31 October 2007
By Sam Logan for ISN Security Watch (31/10/2007)
As news and rumors swirl around the current status and future success of the Merida Initiative, a plan to combat narco-trafficking in Mexico, those who argue the plan's merits can agree on at least one point: The front line of the so-called war on drugs has moved north from Colombia to the US-Mexican border, but the focus on drugs has overshadowed an element of the regional black market that is just as important.
Mexican authorities now estimate that during the administration of former Mexican president Vicente Fox (2000 to 2006), some 2,000 guns per day entered Mexico. That works out to about 1.4 guns per minute. During that same period, the Fox administration seized 8,088 guns of the estimated 4,380,000 that entered the country, representing 0.18 percent of all the arms illegally smuggled into Mexico over six years, according to Mexican daily La Reforma.
Reports from the Mexican Attorney General's office indicate that seized weapons are now more powerful and plentiful and traced weapons almost always lead back to the US.
Since the ban on assault weapons in the US was removed in 2004, Mexican criminals have demonstrably singled-out versions of the AK-47 and M-16 assault rifles, or AR-15s, as their preferred weapons.
What has been called an "iron river" of guns, ammunition and light weapons flows south into Mexico where organized crime hit men and others use them to combat Mexican military and police. The resulting body count has pressured the Mexican government to request additional help from Washington, whose leaders remain reticent to enact strict gun control legislation.
In a country where the right to own a weapon is staunchly preserved, at least one, maybe two gun shows are organized nearly every weekend of the year. Texas, Arizona and California are considered the three source states for a majority of the guns that are purchased and smuggled into Mexico. Preventing these guns from flowing south is a challenge that pits the second amendment rights of US citizens against the bloody battles and mounting numbers of Mexicans killed by weapons purchased in the US.
Gun shows in Arizona occur on most weekends. They are often organized by clubs and other groups such as the Arizona Arms Association, and are well within the law, which allows for private transactions between gun owners and citizens.
These transactions are not always closely monitored. It is often left up to the individual salesman to identify interested buyers who may be purchasing weapons for a third party. Known as "strawmen," these purchasers buy weapons for a commission of US$50-US$100 per purchase. Single-moms have been targeted for this seemingly benign service because they raise less suspicion.
"We try to tell our merchants to watch for signs of nervousness or see if someone is making multi-purchases," president of the Arizona Arms Association, Bob Litzman, told ISN Security Watch.
Using a network of such strawmen, Mexican gun traffickers can collect over a weekend dozens of weapons they then smuggle into Mexico typically over land routes with a line-up of cars carrying a smaller number of weapons across different border crossings.
This form of smuggling, where smaller groupings of guns are moved across the border is known as "ant trafficking," and is one of the primary reasons why it is difficult to detect weapons moving south from the US side of the border.
Back at the gun show, on the vendors' side of the table, private vendors often enter the business of becoming a supplier, taking orders in advance for delivery at a future date, likely an upcoming gun show. These individuals gather repeat clients and form the bulk of the supply source for weapons traffickers, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF).
"Gang members and smugglers know which dealers to go to," ATF Senior Special Agent Tom Mangan told ISN Security Watch in a telephone interview from his office in Phoenix, Arizona.
"But we have had some cooperation from licensed dealers," Mangan said, adding, "[They are] motivated by those unlicensed dealers who cut into their profits."
These salesmen and strawmen are the primary sources of illegal weapons flowing south, which they sell or hand off to gun traffickers who generally group the shipments at specific border crossings. Once in Mexico, weapons smugglers are set to make thousands on their merchandise.
"A used AK-47 may sell for around [US$] 400 and up," Litzman told ISN Security Watch. He added that an AR-15 could sell for US$800 to US$2,000, depending on the model and age of the weapon as well as other options such as the scope, stock or trigger guard.
Once in Mexico, these weapons are worth at least double those prices, and in some cases as much as triple or more, according to the ATF. One AK-47 purchased in Arizona for US$500 might go for as much as US$1,500 or more once it crosses the border.
At border crossings, Mexican customs agents are in the best position to detect smuggled weapons, but their situation is a difficult one. Many are given the well known choice of plata o plomo. "take the bribe or take a bullet." This is the clear message Mexican organized crime groups send those who patrol the Mexican side of border crossings, known as "plazas."
In February this year, a Mexican customs agent stopped a truck in Matamoros, a town across the border from Brownsville, Texas, under the control of Mexico's Gulf Cartel. The agent seized a load of weapons including 17 grenades, 18 rifles and 17 pistols. The next day he was killed with an AK-47.
The Mexican military, since its deployment to troubled spots in central and northern Mexico, has had some success seizing smuggled weapons. On 13 October, soldiers seized a weapons cache in central Tamaulipas state, located on the Mexico-Texas border. The public list of seized weapons included 11 AK-47 rifles, 13 AR-15 rifles and over 700 clips of ammunition. The Mexican daily El Milenio reported that one grenade launcher, powerful enough to destroy a tank, was also recovered.
But a review of Mexican reports reveals that such large seizures are limited. Finding weapons left at the scene of a crime is more common. Mexican officials have opined that hit men leave the weapons behind for two reasons: They do not want to be found with the weapons in the future and it is easy for them to obtain more.
Easy to get, hard to trace
Back in the US, where the Second Amendment upholds the gun shows that some consider a loop hole that facilitates weapons smuggling, the politics surrounding tracing and information sharing can be complicated, while the process of purchasing and required background checks has been streamlined.
Background checks are not always required at gun shows because most sales are considered to be made between two private, unlicensed individuals - not a licensed dealer and an individual, as would be the case in gun stores where a background check is mandatory.
The check itself is often quick and easy. When a customer is ready to close a sale, the merchant is required to call a hotline administered by the Federal Bureau of Investigations, where he gives the appropriate information to the person on the other end of the line. Most of the time this process takes less than five minutes. For years, the process took much longer, to the chagrin of gun shop owners, but over time has become streamlined and easy, according to Litzman.
Strawmen who purchase weapons from law abiding gun merchants are a gateway into the murky world of the grey market, where the guns reside until they are smuggled into Mexico and resold. Before the guns are handed out for criminal use, expert gunsmiths inspect working parts, clean the guns and make the necessary adjustments to turn a semi-automatic into a fully automatic assault weapon.
Once the strawman leaves the store with gun in hand, or leaves the fairgrounds in the case of a gun show, there is no way to trace the weapon until it is found at a crime scene or seized. Often times, weapons seized in Mexico trace back to gun stores in the US, but the only information the gun dealer must legally share is the information already approved by the background check itself. From there it is a dead end.
Tracing weapons captured in Mexico back to the US is itself a complicated process, one only allowed through the federal police headquarters in Mexico City. As a result, many weapons remain untraced because agents do not want to hassle with the bureaucracy.
There are over 200 million guns owned in the US. At any time any of these guns could be sold to men and women who will smuggle them to Mexico - some for personal use and self-defense and others for criminal use. The combination of such a massive supply with demand met by ant-trafficking creates a sea of possibilities, variables and actors in a country where the ATF and others have a limited set of legal tools and, more importantly, constitutional rights to respect and defend.
The ATF has provided Mexican officials with technical assistance for tracing, but the manuals are currently in English, according to Mangan. He points out that the ATF is hopeful that future funding will allow for the manuals to be translated into Spanish, to place more agents on the border and an expansion of real-time intelligence sharing between the ATF and agents in Mexico.
Apart from the seemingly simple task of translating English to Spanish, the Merida Initiative promises to provide Mexican authorities with scanners. Placed up at key border crossings, these scanners can be set to detect drugs in traffic moving north and guns in traffic moving south.
Mangan is hopeful that the Merida Initiative will boost information sharing as well - something that to date has been lacking between agents due to concerns with corruption.
Yet the reality remains that second amendment rights in the US and those who defend them stand in the way of a robust solution to stop the arms that continue to flow from the US to Mexico.
On 29 October, the Washington Post reported that the Mexican government had seized from January to 21 October 2007 over 6,000 weapons, 470 grenades and 552,000 rounds of ammunition.
A former Mexican president, Jose de la Cruz Porfirio Diaz, mourned at the turn of the century that Mexico was "so far from God, and so close to the United States."
With over 2,100 deaths between January and October 2007 related to drug trafficking and the use of weapons purchased in the US, Mexico's geographical position, while difficult during the Mexican-American war, never has been more challenging than it is today.
Sam Logan is a Senior Political and Security Analyst at Riskline who has reported on security, energy, politics, economics, organized crime, terrorism and black markets in Latin America since 1999. http://www.isn.ethz.ch/news/sw/details.cfm?id=18300