Narco Gangs Armed by Gringos—Despite Border Militarization

by Bill Weinberg, NACLA Report on the Americas

Shipping powders back and forth
Black goes south and white comes north.

—”Throwing Stones,” John Perry Barlow for the Grateful Dead, 1982

The violent struggle between Mexican drug cartels for supremacy over the multibillion-dollar narcotics trade is starting to look like a real war. With local police outgunned, President Felipe CalderĂłn began his term in the final days of 2006 by deploying the army to fight the cartels.

The violence, simmering for more than a decade, exploded in 2003 in Nuevo Laredo, a crucial crossing point to Interstate 35, when Gulf Cartel kingpin Osiel CĂĄrdenas was apprehended. Seeing a strategic vulnerability, the rival JuĂĄrez and Tijuana cartels started moving into Nuevo Laredo, traditionally a Gulf Cartel stronghold. The Zetas—the Gulf Cartel’s paramilitary force, thought to be composed of former military personnel—began a reign of terror to protect their turf. Several Nuevo Laredo police officers were killed by presumed Zeta assassins in the opening months of 2005, prompting then president Vicente Fox to flood the town with 700 federal agents and army troops in what he dubbed “the mother of all battles” on the drug trade.

Yet the Mexican state’s armed response has done little to solve the problem. In 2007, drug-related killings surpassed 2,500, up from 2,100 in 2006.

A crucial part of the problem lies in the cartels’ firepower, which now rivals even that of the regular Mexican army. Both the cartels and the Mexican state get their arms from the United States. During the Fox administration, an astonishing 2,000 guns entered Mexico every day, overwhelmingly from across the northern border, according to official Mexican estimates. This “iron river” of guns, as it has been called, has swollen since the US Congress allowed the federal ban on assault weapons to expire in 2004. Mexican authorities confiscated an unprecedented 10,579 smuggled weapons in 2005, and they say 90% of them come from the United States.

“The arms the narcos use are the most sophisticated that you can imagine,” says Luz Maria GonzĂĄlez Armenta, leader of the Civil Association for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights–Emiliano Zapata (DEPRODHEZAC), which has been monitoring violence from the often overlapping narco gangs and police alike in Matamoros since 1994. “The 9mm cuerno de chivo, or AK-47, continues to predominate. But they use fragmentation grenades, shotguns, grenade launchers.” Spectacular shoot-outs in the border city, which is the nerve-center of the powerful Gulf Cartel, sometimes makes headlines—but discrete executions are more common, GonzĂĄlez says. “Bodies are frequently found with signs of torture and the famous tiro de gracia,” or final death shot.

And she has no doubts about where the weaponry originates. “Considering that Mexico is a country that does not produce arms, and yet the narcos have access to arms far superior to those used by the police forces, we presume these arms come from the United States,” she says. “It is very close, and with the corruption in customs an elephant could pass undetected.”

The arms intercepted on the border are likely a small fraction of those that make it through. In December, the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) raided a Phoenix storage locker and seized 42 weapons, including AK-47s and Belgian FN handguns; just weeks earlier, BATF agents in Phoenix had seized more than 60 AK-47s, other assault rifles, handguns, and an Uzi. In both cases, bureau agents said most of the weapons were purchased at gun shows and were bound for Mexico.

Seizures across the border have been even more dramatic. In August, a single raid at the Nogales crossing yielded 163 weapons, and in February 2007 the Mexican army seized a tractor-trailer loaded with some 20 M-16s, M-4 carbines, and grenade launchers—along with an armored pickup truck—in Matamoros. A federal agent involved in the raid was killed the following day by AK fire.

A new AK-47s sells for less than $1,000 in Mexico, and an AR-15 starts at $825. According to a 2005 government estimate, US guns are recovered in 80 percent of crimes in Mexico.

In a strange case of role reversal, Mexican officials are increasingly taking the United States to task for failing to stop the guns from entering their national territory—echoing their counterparts in Washington, with their continual criticism of Mexico over the northward flow of drugs. In his first published interview with the foreign press after becoming Mexico’s president, Felipe CalderĂłn told the Financial Times: “The United States is jointly responsible for what is happening to us… In that joint responsibility the US government has a lot of work to do. We cannot confront this problem alone.” Mexican Prosecutor General Eduardo Medina Mora put it succinctly: “We have done our part; we hope the United States will do its part.” Medina added that about $10 billion in drug cash flows south each year, and that gun stores in border states sell twice as many weapons as outlets elsewhere in the United States.

Mexico’s assistant secretary of Public Safety Patricio Patiño told the AP last May: “The firepower we are seeing here has to do with a lack of control on that [the US] side of the border.” In an interview with Reuters, Gen. Javier del Real Magallanes, head of army drug operations for northeastern Mexico, said: “If there are no weapons, there’s no violence. These arms aren’t from Mexico; they’re from the other side.” He added that more surveillance and detection equipment was necessary, but would not be sufficient. “We also need the United States to do what it should with respect to arms trafficking… We have to put a brake on the sale of arms.”

In September 2006, Mexico’s “drug czar”—head of the National Institute to Combat Drugs— Santiago Vasconcelos also argued the US government was failing to stop the flow of illegal weapons. “There’s a huge black market in weapons in the United States that they have to control,” he said. “If they closed that, the traffickers would be hitting each other with stones instead of bazookas.”

Just how will the U.S. government “do its part”? The answer is to be found in the MĂ©rida Initiative, a multi-million-dollar military aid package now being considered in Congress.

The NRA and Arms Deregulation
Last June, the CalderĂłn government formally requested military aid from the US Congress, saying such assistance was necessary to defeat the cartels. The request was made at the US-Mexico Inter-Parliamentary Meeting held in Austin and was revealed to the Mexican daily La Jornada by Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-TX), leader of the House Intelligence Committee. The request came under the rubric of a MĂ©rida Initiative, named after the Mexican city where the presidents of Guatemala, Mexico, and the United States held meetings in March 2007, at which the idea was first discussed. The initiative, which would provide $550 million to Mexico and Central America, was criticized by US representatives Eliot Engel (D-NY) and Tom Lantos (D-CA) because Congress had not been involved in—or even notified of—the proposal’s development.

The Bush administration calls the MĂ©rida Initiative “a new paradigm” of bilateral cooperation in the war on drugs and terrorism, and says it will be but the “first tranche” of a $1.4 billion, multi-year “security cooperation package.” Some 40% of the funds are slated for new helicopters and surveillance aircraft for the Mexican army; $60 million is earmarked for the Prosecutor General of the Republic (PGR), Mexico’s justice department, to beef up forensic capabilities, digitize intelligence, and train federal police. About $30 million would go to Mexico’s National Migration Institute, for stepped-up enforcement on the southern border with Guatemala. A total of $50 million would go to the military and police forces of the Central American republics.

The MĂ©rida Initiative includes a “Southwest Border Initiative,” which calls for greater cooperation between the BATF and Mexican authorities to interrupt arms smuggling. But some Washington policy-watchers doubt this will be effective as long as arms are so freely available north of the line.

“Because of how loose the gun laws are here, anyone can walk over, buy large quantities of arms, and go back and use them to kill a presidential candidate,” says Bill Hartung of the Arms and Security Initiative at the New America Foundation. (In fact, the .38 Special used in the 1994 assassination of candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio in Tijuana was traced to a gun sale in Arizona.) “If we had some kind of gun control here, if we didn’t have these kitchen-table dealers, if there were limits on how many weapons you can have—it would prevent people from buying a lot of guns and bringing them in by the shopping bag to Mexico or Colombia.”

Hartung’s critical first step is closing the “gun show loophole.” While licensed dealers are required to check purchasers’ ID and to perform background checks, private sellers at gun shows are not subject to these requirements under federal law, allowing many purchasers to evade scrutiny. The question is left to the states, 17 of which have passed legislation closing the loophole. Among those that have not are the border states of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas.

About 40% of US gun sales are in the “secondary gun market,” according to Garen Wintemute, director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California–Davis. The secondary market thrives especially in Arizona and Texas, which Wintemute calls a “gunrunner’s paradise.” He notes three varieties of illegal sales at gun shows: In the first, the buyer is prohibited from purchasing—for instance, someone from out of state—”and the seller knows not to ask questions.” Second are “straw purchases,” in which a legitimate purchaser serves as a surrogate for someone barred from purchasing from a licensed dealer. In the third, “a licensed or unlicensed dealer knows sale is prohibited and turns a blind eye.”

Assault rifles like the AK-47 remain high on the Mexican cartels’ shopping list, despite the fact that any weapon more powerful than a hunting rifle is outlawed in Mexico for use outside the military or law enforcement. The sturdy AK-47, ironically designed by the Soviets as an asset to guerrilla forces in the third world, is today produced by several US companies, including Arsenal of Las Vegas and Armory USA of Houston. Arizona is a major producer of firearms. In 2004, 11 companies in that state produced more than 100,000 weapons, according to the most recent BATF data. Red Rock Arms of Mesa makes a variety of high-powered rifles; Bushmaster Firearms of Lake Havasu City produces AR-15 parts; Sturm, Ruger & Co. of Prescott manufactures pistols.

“In effect, we allow military-style weapons to be readily available,” says Paul Helmke of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence (and former mayor of Fort Wayne, Indiana). “They’ll check you out when you get on an airplane, but you can show up at a gun show and walk out with an AK-47.”

Helmke says the 1994 assault weapons ban was never even very effective. “Manufacturers found ways around some of the definitions,” he says. Under the law, a rifle had to have at least two of several listed features in order to be considered an “assault rifle”—such as bayonet mounts and flash guards. Nineteen makes of rifle were originally thusly defined, and banned for sale to civilians. “So new ones were designed which just dropped one of those features.”

Helmke wants new legislation that will close this loophole, and takes hope from some state laws. “When we talk to people in Congress, we ask them to follow the California model. It has a single-feature test, so it’s harder to get around.”

Meanwhile, Congress allowed the 1994 law to sunset when its ten years were up. “We haven’t had any type of assault weapons ban at the federal level in the last three years,” says Helmke. “As a result, we’re starting to see more assault weapons.”

He rattles off some examples from the recent spate of media-splashed massacres in the American heartland. “The kid in Omaha who shot up the mall was using an AK-47 that his stepfather left in his closet. The young person who shot up the Colorado churches had a Bushmaster. He bought it at a gun store and ordered ammo through the mail. The UPS outlet reported the large quantities of ammo to the police, but there weren’t any legal restrictions. If you have a high enough credit card limit, you could buy a thousand AK-47s tomorrow and all the ammo you wanted.”

Federal gun laws have followed a paradoxical trajectory, actually getting looser since the post-9-11 obsession with “security,” after generations of getting tighter. The first was the National Firearms Act in 1934, which required fully automatic weapons to be federally licensed, essentially barring them from civilians. The Gun Control Act of 1968, passed in the wake of that year’s political assassinations, set up prohibited purchases—including to convicted felons, the dangerously mentally ill, and “illegal aliens.” In 1993, the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act (named for White House press secretary Jim Brady, permanently disabled in the 1981 attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan) instated a criminal background database—the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). Then came the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which was allowed to sunset—just as the Patriot and Homeland Security acts were coming into force.

In December 2007, Congress passed the NICS Improvement Amendments Act in response to April’s Virginia Tech massacre. The law imposes a cut of federal law enforcement funding to states that do not turn records over to the NICS—but does not address the “gun show loophole.”

Wintemute says the BATF has abdicated its responsibility to crack down on gun smuggling, having been starved for funds by a pro-gun Congress and pressured to turn a blind eye. He points to a series of BATF stings at gun shows in Richmond, Virginia, in 2004 and 2005 that resulted in the confiscation of several firearms. Afterward, Wintemute says, the agency was “grilled” by Rep. James M. Sensenbrenner (R-WI) in hearings of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security.

Perhaps most surprisingly, given the US government’s commitment to fighting the “war on terror,” the National Rifle Association has urged the Bush administration to withdraw its support of a bill that would prohibit people on terrorism watch lists from buying firearms. In an open letter to the Justice Department, NRA director Chris Cox said the bill “would allow arbitrary denial of Second Amendment rights based on mere ‘suspicions’ of a terrorist threat.” Yet current law already denies sales to “illegal” immigrants—and the NRA has no problem with that.

This comes amid ominous signs of a resurgence of right-wing militia activity in the United States—this time in reaction to the supposed immigration crisis. In early May 2007, just as Cox issued his letter, the BATF announced the arrest of five members of an “Alabama Free Militia” in that state’s DeKalb County, and the seizure of 130 grenades, a grenade launcher, a machine gun, a short-barrel shotgun, and 2,500 rounds of ammunition. The men were denied bail after BATF agents said they had been planning attacks on Mexican immigrants.

The US gun lobby’s obstructionism takes a global toll, Helmke adds. “The US is the world’s biggest importer and exporter of guns. There’s no limits on the amount or type you can buy, no limits on the amount of ammunition. We’re the marketplace of choice for drug gangs and dealers around the world.”

The NRA did not return numerous phone calls requesting comment for this story.

From Drug War to Real War
Foreign policy critics worry not only that the MĂ©rida Initiative’s arms-trafficking provision will do little to stem the flow of guns into Mexico—but also that its aid to the Mexican army and police agencies will only escalate the violence. For this reason, La Jornada dubbed the initiative “Plan Mexico”; a persistent criticism of Plan Colombia has been that US military aid indirectly supports the army-linked paramilitary network whose long litany of atrocities is well-documented (and whose very leaders are wanted in the United States on drug charges).

US and Mexican officials implicitly seek to avoid such analogies. Andrew Selee, director of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute, told the BBC: “The idea of comparing this package with Plan Colombia generates resistance in both countries. At least in the US, more and more voices question the effectiveness of the help that was given to Colombia.”

But officials have implicitly endorsed the analogy. Mexico’s Prosecutor General Medina Mora said on a trip to BogotĂĄ in 2006 that Mexican law enforcement should “learn through an exchange of information with Colombia about the best way to combat organized crime.” Meeting with his Colombian counterpart Mario IguarĂĄn, he hailed President Álvaro Uribe’s “democratic security” program as “a comprehensive, integrating vision.” Medina noted that the two governments in 2003 formed the High-Level Security and Justice Group, a joint effort to fight narcotics and arms trafficking.

Evident interpenetration of Mexico’s drug cartels and security forces suggest this dynamic experienced in Colombia is poised to repeat itself. In his congressional testimony in support of the MĂ©rida Initiative, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Thomas A. Shannon said cartel operatives have infiltrated municipal and state law enforcement in Mexico, “substantially weakening these governments’ ability to maintain public security and expand the rule of law.” Bringing the Mexican army massively to bear in drug enforcement may only make it easier for the cartels to infiltrate the military.

The violent contest for Nuevo Laredo exemplifies the risks of military involvement in the cartel wars. President Fox’s 2005 deployment of army troops to the town only seemed to escalate the violence. That summer, a clash broke out between Zetas and their rivals with machine guns, grenades, and rocket launchers. Residents of the city’s Colonia Campestre district reported hearing several rounds of shots and explosions at a local home. When authorities arrived, the house was empty but damaged by machine-gun fire and rocket blasts. Federal agents discovered three AK-47s, two 9mm handguns, a hand grenade, and hundreds of rounds of ammunition. Agents also found two grenade-damaged vehicles on a nearby street. In response to the incident, the United States temporarily closed its consulate in Nuevo Laredo.

After Alejandro DomĂ­nguez, a veteran agent of the federal prosecutor’s office, was gunned down hours after he was sworn in as Nuevo Laredo’s police chief in June 2005, more federal agents were sent in to investigate his slaying—and got into a shoot-out with city police three days later, leaving one federal officer wounded. Army troops took control of the city, suspending the local police force’s powers.

If Zeta co-optation of the municipal police was evident, it is less clear whether the federal forces were attempting an even-handed crackdown or were themselves collaborating with the Gulf Cartel’s rivals. In any event, the federal presence did nothing to de-escalate the violence. “The army is here and the federal police are here,” said Raymundo Ramos, president of the Nuevo Laredo Human Rights Committee in the summer of 2005. “But the thugs carry on killing with impunity.”

Another indication of the drug-smuggling industry’s penetration of law enforcement is the access that the cartels seem to have to official (or at least very official-looking) Federal Agency of Investigation (AFI) uniforms. In May 2007, federal army troops exchanged fire with 20 gunmen equipped with AR-15s, bullet-proof vests, and AFI uniforms at a checkpoint in MichoacĂĄn. In Chiapas, presumed Zetas dressed in AFI uniforms opened fire on a state police patrol with AR-15s, leaving one dead and two wounded. In Coahuila, four men in AFI uniforms kidnapped the state’s chief anti-kidnapping investigator, Enrique Ruiz Arevalo, in TorreĂłn.

The cartels also evidently have access to army uniforms. In February 2007, gunmen armed with AK-47s and dressed as federal soldiers attacked two police stations, killing seven, in Acapulco. The cartels’ use of rocket launchers may also indicate friends in the Mexican military.

In Colombia as well, the US has been complicit in arming violent outlaws. Human rights groups have repeatedly accused the United States of supplying arms to Colombian military units that collaborate or even overlap with the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), the country’s most powerful right-wing paramilitary organization, which is officially listed by the US as a terrorist organization. Despite official efforts at “demobilizing” illegal armed groups in Colombia, paramilitarism has exploded in the eight years Plan Colombia has been in effect—and has survived the official disbanding of the AUC. While noting some modest improvements, Amnesty International’s 2006 year-end report on Colombia found that “serious human rights abuses remained at high levels, especially in rural areas,” and that “abuses by paramilitary groups continue despite supposed demobilization.”

US complicity in arming Colombia’s paras evidently extends beyond military aid to co-opted army units. The Colombian government has announced that it will seek the extradition of eight unnamed persons affiliated with the US banana giant Chiquita Brands International for their involvement in the company’s payments to illegal right-wing paramilitary groups. In March 2007, Chiquita pleaded guilty in US federal court to making payments to the AUC, and agreed to pay a $25 million fine. An OAS study into the affair found that thousands of AK-47s bound for the AUC—which is held responsible in thousands of killings and massacres—entered Colombia through Chiquita’s private banana port of Turbo. The largest shipment was apparently brokered by Israeli dealers in Panama, with the weapons pirated from the Nicaraguan police force.

The Brady Campaign’s Helmke expresses some reservations about weapons falling into the wrong hands under the MĂ©rida Initiative. “You want to make sure they’re being used for the purposes they’re intended to be used for,” he says. “I’ve read enough about how weapons in Iraq have wound up missing. People like guns for a lot of different reasons, not just the official business.”

But the dilemma may run deeper than that, even if the nightmarish violence on the southern border finally prompts Congress to buck the gun lobby and seriously crack down on the arms trade. Prohibitionist solutions have dramatically failed to halt the illegal drug trade and may be no more likely to work for arms. Arms may be harder to hide than drugs, but their capacity to co-opt military and law enforcement—the more fundamental issue, ultimately—is likely the same. By providing further firepower and intelligence capabilities to military and police forces themselves infiltrated by (or collaborating with) the cartels, the MĂ©rida Initiative could fuel Mexico’s violence, upping the ante in the war for narco-supremacy.


This story first appeared, in slightly different form, in the March/April edition of NACLA Report on the Americas.


Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence

Arms and Security Initiative, New America Foundation

Violence Prevention Research Program, UC Davis

See also:

Militarization and the “MĂ©rida Initiative”
by Laura Carlsen, Foreign Policy in Focus, WW4 Report, December 2007

From our daily report:

Chihuahua: rural activist killed
WW4 Report, March 18, 2008

Mass graves in Ciudad JuĂĄrez
WW4 Report, March 16, 2008

Chiquita sued over FARC payments
WW4 Report, March 18, 2008


Reprinted by World War 4 Report, April 1, 2008
Reprinting permissible with attribution