Proclaiming a new spirit of cooperation in fighting crime, the top U.S. and Mexican prosecutors announced steps Tuesday to curb the flow of illegal weapons from the United States into Mexico and to improve collaboration on other law enforcement issues.
U.S. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft and his Mexican counterpart, Rafael Macedo de la Concha, also vowed to improve communication and understanding between federal prosecutors of the two countries. As part of that effort, Mexico will assign a prosecutor to the U.S. Justice Department and the United States will post a counterpart in the Mexican attorney general's office.
Ashcroft said the steps further signal the commitment of the two governments to work more closely on crime issues, which in the past have spawned mutual mistrust and tension.
"This is a two-way relationship," Ashcroft told reporters after a meeting in San Diego with high-level Mexican officials. "Too often in the past there has been a tendency to speak only of what we need or want from Mexico, frequently forgetting that we have responsibilities to assist them in law enforcement matters, just as they have to assist us."
In the same way that U.S. officials long have been dismayed over drugs smuggled north through Mexico, Mexican leaders complain that weapons from the United States are destined for drug traffickers and other violent criminals south of the border. Gun ownership is heavily restricted in Mexico, and violations carry stiff prison sentences.
The new effort seeks to improve tracking of weapons. Under the program, Mexican authorities will provide information about seized weapons, such as make, model and serial number, to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms for tracing. The ATF has similar arrangements with other countries.
In the past, investigations involving guns in Mexico received only limited U.S. help because Mexico did not routinely relay information. The new arrangement will rely on a computerized Spanish-language reporting system in which information on weapons is transmitted instantly to U.S. investigators, ATF Director Bradley A. Buckles said during an interview.
Since 1994, the agency has traced about 51,000 U.S. weapons seized in Mexico, but many more were not reported, officials said.
"Although we do not have firm statistics, there is no question that the United States is the source of a significant number of guns used to commit crimes in Mexico," Ashcroft said.
The attorney general said he will name U.S. prosecutors at each section of the 2,000-mile border to serve as contacts on cross-border gun cases.
Officials for both nations also vowed to step up prosecutions of immigrant smugglers and to work faster to cooperate on other criminal investigations. Requests for information and evidence, governed by a binational legal-assistance treaty, often have languished.
Mexican officials said the measures announced Tuesday were the early results of promises of improved cooperation made when President Bush met with Mexican President Vicente Fox in February. Fox took office in December, Bush in January.
"We have moved very fast to make this ideal a reality," said Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, Fox's national security advisor.
For its part, Mexico has won U.S. favor by capturing two fugitives--including a former Mexican governor--sought on U.S. charges, while increasing extradition of other suspects. Traditionally reluctant to hand over its citizens, Mexico has extradited four Mexican nationals this year, including two suspected drug traffickers facing charges in San Diego.
"This is a symmetrical vision," Aguilar Zinser said.
Some domestic critics of the Bush administration voiced skepticism over Ashcroft's commitment to cracking down on guns.
"If he's taking steps to cooperate with our southern neighbor, that's all well and good," said Mathew Nosanchuk, legislative counsel for the Violence Policy Center, a Washington group that supports toughened gun controls. "But it appears that Atty. Gen. Ashcroft is more concerned about curbing gun violence in Mexico than in combating gun violence in our own country."
Ashcroft, who appears on the cover of the current issue of the National Rifle Assn.'s magazine, has drawn fire in recent weeks from gun control groups for moving to scale back requirements for background checks on gun buyers and for supporting an expanded interpretation of gun ownership rights under the Constitution.
Continuing a two-day visit along the U.S.-Mexico border, Ashcroft headed to the All American Canal in Calexico, where at least 17 people have drowned since October while attempting to enter the country illegally.
The canal was designated a high-risk border zone as part of a new U.S. effort to deter crossings by erecting lights and providing the Border Patrol with 20 all-terrain vehicles. A team of agents is undergoing specialized search-and-rescue training.
The canal safeguards are part of a broader program to reduce migrant fatalities after the deaths of 14 people abandoned by smugglers in the desert east of Yuma, Ariz., in May. Ashcroft was to wind up his tour in Yuma, where he planned to congratulate Border Patrol agents who helped rescue 12 survivors.
Critics say the U.S. government is responsible for the rising death toll because its heightened enforcement in urban spots, such as San Diego, has diverted migrants into mountains and deserts where conditions can be perilous.
Outside the San Diego hotel where Ashcroft met with Mexican officials, protesters held up "certificates of death" to mark migrant fatalities along the border since the U.S. tightened border controls beginning in 1994.
Times staff writer Eric Lichtblau in Washington contributed to this story.