American Weapons Flood Mexico, Fueling Violence
New America Media, News Analysis, Louis Nevaer Posted: Jul 11, 2007
Editor’s Note: For Mexico’s government, worries over the drug trade going north have been matched with concerns over the arms trade heading south, reports NAM contributing writer Louis E.V. Nevaer. Nevaer is the author, most recently, of "HR and the New Hispanic Workforce," a book about Hispanics in the labor force.
Mexico City – For more than a decade, Mexico has had military checkpoints on all northbound highways leading to the United States. It’s part of the campaign to crack down on the flow of drugs to the United States. This summer, things have changed, and Mexico’s military is inspecting vehicles traveling on the southbound lanes, checking for shipments of weapons.
This reversal is testament to the dangers Mexico faces, bordering the United States, a country unable to secure its own borders, where assault and paramilitary weapons are sold to anyone with the ready cash.
“We are concerned about the number of weapons coming into Mexico and Central America illegally from the United States,” Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said last month when he was attending a conference in Cuernavaca, south of Mexico City. “There is more that we can do, and we are looking to do, to try and stem the flow of illegal weapons into Mexico.”
Mexican officials are frantic over the escalation of violence – more than a thousand people have been slain throughout the country in the first six months of this year in drug-related violence as drug cartels establish new leaders to replace the ones who have been arrested and extradited to the United States.
“The firepower we are seeing here has to do with a lack of control on the (American) side of the border,” Patricio Patiño, Mexico’s top anti-drug intelligence officer, told reporters in June. “What we have asked the American government ... is that they put clear controls on the shipments of weapons.”
American officials claim that they are doing all they can to stem the flow of weapons. Alberto Gonzales’s office pointed out that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), is pursuing “Operation Gunrunner” to stop the “iron river” of weapons flowing from the United States into Mexico.
Unfortunately, the river continues to flow. “There is a direct relationship between the flow of these weapons and the explosion of violence [in Mexico]," José Luis Santiago Vasconcelos, Mexico's deputy attorney general for organized crime, told reporters.
Combat-style rifles continue to pour into Mexico, and this has escalated since the end of the U.S. Assault Weapons Ban in 2004. “In the United States, all you need is a pile of cash to buy all the weapons you want,” said Santiago Vasconcelos. “These weapons are being sold like candy.”
The expiration of the Assault Weapons Ban has made it possible for assault rifles, including the AR-15, AK-47 copies and the TEC-9 pistols, which were banned, along with 16 other types of semiautomatic weapons, to be shipped throughout Mexico. The AK-15, a version of the U.S. Army’s famous M16, and the AK-47, of Russian design, have been used in recent execution-style killings among rival gangs, and in attacks on Mexican police officers and soldiers.
“Mexicans who are doing their job protecting the public and fighting the drug trade are being killed with American assault weapons,” Santiago Vasconcelos said. “What is the U.S. doing to stop this?”
The White House claims that it is doing all it can: joint police forces along the border look for weapons leaving the United States, Mexican police are equipped with X-ray scanners, and border cities have stepped up their gun “buy back” programs.
This has proved to be ineffectual: Mexico’s military took over the airport at Mexicali to prevent shipments of smuggled weapons from being flown into the interior of the country; Mexico now X-rays all baggage arriving from U.S. flights into Mexico, since U.S. airlines do not prevent passengers from carrying weapons in their checked luggage; and the mandatory military checkpoints along the highways have seized more than 11,000 weapons in the first half of this year.
Mexico has strong gun control laws. In a country of 110 million people there are fewer than 6,000 legally-registered guns. But it is now reeling from the gun related violence. Making matters worse is the refusal of American officials to be on the same page. Although Alberto Gonzales admitted that the “iron river” of weapons was a problem, months ago, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told Congress: “I don't know where the weapons come from.”
That infuriated Mexican officials. “The ATF’s Operation Gunrunner knows where these weapons are coming from,” fumed Santiago Vasconcelos.
This summer, Mexican President Calderon ordered the military to set up checkpoints on all highways leading to Monterrey, Guadalajara and Mexico City. The signs read “Temporary Mandatory Stop and Inspection,” and young soldiers, armed with weapons, inspect vehicles. The sense of urgency is fueled by recent execution-style killings that involved .50-caliber machine guns.
The task is thankless. In the unforgiving summer sun, during a year when record temperatures are scorching the deserts, thousands of soldiers stand in the heat, inconveniencing multitudes, in search of assault rifles.
Alberto Gonzales faced reporters in Mexico last month. Eyes rolled when he assured the Mexican media that the United States was “committed to collaborating in the development of a regional security and law enforcement strategy.” It’s little solace to what’s happening in Mexico, a country being consumed by a level of violence unprecedented in scope, with rivers of blood being spilled by American weapons.
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