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U.S. guns arming Mexican drug traffickers

By Mark Potter, NBC News Correspondent

NOGALES, MEXICO -- When considering the vicious drug war being waged in Mexico,  it's instructive--and a bit disconcerting--to head south to look at it from Mexico's point of view.

While U.S. citizens are rightfully worried about the violence and the tons of cocaine, marijuana, methamphetamine and heroin crossing the Mexican border into the United States, Mexican officials have their own complaints about the threats they face from their neighbor north of the border.

Mexican officials point out that almost all the financing for the murderous Mexican drug cartels--billions of dollars a year--comes from U.S. drug users.
They also note, and U.S. officials confirm this, that 90 to 95 percent of all the traffickers' high-powered weapons are purchased at gun shows, gun shops and from independent dealers in the United States and are then smuggled into Mexico.

                          Weapons seized by Mexican officials. CLICK HERE TO WATCH THE VIDEO

Because Mexican gun laws are so restrictive and very few Mexican citizens are allowed to own or sell guns, the traffickers purchase most of their weapons in the U.S. where the laws are more lenient and federal firearms agents are stretched woefully thin.  (Several sources have said that along the entire 2,000 mile U.S.-Mexican border, there are fewer than 100 federal firearms agents currently working weapons smuggling cases.)

On too many occasions, Mexican police have been simply out-gunned and overrun by the well-armed drug gangs. Just last week, the police chief in Juarez, Mexico, resigned after the drug traffickers began to make good on their threat to methodically kill his officers one by one if he didn't quit.

Federal, state and local public officials, as well as soldiers and journalists, are also targeted by the traffickers as they fight to defend and spread their narcotics operations. Innocent bystanders are often caught in the crossfire. 

Mexican President Felipe Calderon and other officials have been begging the United States to tackle the drug abuse problem more effectively and to do a whole lot more to slow the illicit weapons trade. In a moment of frustration, the Mexican Attorney General told me once that too often the United States appears to be fighting the drug war on the wrong side--by financing and arming the traffickers.

No one suggests Mexico is devoid of responsibility on this issue.  The poverty, widespread corruption and failures of its justice system all enable to traffickers to operate with impunity in too many areas.  But, under the current presidential administration in Mexico, the government is fighting back and has sent more than 45,000 troops to confront the drug cartels.

                          A Mexican police officer stands guard during a prison 
                          transfer of drug traffickers.

In the United States, an increasing number of officials are realizing the Mexican drug war is also a serious U.S. problem.  Among other things, there is proposed legislation now to hire more firearms agents to stem to southbound weapons flood. Washington is also helping to train and finance Mexican authorities through its Merida initiative, although the amount of that aid clearly pales in comparison to the money and arms the traffickers collect from the U.S.

Watch Mark Potter's related video report that aired Wednesday on NBC Nightly News. Click here for related previous reports.