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Julian Zapata Espinoza (C), aka "El Piolin", alleged member of Zetas drug trafficking gang, is presented with other alleged gang members at a press conference in Mexico City on February 23, 2011. Julian Zapata Espinoza is a suspect in the murder of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent Jaime Zapata. (RONALDO SCHEMIDT/Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images)
Julian Zapata Espinoza (C), aka "El Piolin", alleged member of Zetas drug trafficking gang, is presented with other alleged gang members at a press conference in Mexico City on February 23, 2011. Julian Zapata Espinoza is a suspect in the murder of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent Jaime Zapata. (RONALDO SCHEMIDT/Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images)

Globe editorial

Guns move south, as drugs move north Add to ...

The attack by the Los Zetas drug cartel on Jaime Zapata on Feb. 15 was the most high-profile killing of a U.S. special agent on Mexican soil in 25 years.

News that the murder weapon came from a dealer in Mr. Zapata's home state of Texas reveals how the cross-border gun trade is undermining continental security. The implications of lax U.S. gun laws in equipping an army of criminals should also be of great concern to Canada.

Mexico is a transit zone for drugs destined for the U.S. and Canada. Meanwhile, an "iron river" of weapons flows south from the U.S. While Mexico has very restrictive gun-ownership laws, U.S. gun retailers - there are 3,800 in Texas alone - are arming Mexico's drug traffickers. Ninety per cent of all weapons seized from cartels, and sent for tracking to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, come from the U.S. Many are acquired through "straw purchases" - buying a gun for someone who is prohibited from owning one.

In Mr. Zapata's case, three American men face charges for allegedly buying weapons on behalf of Los Zetas. Mexican authorities have arrested a dozen members of the gang, who say they mistook Mr. Zapata's dark SUV for that of a rival cartel.

Project Gunrunner, a U.S. initiative to reduce weapons trafficking, has had some success. But the U.S. gun lobby vehemently denies that American guns are the source of the problem. Agents have focused more on individual smugglers because of congressional restrictions on tracing information, which make the prosecution of gun retailers difficult.

Mr. Zapata's tragic death is a potent reminder that the drug war is transnational, and that the U.S. - and Canada - must help Mexico face down the criminals who threaten to destabilize the hemisphere. The U.S. government should acknowledge the devastating American role in the violence, and more aggressively seek to prosecute gun dealers and others responsible for providing the arsenal to the cartels.

 

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