assault rifles, one equipped with an M-203 40mm grenade launcher. Also seized were several M-4 carbines, 17 handguns of various calibers, 200 magazines for different weapons, 8,000 rounds of ammunition, assault vests and other military accessories.
While Mexican authorities have not determined the source of the weapons, the truck was registered in Texas and authorities think the weapons were being smuggled across the border from the United States. U.S. and Mexican law-enforcement authorities have long described Matamoros as a key shipping center for drugs, weapons and illegal aliens.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) also ended a 20-month investigation last month into a Mexican drug-trafficking organization and its U.S.-based distribution cells, which resulted in the arrest of 400 persons nationwide and the seizure of $45 million in cash and 100 weapons.
Operation Imperial Emperor targeted the Victor Emilio Cazares-Gastellum drug cartel, which supplied multiton quantities of cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana monthly to distribution cells throughout the United States.
A task force led by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) also seized two completed improvised explosive devices, materials for making 33 more, 300 primers, 1,280 rounds of ammunition, five grenades, nine pipes with end caps, 26 grenade triggers, 31 grenade spoons, 40 grenade pins, 19 black powder casings, a silencer and cash during raids in Laredo, Texas, last month.
"Keeping explosives and other high-powered weaponry out of the hands of violent criminal organizations is a central focus of the new Border Enforcement Security Task Force in Laredo," said Homeland Security Assistant Secretary Julie L. Myers, who heads ICE. "ICE is working day and night with its task force partners to stem the tide of violence that has been ravaging border communities in south Texas."
Task force members in Laredo have seized more than three dozen assault rifles bound for Mexico in the past year, along with kits to modify them for automatic fire. In Arizona, more than two dozen assault weapons have been seized in the past year.
Mexican President Felipe Calderon sent 3,300 military troops to the region after taking office in December. The troops have focused, in part, on the border towns of Nuevo Laredo and Matamoros, where hundreds of killings have been attributed to brutal turf battles between rival gangs.
Numerous Mexican police officers have been killed by drug gangs armed with automatic weapons, explosives and bazookas.
In a recent report, ICE noted that border gangs were becoming increasingly ruthless - targeting rivals, along with federal, state and local police, including the U.S. Border Patrol agents, who have faced an increase in assaults as the agency seeks to bring operational control to the border.
T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, which represents all 11,000 of the agency's non-supervisory agents, said violence by gangs battling to control smuggling routes into this country has increased dramatically and is spilling into some U.S. communities.
Mr. Bonner said that while much of the violence is directed at rival gang members, there is an "inevitable spillover that touches innocent civilians and law-enforcement officials on both sides of the border."
He said assaults against Border Patrol agents have more than doubled over the past two years, mainly by drug cartels "far more inclined to utilize violence as a means of achieving their goal of successfully smuggling contraband and people."