Like a rifle shot echoing in a canyon, the slaughter of nine women and children this week by suspected cartel members in Mexico has reemphasized the lethal role of U.S.-manufactured firearms in narco violence south of the border.
The members of the LeBaron family — three women and six children — were gunned down as they traveled along a rural road between Sonora and Chihuahua. The killings occurred in a nation that has set homicide records the past two years, and is on course to do it again in 2019.
President Donald Trump, within hours of the attack, put out a tweet calling on Mexico “to wage WAR on the drug cartels and wipe them off the face of the earth.”
Mexican counterpart Andres Manuel López Obrador balked, saying bellicose tactics produced the bloodshed that now terrorizes his nation. In a report updated last month, the Council on Foreign Relations summarized that point:
“The country has seen over 300,000 homicides since anti-drug campaigns began in 2006. In 2018, homicides, many linked to drug cartels, hit a new high of almost 36,000. This trend continued in 2019, with about 90 murders daily.”
Back at the crime scene, in a tiny outback municipality known as Bavispe, police quickly gathered and counted American-made rifle cartridges.
Gen. Homero Mendoza Ruiz, the nation’s defense secretary, told reporters the 200 shell casings were from .223 caliber rounds produced by Remington, a U.S. manufacturer.
“These caliber bullets are used in M-16 and AR-15 rifles,” he said.
Alfonso Durazo, Mexico’s minister of security, announced that a bi-national committee of representatives from the U.S. and Mexico has been created to control the trafficking of guns.
“This is a grave problem we have in the our country because trafficking of guns, particularly from the United States, is what has elevated the firepower of criminal groups,” Durazo said.
The southward flow of firearms (and money) across the border — going in the opposite direction of pot, cocaine, heroin and meth — is a decades-old dilemma with no known solution.
According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, of 132,823 guns recovered from Mexican criminals from 2009 to 2018, about 70% were traced to U.S. origins.
The trafficking of firearms is a ‘go-to issue’ for US and Mexican officials
No one knows how many guns make it to Mexico annually. Researchers at the University of San Diego estimate more than 750,000 were smuggled from the United States — the world’s largest firearm manufacturer — between 2010 and 2012.
The study concluded that nearly half of U.S. gun dealers are to some extent dependent on sales that ultimately lead to Mexico, and authorities “are seizing a comparatively small number of firearms at the border” — about 15 percent.
David Shirk, director of the university’s Transborder Institute and a co-author of that study, said firearms trafficking becomes “a go-to issue” for U.S. and Mexican officials “whenever they don’t have an answer to the violence.”
He noted that, just three weeks ago, Trump and López Obrador announced a new initiative to stop guns at the border. That accord came days after Mexican authorities arrested Ovidio Guzmán, the son of Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, who is serving a lifetime prison sentence.
After the younger Guzmán’s capture, cartel members went on a rampage, outgunning Mexican security forces as they seized control of Culiacan, the Sinaloa capital. Within hours, López Obrador ordered police to stand down and release the prisoner.
Last week, Shirk said, he crisscrossed the border into Tijuana several times to see how the new gun-stopping measures — random vehicle checks and the use of laser-scanners — are working.
Traffic was a bit more clogged, he said. A couple times, U.S. and Mexican border officers gave him cursory looks. “But they didn’t stop me, Approximately two seconds, and they waved me on. They didn’t search.”
Shirk noted there have been past efforts to stem the flow of southbound firearms, with few seizures, and the new initiative does not seem to be faring better. “If they were successful at it, they’d be bragging about it. And they’re not.”
In fact, during the Obama administration, agents for a time did exactly the opposite: They let guns “walk” into Mexico after watching illegal purchases. More on that in a bit.
‘Operation Fast and Furious’ futility
Last year, Mexico saw 20,005 gun homicides — nearly seven times as many as in 2003, according to a Los Angeles Times report.
Which is curious, because Mexican law does not allow gun possession without a permit.
In fact, the Times noted, there is only one gun store in the country, located on a military base, and the licensing process is so stringent that it sold just 15,754 weapons last year.
So, how is it that firearms are ubiquitous in Mexico?
The border gun-smuggling business is a multi-million-dollar enterprise, and a multi-faceted business.
Often, weapons are acquired in the United States via private-party transactions or at gun shows. Such sales are unregulated, so there is no record of the buyer, seller or firearm. And, until recently, traffickers could simply drive them across the border with little concern about getting caught.
The use of straw buyers also is common. Individuals with clean records are hired to purchase weapons from licensed firearm dealers — often gun stores — who are required to maintain records. The straw buyers turn those weapons over to cartel-related smugglers, collecting a fee.
Beginning in 2009, the ATF in Arizona launched a plan known as Operation Fast and Furious with a purported goal of following illegally purchased weapons to Mexico and catching kingpins. Instead, however, about 2,000 firearms bought at metro Phoenix stores were allowed to cross the border, where they disappeared.
ATF whistleblowers exposed the program, leading to congressional investigations, a criminal contempt citation against Attorney General Eric Holder and termination of high-ranking Justice Department officials.
‘Who wants to be the hero cop?’
Meanwhile, guns from Fast and Furious began popping up at shooting scenes all over Mexico. Most notoriously, one of the weapons was used in the 2010 ambush murder of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry in southern Arizona.
The ensuing furor led to renewed talk of stanching the river of guns into Mexico, but Shirk said efforts have been largely futile. A real solution, he said, would involve regulation of firearm sales, but the U.S. political climate won’t allow it.
Meanwhile, U.S. government may contribute to the problem in another way. An audit by the State Department’s inspector general this year found that the Directorate of Defense Trade Controls repeatedly fell short in regulating firearm exports.
The directorate approved 21 gun export license applications in 2017-18 — even though 20 of them lacked required information. Moreover, the agency failed to notify Congress of 17 large transactions as required by law.
According to The Intercept, the United States exported about $123 million worth of firearms and ammunition to Mexico from 2015-17, apparently for military use. The publication added, “Legally exported US firearms have been used in massacres, disappearances, and by security forces that collude with criminal groups in Mexico on a broad scale,” according to the Intercept report.
Shirk said the gun dilemma is compounded in Mexico by a “lack of capacity and integrity” among the nation’s police, prosecutors and security forces.
About 5% of all homicides in Mexico result in arrests and convictions. The rest of the perpetrators get away with murder, in part due to law enforcement corruption or fears, and because witnesses are too terrified to testify.
Referring to the massacre in Sonora, Shirk said, “There is, I think, no hope of bringing the perpetrators of this crime to justice in Mexico. Not just this crime, but any crime …
“Who wants to be the hero cop when they know there’s a high probability they’re going to die?”
Contributing: Daniel Gonzalez, Arizona Republic.