Mexican Congress Takes Aim at Illegal Guns From U.S.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Next time you pop across the Mexican border for a visit, remember to leave your AR-15 semiautomatic assault rifle at home.

This year, 123 U.S. citizens have been arrested in Mexico on weapons charges, according to the U.S. Embassy here, and about 70 Americans--including an Orange County man--are now being held, accused or convicted of violating the country's strict Firearms and Explosives Act.

In some cases, people honestly forget that they have a gun in the trunk or bullets in the glove compartment, U.S. and Mexican authorities acknowledge. But other cases are more sinister: Mexico is awash in guns smuggled in from the United States and used by organized crime syndicates, many of them linked to brutal drug cartels.

The Mexican Congress is close to giving final approval to a new law that would give border officials more discretion in cases in which visitors obviously have inadvertently brought weapons with them. But be warned: The law also will make the penalties even harsher for those who do try to smuggle arms into Mexico. Already, those convicted face up to 30 years in prison. The law will make more weapons offenses subject to such tough prison terms.

Just as Washington is dismayed about illegal drugs flowing north from Mexico, so the Mexican government is angry over the flood of illegal weapons coming south. More than 1,000 illegal weapons a month were seized from 1995 to mid-1997, nearly 40% of them linked to drug trafficking cartels, according to the Foreign Relations Ministry.

Pointing to the flow from the north, Mexican officials like to note, for example, that the gun used to assassinate presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio in 1994 was traced to Texas.

"Just as the Americans pressure us on certain issues, we are going to do the same thing and make this fair," Jesus Silva Herzog, a former ambassador to the U.S., told a radio interviewer last year. "While there has been a lot of racket about the movement of drugs from Mexico to the United States, we have been insisting on the need to study the movement of arms into Mexico."

His comment came just days after customs officials in San Diego seized two truckloads of illegal weapons, including grenade launchers and automatic rifles, that were about to be smuggled into Mexico.

Scott McClung, the Orange County ship captain arrested last month on charges he transported two AR-15 rifles and three shotguns into Mexico, doesn't fit neatly into either common profile: forgetful, innocent or purposeful gun-runner. Yet his case illustrates the potential dangers for U.S. citizens who bring guns to Mexico.

In a jailhouse interview hours before his indictment on the weapons charge, McClung, who runs deep-sea religious voyages for youths, said he knew the Mexican gun and maritime laws and complied with them. Ships may dock with arms aboard if the weapons are declared upon landing, but they may not be brought ashore.

The 36-year-old skipper said he declared his guns--aboard for protection against pirates, he said--as soon as his ship reached the harbor of the resort island of Cozumel on Aug. 10 during an unexpected stop because of engine trouble. He collapsed and was hospitalized after being ordered to stand trial.

McClung, who remains in an island hospital while awaiting trial, charges that he is the victim of a local prosecutor who thought he could solicit a quick bribe. The prosecutor argued that McClung made no declaration of weapons aboard. Beyond that, the prosecutor has said he is prohibited from commenting on the case, including the accusations against him, other than to note that a trial judge considered the evidence presented by both sides and ruled that McClung must stand trial--and be held without bail until then.

McClung's 71-year-old father, Eugene, who also was jailed with his son for nine days until charges against the elder man were dropped, said: "I don't have any problem with them controlling the flow of guns into the country. All they need to do is abide by their own laws."

The gun issue has long been a sore point in U.S.-Mexican relations, to the extent that Mexican officials prepared the legal change earlier this year to alleviate some of the irritants.

"There are different perceptions [about weapons] in the U.S. and Mexico," a senior official in the attorney general's office said. "In Mexico, we believe that carrying a gun implies the potential to commit a crime. Historically, the U.S. has had greater political stability. Here, since the '60s and '70s, there have been guerrilla uprisings, and there is more and more violent crime, with firearms, that ends up in killings."

The Mexican Senate approved the bill in April, and the lower house is expected to give its assent by November. Among other provisions, the law would allow nonresidents who are considered innocent bearers of arms to be turned back or fined rather than face automatic arrest and prosecution.

"We have found ourselves faced with some cases where Americans who are accustomed to carrying guns forget them and bring them into Mexico," said Sen. Jose Alvaro Vallarta, a retired general who is head of the National Defense Commission in Congress.

But Vallarta noted that the leniency is limited to first-time offenders who have brought in no more than a single weapon. Furthermore, the weapon must be among those that may legally be owned in Mexico and are not restricted to military use. In Mexico, guns larger than .38-caliber are defined as being for military use only.

Therefore, McClung would not have been eligible for leniency, because he had more than one gun and the AR-15s are for military use only in Mexico.

The charge against McClung is particularly severe: clandestinely transporting weapons reserved for military use into Mexico, with conviction bringing a prison term of five to 30 years. Lawyers are mounting dual legal and political campaigns to get the charges dropped, arguing that McClung and his millionaire father are hardly arms smugglers.

In May, Mexico formally ratified an inter-American convention against arms trafficking, adopted last year by the Organization of American States. The convention requires member states to monitor arms sales strictly, mark guns clearly for easier tracing, share information on weapons and work together to track down stolen arms. The U.S. has not yet ratified it.

The official in the attorney general's office described two categories of arms smugglers: the major organized crime syndicates, often linked to drug traffickers, and the "ant smugglers" who slip a gun or two and a few bullets into the country each time they cross the border.

"What we've seen is that all the drug cartels are involved in the importation of illegal arms," he said. "It is obvious that these criminal organizations arm themselves with smuggled guns to carry out their wars. And once these guns arrive, they filter into regular street-crime gangs."

A U.S. Embassy official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Mexicans are concerned not only about major arms trafficking but also "this bit-by-bit smuggling, one or two bullets at a time." He said the U.S. government has mounted a broad publicity campaign, including prominent signs on highways leading to the Mexican border, warning U.S. citizens not to bring guns into Mexico.

The nine consular districts in Mexico frequently respond to calls from people arrested on arms and other charges, although the diplomats' powers to intervene are severely limited. Consular officials visit suspects, provide lists of lawyers and seek to ensure that detainees are decently treated, but they cannot provide legal advice.

A week before McClung's arrest in Cozumel, the State Department issued a warning to U.S. citizens saying, "The Mexican government strictly enforces its laws restricting the entry of firearms and ammunition along all land borders and at air and seaports."

It noted that the only way to import certain firearms legally is to get a permit in advance from a Mexican consulate. Such advance permission is sometimes given for hunters and gun collectors.

In its "Tips for Travelers to Mexico," the State Department notes that Mexico traditionally has the highest prison population of U.S. citizens outside the United States and that the Mexican judicial system regards accused people to be guilty until proved innocent.

The document adds, "The U.S. Embassy has noted an increase of Americans being detained for illegally smuggling arms into Mexico" and points out that "some Mexican cities have ordinances prohibiting the possession of knives or anything that might be construed as a weapon."

The pamphlet's advice is blunt: "Do not bring firearms."

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This story did not appear in all of Sunday's editions of The Times because of a late-breaking story.

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