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The Washington Post, November 19, 2020
By Kevin Sieff and Nick Miroff

NOGALES, Mexico — North of the border, the .50-caliber sniper rifle is the stuff of YouTube celebrity, shown blasting through engine blocks and concrete walls. Deployed with U.S. troops to foreign wars, it is among the most destructive weapons legally available in the United States.

But every week, those rifles are trafficked across the border to Mexico, where increasingly militarized drug cartels now command arsenals that rival the weaponry of the country’s security forces. In many cases, criminals outgun police.

After years of failed U.S. and Mexican efforts to curb arms trafficking, groups such as the Jalisco New Generation and Sinaloa cartels are showcasing the military-grade weapons in slick propaganda videos and using them to defeat security forces in battle.

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In a country with just a single legal gun shop, on a military base in the capital, roughly 2.5 million illicit American guns have poured across the border in the past decade, according to a new Mexican government study. That flood has been a key accelerant in the security crisis now confronting the country. The cartels are using trafficked weapons to kill record numbers of police officers — 464 in the first nine months of 2020 alone — and smaller armed groups are fueling historically high homicide rates.

Mexican officials, in rare public criticism, are now venting their frustration at what they say is the U.S. failure to stop the flow of .50-caliber rifles. At a time when the United States is pushing Mexico to target cartels more aggressively, U.S. laws that make .50-calibers and other destructive weapons easy to buy, along with a lack of enforcement at the border, are enabling those groups to expand their influence and activities in the country.

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