The US Arms Both Sides of Mexico's Drug War

By Lora Lumpe

Covert Action Quarterly, Summer 1997, Number 61, pp. 39-46.

Mexican narcotraffickers and other criminals easily obtain their firepower north of the border. Effectively reducing the flow of illegal arms would mean tightening laws on gun sales and ownership in the US. Instead, the Clinton administration increasingly militarizes Mexico's drug war, by providing more weapons aid and encouraging the military to become more involved.

On March 14, when federal agents opened two crates in a "left cargo" hold at the Otay Mesa border crossing near San Diego, California, they uncovered the largest illegal shipment of arms ever intercepted in the United States en route to Mexico. The weapons-thousands of unassembled grenade launchers and parts for M2 automatic rifles-had been sitting unclaimed for two months. The discovery was a PR godsend for the Mexican government, following as it did on the heels of an embarrassing disclosure in

February that Mexico's top drug enforcement official was on the take from narcos, and a messy skirmish between the White House and Congress about whether to "certify" Mexico as acting in good faith to counter drug trafficking. Mexico City quickly used news of the weapons cache to turn the spotlight away from its drug scandals and focus it on America's gun problem. No doubt stung by daily criticism from Washington, Mexican officials were less than diplomatic: We're simply not satisfied" with US efforts to stem the flow of arms into Mexico, said Marco Provencio, assistant undersecretary of foreign relations.1 The Mexican ambassador to Washington, Jesus Silva-Herzog, complained, When we talk about drugs they say it [the problem] is supply, and when we bring up alms they respond that it's the demand. In other words, we can never win."2

Let's Outlaw Illegal Guns

It was not the first time Mexico had protested the flow of weapons. For several years now, that government has pointed out that Mexican drug cartels (and other criminals) are getting their arms north of the border; for several years, Mexico City has asked that Washington take effective steps to address this issue.

Washington has responded in several ways. First, successive administrations have downplayed Mexican concerns or labeled them as disingenuous--simply an effort to deflect attention from Mexico's official corruption and inept war on drugs.

More recently, the Clinton administration has seemingly acknowledged the link between the gray and black arms markets and narcotrafficking, at least rhetorically. In his keynote speech before the 50th UN General Assembly, for example, President Clinton focused on the global threat posed by terrorism, organized crime, and drug trafficking. 4Noone is immune, not the people of Latin America or Southeast Asia, where drug traffickers wielding imported weapons have murdered judges, journalists, police officers and innocent passersby," said the president. Citing the facility with which these groups obtain the weapons needed for their operations, Clinton urged states to work with Washington "to shut down the gray markets that outfit terrorists and criminals with firearms.

In addition, over the last year, Mexican police and US agents have stepped up cooperation, communication and intelligence-sharing on gunrunning and on tracing weapons used in crime. And, at their summit in early May, Presidents Clinton and Zedillo redundantly agreed to Outlaw the trafficking in illegal arms."3

Fighting Fire with Firepower

It's easy for the Clinton administration to oppose illicit arms trafficking in principle; it's a motherhood issue. But missing from the speechifying is any mention of the US role as a one-stop shop for drug runners' guns--or concrete steps likely to staunch the flow of arms. Given that America's loose gun sale and gun ownership laws facilitate the vast majority of weapons smuggled across the border, the willingness of the administration to take effective action is far from clear. Domestic gun control-considered too politically sensitive, even in the context of the alleged threat to national security posed by drug trafficking--is not part of the discussion.4

Instead, the administration has concentrated on providing the Mexican military with firepower sufficient to counter that of the drug bandits. The relationship between the two militaries has warmed dramatically in the past year, following a visit by Gen. Barry McCaffrey, the White House drug policy director, to Mexico in March 1996. His meeting smoothed the way for an agreement between the two governments which has resulted in Mexican soldier straining at Fort Bragg and other US bases, and in the gift of 73 Surplus "helicopters, night vision goggles, radios and other military equipment. In addition, the White House has requested $9million in military aid for Mexico for fiscal year 1998 (up from $3 million in fiscal year 1996) for the purchase of new weapons from US arms manufacturers.5

More Firepower

The links between arms and drug trafficking make the problem worse. Drug authorities estimate that up to three-quarters of the cocaine entering the United States now comes through Mexico, as do tons of marijuana annually. Mexican narcotraffickers are believed to take in as much as$30 billion per year for their role in this traded In March1996, Thomas Constantine, the chief of the US Drug Enforcement Administration testified that the Mexican drug cartels were so wealthy and powerful that they now rival the government for influence and control in many regions.

Increasingly, the narcos are outgunning Mexican drug agents. Drug traffickers killed more than 200 police last year alone.7 The Border Patrol reported 24armed encounters and assaults on agents in its Del Rio sector during the first eight months of 1996, including a January shootout with a Mexican drug trafficker near Eagle's Pass, Texas in which a Border Patrol agent was killed. There were eight armed encounters during the same time period in1995.8 According to a Mexican official, The firepower of the narco-traffickers so superior to that of the federal agents that they [the narcos]have become increasingly brazen. These people are getting their weapons from the US. That doesn't mean necessarily that they are American weapons, but ... one issue that can help is lowering the access to these weapons."9

Not just the police are coming under fire. Thousands of Mexican citizens are getting caught in the crossfire. According to the US Centers for Disease Control, Mexico has one of the highest firearm homicide rates in the world, about 10 for every 100,000 people. (The rate for the United States is 7 per100,000 people.)10 In addition, there has been a spate of recent high-profile political and narco-assassinations, many of them carried out with guns purchased illegally in the US. In 1993, the Cardinal of Guadalajara, Jose Posadas Ocampo, was gunned down in a drug-gang shootout with a weapon smuggled across the US border. A year later, PRI presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio was assassinated in Tijuana with a .38-caliber Taurus pistol also purchased illegally north of the border. Just months after Colosio's murder, Jose Francisco Ruiz Massieu, the secretary general of the ruling PRI, was shot and killed. This past January, Hodin Armando Gutierrez Rico, a former special prosecutor on the Colosio case for the Attorney General's office, was cut down in a hail of bullets in front of his Tijuana home. Police found more than 130 AK-47 assault rifle shells and 9mm bullet casings. Five officials linked to the Colosio investigation have now been assassinated.

Gun seizures by Mexican officials have increased dramatically in recent years, but it is difficult to know whether this is because of absolute increases in numbers of weapons in Mexico, or to improved efficiency on the part of the authorities. Road checkpoints have turned up large quantities of drugs, arms, and other smuggled goods.11

Mexican police seized 16,000 pistols and 6,000 shotguns, mostly from drug gangs in 1994-95, and more than 7,200illegal weapons in 1995 in non-drug related crimes (up from 28 in 1992).12 Last October, Mexican officials asked The White House has requested$9 million in military aid for Mexico for the purchase of new weapons from US arms manufacturers.the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) to trace the origin of nearly 4,300 side arms and semiautomatic and automatic rifles confiscated from drug-related crime scenes.13 Since then, Mexico has submitted 1,500 additional trace requests.14

In August 1994, just months before his brother fell to an assassin's bullet, Deputy Attorney General Mario Ruiz Massieu (now in jail in the US, awaiting trial on drug-related charges), said, "We track the dealer and determine from where the shipment originates. [The guns] generally originate from US citizens and end up most of the time in the hands of gangsters, thieves, and other criminals, rather than organizations such as the Zapatista National Liberation Army." Situated in the southern part of the country, Mexico's leftist rebel armies appear to be getting their arms principally from enormous stores left over from the Central American wars of the 1980s. Many of those arms were, of course, supplied by Washington, too, either through massive military aid programs or as part of covert government operations. According to a report by the attorney general's office last fall, arms from north of the border are mainly being used in street crimes, such as holdups, kidnappings, and murders.15

The Profit Motive

Proximity, liberal gun sales laws, and inadequate law enforcement have made the US Mexico's leading source of black market arms-despite Mexico's own strict gun control policy. Mexican law bars civilian ownership of any gun larger than .22-caliber; requires a permit before purchase; mandates the registration of firearms with the Ministry of Defense; and bans carrying weapons in public. Although Mexico has produced military-style assault rifles under license from European gun manufacturers, it does not make or sell weapons approved for the general population.

Just over the border, however, regulation is loose and manufacture of guns is big business. In 1990 alone, civilian firearms sales amounted to a staggering $2.1 billion, with wholesale ammunition sales of $491 million in 1992.16 There are an estimated 250 million firearms circulating, and over 245,000 federally licensed firearms dealers selling guns to the general public. Ten percent of these (24,567) licensed gun sellers are in the four states bordering Mexico, and more than 6,000 sit along the border between the two countries.17 While it is illegal in the US for any person or company to export or conspire to export a weapon without obtaining a license from the government (either the Commerce or State Department, depending on the type of weapon), the US is a major source of small arms and light weapons for illicit buyers around the world.

Of the five or six million firearms purchased annually in the US by private buyers, a certain percentage is acquired by middlemen working on behalf of arms traffickers who smuggle them across the US-Mexican border in violation of both countries' laws and regulations.

Many of the arms used by Mexico's insurgencies were supplied by Washington either through massive military aid programs or as part of US covert operations that left enormous arsenals behind.

Gun trafficking entails significant risk of punishment for those caught, but rewards those who succeed with big, or at least relatively easy, money. The going rate to smuggle one gun into Mexico is reportedly about $10018, and annual reports by the BATF'S International Traffic in Arms program indicate that the task is not overly difficult. In 1994, foreign governments reported 6,238 unlawfully acquired US-origin firearms to the BATF. Over half--3, 376--were discovered in Mexico.l9 The chances of being prosecuted for arms trafficking on the north side of the border appear pretty low. Despite the enormous quantities of US-origin guns illegally circulating in Mexico, a US Department of Justice (DoJ) document listing "Significant Export Control Cases" from January 1981 to June 1995 shows that, in this 15-year span, the DoJ prosecuted only two cases. One, in 1989, involved a conspiracy to export 190 AK-47 assault weapons and a large quantity of ammunition, and the other concerned a conspiracy to purchase and export a large quantity of weapons, including M-16 rifles, grenades, and antitank rockets, for use by drug traffickers in Mexico in 1990.20 Mexico's Firearms and Explosives Act stipulates harsh penalties for crimes connected with the possession and use of all types of weapons, as well as their illicit trade.

Shipping Through Customs

Gunrunners, like their product, come in all calibers. Some are free-lance petty criminals looking for a quick buck. But much of the traffic is just one part of large-scale organized criminal operations. According to a report last fall by the Office of the Attorney General of Mexico, gunrunning is the third richest source of profit for organized crime in Mexico, after drug trafficking and robbery/extortion. The report states that no criminal group has been found to be "strictly and exclusively dedicated to arms trafficking" but, rather, that drug trafficking organizations are running guns through the routes to/from the US under their control. It cites flourishing gun/drug routes along the Pacific coast, the Gulf coast, and Central Baja and adds that a "significant" amount of arms trafficking originates out of central Florida, crossing through the Caribbean and entering Mexico through the Yucatan Peninsula. The narcos generally traffic in AK-47, AR-15, and M-1assault rifles.21

Large and well-organized arms shipments like that uncovered near San Diego in March are thought to be unusual, but no one really knows, since understanding of black market gunrunning is based largely on transactions that have failed. In this cases several months before their Otay Mesa discovery, the weapons had entered the US through the port of Long Beach, California, in two large, sealed containers. The shipment originated in Vietnam, where America, as part of its war legacy, had left behind large quantities of weapons, including M-2 automatic rifles.22 Before the arms returned home, they were well-traveled, having gone from Ho Chi Minh City to Singapore to Bremerhaven, Germany, through the Panama Canal and up to Long Beach.23

The contents of the containers were falsely represented as hand tools and strap hangers. US Customs at Long Beach did not inspect the, cargo since the shipment was "in-bond"--that is, the items were simply transiting the US enroute to another country, in this instance Mexico. In such cases, cargo containers typically remain sealed as they moved from ship to truck to border. According to a Customs source, "in the normal course of business, no one Canal and up to Long Bach. would have ever opened them. [The arms] were discovered through a fluke."24 (The shipment was held up at the border because the Mexican freight forwarder commissioned to get the crates to Mexico City did not have an address for the purchaser.) The in-bond system is built on trust, and on the Customs Service's lack of resources. Customs has fewer than 135 inspectors at the port of Long Beach, the nation's busiest port, to sift daily through the equivalent of 8,400 20-footcargo containers.25

The Trail of Ants

The most routine way of smuggling arms, however, is the hormiga (ant) run: repeated trips across the border with one or a few guns. A legally eligible or "straw" purchaser buys a few weapons (often cheap.22- and .25-caliber pistols,"38 specials," and 9mm pistols) from gun stores in El Paso and other US border towns and hands the mover to the trafficker, who sneaks them across the border, generally either on foot or in the trunk of a car. A smuggler can repeat this process hundreds of times a year, making multiple trips to gun stores in Florida, Texas, and California, in particular.

Some legal constraints are now in place, but lack of investigative and regulatory resources reduces their efficacy. The Brady Bill" mandates a five-day waiting period, and a recently enacted rule requires purchasers to show that they have lived for at least three months in the state where they are buying a gun. In addition, the Firearms Owners Protection Act of1986 (sponsored by the NRA) requires that multiple sales be reported to the BATF and local law enforcement agencies, so that they can monitor multiple gun purchases and investigate if they suspect criminal intent. But currently only three states--Virginia, Maryland, and South Carolina--have laws that prevent people from buying more than one gun a month. In all other states, straw purchasers can buy significant quantities of guns and ammunition from gun dealers at one time and pass them on to smugglers for clandestine shipment. A 1991 BATF report describes a number of such transactions, including a 1989 case in which three Arizona residents purchased 93 assault rifles and 22 handguns for a well-known Mexican narcotics trafficker, who then transported them into Mexico.26

44 CAQ SUMMER 1997

And once the guns are acquired in the US, there is little to keep them from crossing the 2,000-mile-long border. Because Mexican border officials have a general policy of not checking people who enter on foot, many Mexican smugglers hide guns in suitcases, backpacks, or Ruffle. Gunrunners who drive across conceal weapons under seats or inside false compartments. Although border police run random spot checks of cars coming south, these traffickers run relatively little risk. Firearms are also smuggled on commercial flights. According to a US Customs survey conducted at the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), gunrunners often wrap the firearms in foil and then put the min their checked baggage. Smugglers also hide weapons in television sets or other electronic components and ship them either as air freight or as personal luggage. In 1989, US Customs officers recovered 463 firearms at LAX.27 It can probably be assumed that many more guns escaped detection there and at other US airports.

Where the Guns Are

Willie Sutton explained, when asked why he robbed banks, "because that's where the money is." In that spirit, many gunrunners go to military and police facilities on both sides of the border to get arms. In 1993, the General Accounting Office (GAO) found that small arms parts were routinely stolen from a number of military repair shops and warehouses. The hot parts were then sold to gun dealers or to walk-in customers at gun shows around the US.GAO investigators were able to purchase military small arms parts at 13 of 15 gun shows they visited. They were able to buy everything needed to convert a semiautomatic AR-15 rifle into a fully automatic M-16, as well as 30 round M-16 magazine clips still in their original packages.28 Some of these arms undoubtedly end up south of the border.

In Mexico, narcotraffickers and other criminals probably also get a substantial amount of US arms from Mexican police and military depots, either through theft or purchases from corrupt state servants. In 1991, the Pentagon gave Mexico nearly 50,000 M-1 rifle carbines,29 and during 1989-93, the State Department approved 108 licenses for the export of more than $34 million of small arms to Mexico. The Department performed only three follow-up inspections to ensure non-diversion of these arms.30 During 1991-93,the Commerce Department approved an additional 34 licenses for the export of over $3 million of shotguns andshells.31 End use checks are even rarer on Commerce-licensed arms.

Supply and Demand, American Style

Shutting down an illicit market is, of course, difficult: Reducing supply, with out also reducing demand, might simply make the market more lucrative and encourage more people to enter it. Nevertheless, there is much that the US could do to make it more difficult for Mexican and other criminals to obtain firearms in America. The Brady Bills(requiring a five-day waiting period and criminal check prior to gun sales) and the current ban on sales of assault rifles have complicated business for gunrunners. A national law limiting customers to one handgun purchase per month would, according to BATF findings, help curb the multiple-gun straw purchases that often end up on the black market. There is also a need to increase resources for Customs intelligence and inspections, and for the State Department and Customs Service to undertake more frequent "end use" inspections to ensure that legally transferred small and light arms are not diverted.

All of these steps address supply, but ignore the root causes of the tremendous demand for lethal firepower. Crime, and related gun use, among small-time criminals is often fueled by desperate social conditions-lack of jobs, hopelessness, and poverty. In Mexico, every year 158,000 babies die before 5 years of age because of nutritionally related disease. With the country gripped in its worst recession since 1932, as many as 40 percent of all Mexicans suffer from some degree of under nutrition. A report by the nation's top private bank, Banamex, found that as a result of the economic crisis, half of Mexico's 92 million people get less than the 1,300 minimum daily requirement of calories.32 Not unexpectedly, the crime rate in Mexico has soared since the collapse of the national economy in 1995, with an average of 543 crimes per day reported in Mexico City.33 And organized crime, the biggest traffickers and consumers of illicit weapons, thrives on the drug trade.

Meanwhile, gathering information on gun violence and gun ownership laws within the hemisphere is an important step (see p. 43), as are devising common export guidelines and enhancing Customs surveillance and cooperation. But as long as the United States has by far the most permissive gun sales policies in the hemisphere, it will continue to supply drug-runners and criminals of all stripes.


l. Clifford Krause, "Mexico Protests Arms Inflow at Leaky US Border," International Herald 75ih~ne,March l9, 1997.

2. Howard LaFranchi, "Mexicans Too Have a Problem Border: Awash in US Guns," Christian Science Monitor, April 11,1997, p. 7.

3.The White House, Office of the Press Secretary (Mexico City), Remarks by President Photon, May 6,1997.

4. See, for instance, the hearing on counter-narcotics efforts in Mexico held by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Aug. 8,1995.

5. The Secretary of State," Congressional Presentation for Foreign Operations, Fiscal Year 1998, p. 413.

6. Paul de la Garza, "Mexico Army Takes Police Role,' Chicago Tribune, April 11, 1997, p. 8.

7. The White House, Office of the Press Secretary(Mexico City), "Remarks by the President in Address to the People of Mexico," May 7,1997.

8. Jeff Bulta, "Mexico Faces Corruption, Crime, Drug Trafficking and Political Intrigue," "Crime and Justice International, v. 13, n. I, Feb. 1997,

9. Phone interview, April 24,1997.

10. Centers for Disease Control, 1996, cited in "Draft Statistical Tables for Microanalysis" Ad-Hoc Expert Group on Information Gathering and Analysis of Firearm Regulation, prepared for seminar of UN Economic and Social Council, Feb. 10-14, 1997.

11. "Deputy Attorney General on Arms, Ammunition Trafficking," UNOA~ISUNO, Aug. 8, 1994, as translated and published in FBIS-LAT-94-167.

12. LaFranchi, op. cit., p. 7.

13. Crime and Justice International, op. cit.

14. Clifford Krauss, "Mexico, Harried Over Drugs, Presses Own Peeve: US Guns," New York Times, March 19,1997.

15. UNOMASUNO, op. oit.

16. US Census Bureau, US Statistical Abstract (Washington, D.C.: Department of Commerce, 1995), table 406.

17. LaFranchi, op. cit., p. 7.

18. A Mexican lawyer ordered an illegal 12-gaugePerazzifrom a Laredo, Texas gem dealer and paid an American $100 to smuggle it into Mexico. (ibid.)

l9. Other countries reporting a significant number of confiscated US origin firearms included Colombia(604), Jamaica (210), and Canada(167). US Department of the Treasury Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, ITAR International Traffic in Arms (Washington, D.C.: BATF, 1994), Annual Report for FY 1993, p. 22.

20. US Department of Justice," Significant Export Control Cases, January1981 to May 31,1995," obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the Federation of American Scientists.

21. La Jornada, Sept. 27, 1996, as translated and published in FBIS-TDD-96-029-L.

22. The M-2 is a World War II-era rifle, identical to the M-l which is used by the Mexican police, except that it has a small selector switch that converts it into a fully automatic weapon.

23.Valerie Alvord, "Illegal Weapons Were Well Traveled," San Diego Union-Tribune, March 21, 1997.

24. Valerie Alvord, "2 Truckloads of Illegal Arms Found," San Diego Union-Tribune, March 14, 1997.

25. Anne-Marie O'Comnor and Jeff Leeds, "US Agents Seize Smuggled Arms," LosAngeles lines, March 17,1997.

26. BATF Firearms Division, International Traffic in Arms, Report to Congress (Washington, D.C.: BATF, 1991),p. 132.

27. Ibid, pp. 122-24.

28. US General Accounting Office, Small Arms Parts: Poor Controls Invite Widespread Theft , GAO/NSIAD-9421 (Washington, D.C.: GAO, 1993).

29. Paul F. Pines and Lora Lumpe, Recycled Weapons (Washington, D.C.: Federation of American Scientists,1896), p. 33.

30. See Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs hearing, (A Review of Arms Export Licensing, June 16 1994 (Washington, D.C.: US Government Printing Office,1994), p. 37.

31. Information obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

32. Cited in Norman Solomon, "Poor Journalism South of the Border," Creators Syndicate, May 8, 1997.

33. "Growing Security Problems," Criminal Justice in the Americas,

Global Gun Glut

The problem of the proliferation of illicit arms is drawing fire from numerous international regulatory bodies. International police and customs entities (Interpol, the World Customs Organization, Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission of the Organization of American States) have recently undertaken useful initiatives to gather data, educate policymakers and find consensus on steps that can be taken to regulate firearms and curb illicit trafficking. The US has been participating in all of these efforts, and apparently welcomes them.

The United Nations has also become concerned with the impact of small arms and light weapons on the maintenance of peace. In September 1995, the secretary-general called for direct action To deal with the flourishing illicit traffic in light weapons, which is destabilizing the security of a number of countries." In December of that year, the General Assembly established a panel of experts to study the matter (the UN's idea of direct action). The panel will make its final report in June and is expected to call for greater self-restraint and information-sharing in exports of such weapons.

Also in 1995, the UN Economic and Social Council(ECOSOC) undertook a study of Firearms regulation for the purposes of crime prevention and public safety." In March1997, the secretary-general issued a report with the phrase" measures to regulate firearms'' in the title. Needless to say, the National Rifle Association (NRA) is sweating. In fact, in late 1996 the gun association applied for and was accredited as an officially recognized "non-governmental organization" with the UN, precisely so that it could keep closer tabs on and influence the UN's efforts. In a statement prepared for a May ECOSOC commission on crime prevention, the NRA complained that the "current orientation of these [UN] efforts regarding firearms regulation is dissipating energy and effort from more pressing and relevant problems, i.e., illegal arms smuggling as it relates to criminal activity and terrorism." When asked specifically what the NRA proposes to do about gun-smuggling, a spokesman said he didn't know what legislation could be passed to curb the problem, given that criminals break the law. "That's what criminals do."1

The Organization of American States (OAS) is involved in two efforts to tackle the illicit arms traffic in the hemisphere. The Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission (CICIAD) provides assistance to OAS member states on supply and demand reduction, legal development, institution-building, and information exchange. As part of its legal development program, CICAD is drafting model regulations to standardize and Then appropriate, periodically revise laws, regulations, administrative procedures and the means of applying them in order to eliminate the illicit manufacturing and trafficking in firearms, ammunition, explosives and other related material."2 The model regulations should be completed this summer. In a second and more recent initiative, the OAS is drafting a convention against the illicit manufacturing and trafficking of firearms, ammunition, explosives, and other related material. The proposed treaty originated with the Mexican government, and the current draft calls on states to adopt legal or other measures necessary to "prevent, combat or eradicate "the illicit production and transfer of firearms and ammunition. According to Carlos Rico Ferr at of the Mexican Foreign Relations Secretariat, the OAS draft convention will develop a consensus about what kinds of arms are to be considered illegal for international trade, and set rules for notification of arms shipments for both sending and receiving countries, including an annual assessment of efforts by each state party on progress in curtailing illicit arms trafficking. According to another official, "At this point the exercise is about enhancing the capability of countries to track the issue. More stringent gun control laws in the US are not on the table right now."

1. Interview, April 1997.

2. LaPranchi, op. cit.

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