HOUSTON, Texas -- Tons of heroin and cocaine move north across the Southwestern border. And millions of dollars and truckloads of weapons move south - feeding the escalating levels of violence that have turned parts of Mexico into war zones and spread as far as North Texas.
At least 80 percent of all of the weapons used by drug traffickers in Mexico to kill one another as well as police and soldiers come from the U.S., Mexican officials say. They've repeatedly asked the U.S. government for more help in stopping the flow of weapons from Texas and other border states into Mexico.
On Monday, U.S. and Mexican customs investigation officials unveiled a cooperative effort called Armas Cruzadas to disrupt cross-border weapons smuggling through the sharing of databases and better monitoring of illicit sales at guns shops and guns shows.
And on Tuesday, the U.S. House authorized spending $1.6 billion over the next three years to help Mexico and other countries counter growing drug violence, including $74 million for the Justice Department to stem the flow of guns south. Funding, however, will have to come separately.
"With the caliber and style of weaponry used and the volume moving across the border into cartel hands, we can see the murderous intent of the cartels," said Julie Myers, head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. "It's time for the good guys to take control of the environment."
Dewey Webb, special agent-in-charge of the Houston office of the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, said the new operation will help provide firmer data on how many weapons are being bought legally or otherwise and moved across the border.
"Right now, we know Texas is the No. 1 source of weapons smuggled into Mexico, with most of them coming from Houston and Dallas," Mr. Webb said. They're bought "by 'straw purchasers' who act as buyers for the cartels."
One of the ATF's biggest cases in Dallas involved a security guard whom agents documented buying 152 firearms, including 78 Romanian-made assault rifles, at a Mesquite gun store over four months in 2003.
Agents determined that Adan Rodriguez was a paid straw purchaser for members of a Mexican cartel. One of the pistols he bought in Dallas was used in the cartel gunfight near Reynosa, Mexico, in which two federal police officers were shot. Mr. Rodriguez was convicted on federal gun charges in 2004 and is serving a 70-year sentence.
Nearly half of the 14,111 firearms recovered and traced in Texas came from Houston and Dallas, according to a 2007 ATF report. Houston was No. 1, with 3,820, and Dallas close behind at 3,358.
Operation Armas Cruzadas grew out of the unprecedented cooperation between Mexican and U.S. law enforcement agencies at every level, Ms. Myers said.
"We're getting good intelligence and they're extraditing more top-level criminals than ever before," she said.
Tony Garza, U.S. ambassador to Mexico, praised the program, saying it "directly addresses a crucial front in our shared fight against narcotrafficking in the border region."
The announcement Monday was part of a series of actions to address Mexico's concerns about gun smuggling.
It preceded the opening of the inaugural Border Enforcement Security Task Force conference in Houston to map out strategies to combat cross-border drug trafficking and gun smuggling.
Indeed, cooperation sounded like the theme of the conference, from the chief intelligence officer for the Department of Homeland Security, Charles Allen, to the heads of ATF field offices. "We are working closer and with better cooperation than ever before," Mr. Allen said.
The new measures will also give Mexican law enforcement officials greater access to the eTrace computer database in the U.S., allowing them to use the serial numbers to trace weapons used in Mexican crimes to U.S. gun dealers.
"The bilateral strategic plan between ICE and Mexico Customs has proven to be a success, and the number of joint seizures speak for themselves," said Juan Jose Bravo Moises, director general of the Mexican Customs Administration.
Particularly alarming to law enforcement was the seizure last year of an FN Herstal 5.7 mm pistol chambered to fire a bullet that can penetrate body armor.
The power and money of the cartels has led to extraordinary cooperation with Mexican law enforcement along the border, Mr. Webb said.
"For the first time, all ATF [special agents-in-charge] along the border met with their Mexican counterparts over the past year to set strategies for sharing information," he said. "It enables us to better move on cases and see smuggling patterns."
Staff writer Laurence Iliff contributed to this report from Mexico City.