Guns for Drugs

For those of us living far away it offers the macabre spectacle of beheaded bodies found in the desert, of the patent absence of governmental authority over wide stretches of territory, of naive schoolgirls gamely stepping up to become municipal chiefs-of-police before quickly fleeing north of the border in terror. For those actually located there, it must be a living hell. But as Der Spiegel shows, it’s also possible to take the current Northern Mexican drug wars and cut through to their analytical essence:

Waffenschmuggel : Amerikanische Knarren für mexikanische Gangster…



It’s fairly simple, writes New York correspondent Marc Pitzke in Dirty business with Death: it’s basically a straight two-way deal of drugs headed one way, weapons the other.

These drug wars constitute a tremendous problem for Mexico – not to mention for any Americans who happen to be traveling there – but the clear implication is that the US bears much of the blame. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted as much two years ago in Mexico City, in a quote Pitzke features here (translated back from the German):

Our insatiable demand for illegal drugs fans the drugs-trade. Our inability to stop illegal weapons-smuggling over the border causes the deaths of police, soldiers, and civilians.

Indeed, Mexican weapons-possession laws are among the strictest in the world – on paper. But that doesn’t matter much when, as is generally well-known, their American equivalents are among the loosest. In Texas, Arizona, California, etc. it’s fairly easy to go shopping for, say, AK-47s, in the particular variety and quantity of your choice, after which it’s then just a matter of getting them over the border to Mexican customers. The considerable political firepower (sorry) of the National Rifle Association, the NRA, makes sure this is so, and in fact it was that organization’s 2004 success in getting the national assault-rifle ban to expire that really lit a rocket under weapons-smuggling southwards.

Would that things could just be left at that! It’s the Treasury Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) that is supposed to throttle this sort of thing, but a recent scandal has arisen in connection with something called “Project Gunrunner.” This is an ATF operation, undertaken since 2006, involving expressly allowing certain gun shipments to make it over to Mexico – in order subsequently to trace those weapons’ serial numbers to gain intelligence on where and with whom they end up.

Sound questionable? Well, grok this: recent undercover journalism (Pitzke mentions the TV network CBS) suggests that, in fact, “Project Gunrunner” lives up to its name rather too well, in that there is evidence (e.g. internal policies, clearly-excessive shipment quantities) that it is the ATF’s intention simply get those weapons to Mexico – for whatever reason – rather than really use them for any sort of investigation.

Meanwhile, as Wikileaks reveals, officials at the US embassy in Mexico City lambast Mexican government officials for their “corrupt” and “risk-avoiding” approach to the drug wars raging within their very borders. All very well, but the Americans should not lose sight either of their very substantial responsibility or the very little that is being done about that.

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