It's an axiom in the smuggling trade that drugs flow north, while money and guns flow south. While much Sysiphian effort is made at stopping the drugs and capturing the money, here in the US nobody really prioritizes stopping the illegal smuggling of thousands of guns across the Mexican border every week.
According to the Dallas News this morning ("US, Mexico set sights on stopping flow of weapons to cartels," Jan. 17):
Officials said that many of the weapons – including powerful handguns and semiautomatic assault rifles – are purchased legally at shops and gun shows, and that Houston and Dallas are two of the top sources. The guns are typically carried south across the border by multiple couriers whom some officials referred to as an "army of ants."
Even black-market military-style weapons, such as .50-caliber machine guns, bazookas and grenades, have been seized in raids.
The increasingly sophisticated and powerful weapons pose a risk on both sides of the border, officials said, but especially in Mexico, where at least 105 people have been killed in drug-related violence since 2008 began.
"Drug-trafficking organizations have made life at the border increasingly dangerous," Michael J. Sullivan, acting director of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said in El Paso. "And this danger extends across the border and into several parts of Mexico."
In Mexico City, U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey said the goal of what officials are calling Project Gunrunner is to dry up the cartels' arms supply in the U.S. by punishing gun dealers who knowingly sell weapons to "straw" buyers who then resell them illegally.
I've no doubt that's how a lot of those weapons are purchased, but the National Rifle Association has diligently worked in the past to weaken gun show restrictions. Rightly or wrongly, I don't expect that to change. If the Bush administration goes ahead with plans to crack down on gun shows in an election year, I'd expect a backlash from gun-toting voters.
Mexico, by comparison, has undertaken an even more dangerous and unhappy task. Mexican President Felipe Calderon's crackdown against the Gulf Cartel marks only the beginning of a baleful and bloody campaign against organized crime in Mexico, hardly the denouement. Reports Reuters columnist Bernd Debusmann ("In Mexico, the state struggles for control," Jan. 16):
What's happening in Mexico now is reminiscent of Colombia in the 1980s, when the Medellin and Cali cartels had more sway in parts of the country than the government.
Mexico has not reached that stage. There is no way that a leader of a Mexican drug cartel could win a seat in Congress, as did Pablo Escobar of the Medellin cartel, or run for a senate seat, as did the Cali cartel's Carlos Lehder.
But there are parallels. "The violence Mexico's drug traffic generates is similar to ours in the 80s," according to General Oscar Naranjo, the head of Colombia's national police force.
"Mexico is experiencing a second generation of drug traffickers...who try to assert territorial control in parts of the country to ensure their monopoly," Naranjo said in an interview with Reuters last year. ...
Colombia's success in breaking the power of its big cartels was due partly to close cooperation with the U.S. which provided money and intelligence. The unintended consequence: much of the illicit business previously run from Colombia moved to Mexico.
Now, along the border, Mexican drug traffickers are trying to extend their culture of corruption to the north, targeting Border Patrol and military officials they think might be tempted by easy money.
"In the U.S., the region most vulnerable to corruption is the U.S.-Mexican border and particularly the border with Arizona," said Paul Charlton, the former U.S. Attorney for Arizona who is now partner in a law firm. "The temptations are just extraordinary."
Over the past few years, investigators have uncovered scores of U.S. public employees who accepted bribes for helping to move drugs or look the other way.
Whatever the fate of President Bush's proposed $1.4 billion anti-drug package for Mexico, if the United States wants to reduce the power of multinational drug cartels it must do (at least) three things we don't do very well right now: Reduce US-side drug demand, stop arms smuggling from the United States into Mexico, and do more to eliminate corruption among US law enforcers. The rest is basically up to God and the Mexican government.
I'm not sure we'll ever see Mexican smugglers running for office like Pablo Escobar, not because they're not that powerful but because I think high-level smugglers learn from the mistakes of their peers. Observers like Debusmann have long feared the "Colombianization" of Mexico, but that may not quite capture what's happening: Mexico is its own ball game, with its own rules.
Mexican cartels wisely seem content with buying politicians (or renting them) rather than pursuing their own first-hand political ambitions, and instead have infiltrated law enforcement on a scale that never occurred in Colombia. Consider the case of Carlos Landin Martinez, the alleged Reynosa subcommander of Los Zetas, the enforcement arm of the Gulf Cartel, who is currently on trial in McAllen. How's this for a profile of a cartel kinpin:
[Landin Martinez, who is] accused of running a drug smuggling operation for the Gulf drug cartel while also working as the Tamaulipas, Mexico, state police commander, faces 10 counts of drug smuggling, conspiracy and money laundering in connection with the cartel's purported activities from 2005 to 2007. He has pleaded not guilty.
When the state police commander is a leader in your organized crime gang's enforcement wing, the fix is pretty much all the way in, isn't it? Wow! That's an impressively well-connected organization. (We can't be too judgmental, of course, since it wasn't that long ago we found out the head of the El Paso FBI division had been corrupted by an informant.) On the other hand, only the bravest would not cooperate when the alternative is having drug gangs target you or your family. "Plata o Plomo" ... silver or lead, is the choice cartels offer Mexican police officers.
I don't know what is the solution to that; maybe President Calderon and the Mexican Army are doing what can be done. But I certainly think they'd have an easier time of it if Americans weren't providing their opposition with high-powered weapons and endless supplies of cash.