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Traffic inspections aimed at guns bound for Mexico

CUERNAVACA, Mexico — U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Thursday that more inspections of vehicles headed into Mexico and stepped up intelligence gathering on the U.S. side of the border would be part of an effort by both nations to choke off arms traffic into America’s southern neighbor.

“On the Mexican side, more uniform and routine collection of arms tracing done on a real-time basis” will be required, Napolitano told The Associated Press as she flew to an arms trafficking conference in Cuernavaca.

Napolitano and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder met privately with their counterparts, Mexican Attorney General Eduardo Medina-Mora and Interior Minister Fernando Gomez-Mont, as well as other Mexican and U.S. officials to discuss tougher penalties for violating the countries’ gun laws as one way of fighting drug cartels blamed for violence on both sides of the border.

Most of the weapons being used in the Mexican drug wars — 6,290 people died last year and more than 1,000 this year — are smuggled across the border from gun dealers in the United States.

Until recently, the U.S. did not regularly inspect southbound vehicles, and the Mexicans didn’t scan the majority of the cars coming into the country. Facilitating legal trade, not catching gun smugglers, has been the prime directive, Mexican officials have said. Now, the cartel security threat demands a new approach.

The Obama administration has promised a crackdown on illegal U.S. weapons sales that supply the drug cartels.

The Cuernavaca meetings come one day after Napolitano announced plans to spend more than $400 million to upgrade U.S. ports of entry and surveillance technologies to help thwart drugs and arms smuggling along the border.

Napolitano said the U.S. and Mexico are in a better position than ever before to take on this fight.

“Now you have the political will at the highest reaches of the Mexican government to take this on and to be public about it,” she said. “That combined with our own interest in taking on these cartels and the resources that we have give you kind of a one-two punch that we didn’t have at that level before.”

Besides the $400 million, which is part of President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus package approved by Congress, Napolitano has directed her department to step up its outbound inspections. Customs and Border Protection officials would not provide specific details, but said there were about five outbound inspection operations in the past year.

Two weeks ago Customs officials at the eight railroads between the U.S. and Mexico began scanning rail cars on the way out of the U.S. instead of just on their way in. When U.S. officials see something suspicious in the X-ray, they alert Mexican law enforcement, which intercepts the rail cars in Mexico.

It was as simple as flipping a switch, said Marko Lopez Jr., chief of staff for Customs and Border Protection.

Lopez, who came on recently with the new administration, said he did not know why this wasn’t being done before. “Bottom-line is that we weren’t,” Lopez said. “It’s a huge vulnerability.”

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