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Murder Incorporated: Guns, the NRA and the Politics of Violence on the Mexican Border

Sign on road just before main bridge into Mexico from Brownsville, Texas. (Photo: Mark Karlin)

Part of the Series

This is the second article in a Truthout series looking at US “immigration” policy and Mexican border policy through a social justice lens, focusing on the lower Rio Grande Valley, Brownsville, Texas, area. Mark Karlin, editor of BuzzFlash at Truthout, visited the region recently to file these reports. The first installment was “The Border Wall: The Last Stand at Making the US a White Gated Community.”

An Iron River of Guns Flows Across the Border

A phalanx of US law enforcement and military personnel patrol the Mexican border for undocumented migrants and drug traffickers, but there is comparatively little effort to keep firearms, which are increasingly military-style semi-automatic weapons, from entering Mexico. Indeed, while the flow of the Rio Grande River separates most of Texas from Mexico, guns stream into Mexico in an “iron river” from the United States.

Unlike the green waters of the “Great River,” which begins in Colorado and starts its flow south through the state of New Mexico before reaching the Mexican border near El Paso, the iron river of illegally trafficked guns flows due south, along a four-state border (including desert, mountain and urban terrain), with few obstacles to derail its deadly course.

The biggest point of entry for guns illegally transported to Mexico to arm the cartels is, allegedly, the Gateway International Bridge crossing in Brownsville, but that is difficult to confirm. In fact, guns enter into Mexico along almost the entire (nearly 2,000-mile) border length, mostly through small-time traffickers who hide the contraband in their cars, vans or trucks. Firearms are basically legally unobtainable in Mexico for citizens, but perhaps as high as an estimated 90 percent of the armed weaponry used in narco-violence in Mexico originates in the United States, according to US traces, although some argue that the figure is much, much lower, with significant small arms also coming in from other countries.

The result of the United States’ lax regulation of guns is literally deadly. A variety of estimates, combined with official but imperfect Mexican figures, put the drug war death toll at 40,000-55,000 over the last five years. Many of the victims were likely killed with guns originating in the United States.

Into the Juarez Valley, With the Highest Murder Rate in Perhaps the World

The gruesome impact on Mexico is ghastly, as Texas Observer reporter Melissa Del Bosque describes in an article on the Juarez Valley: “To reach the deadliest place in Mexico you take Carretera Federal 2, a well-paved stretch of highway that begins at the outskirts of Juarez, east for 50 miles along the Rio Grande, passing through cotton and alfalfa fields until you reach the rural Juarez Valley, said to have the highest murder rate in the country, if not the world.”

Del Bosque reveals a grim symbol of the toll of the war on drugs, which is fueled by American guns and a multibillion-dollar consumer market for cocaine, marijuana, heroin and meth in the US:

For decades, this lucrative smuggling corridor, or “plaza,” was controlled by the Juarez cartel. In 2008, Mexico’s largest, most powerful syndicate – the Sinaloa cartel, run by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman – declared war on the Juarez cartel and moved in to take over the territory. The federal government sent in the military to quell the violence. Instead the murder rate in the state of Chihuahua exploded. The bloodshed in the city of Juarez made international news. It was dubbed the “deadliest city in the world.” So much blood was being shed in Juarez that few outside the region noticed the violence spilling into the rural valley to the east, where killings and atrocities began to occur on a daily basis. Police officers, political leaders and community activists were shot down in the streets. By 2009, the valley, with a population of 20,000, had a shocking murder rate of 1,600 per 100,000 inhabitants – six times higher than its neighboring “deadliest city in the world” – according to government estimates.

Mexican President Felipe Calderón, who has generally given the appearance of cooperating with the US war on drugs (only recently expressing that perhaps an emphasis on reducing drug consumption in the United States – or legalizing drugs – might be a more effective alternative) has become publicly desperate about the gun arsenal the United States is sending his way. In fact, in February, MSNBC reported that Calderón, “unveiled a ‘No More Weapons!’ billboard made with crushed firearms.”

“He urged the United States to stop the flow of weapons into Mexico,” the report continued. “The billboard, which is in English and weighs 3 tons, was placed near an international bridge in Ciudad Juarez and can be seen from the United States.”

No More WeaponsMexican President Calderon unveils billboard in Juarez visible in El Paso, Texas. (Photo: Alfredo Guerrero.)

“Dear friends of the United States, Mexico needs your help to stop this terrible violence that we’re suffering,” Calderón pleaded in English during the unveiling of the billboard. “The best way to do this is to stop the flow of automatic weapons into Mexico.” (Although some critics of Calderon, it must be noted, say that he is using the US gun supply problem to deflect from the government’s role in the bloodbath in Mexico.)

The National Rifle Association Ensures Even People on the Terrorist Watch List Can Buy Guns

The source of the iron river of guns into Mexico begins far away, (as Truthout noted is also the case for the catalysts behind the border wall). The iron river’s headwaters are in Washington, DC and in state capitols across the nation, where the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the firearms industry have ensured that weak gun laws enable even people on the terrorist watch list to buy guns.

Calderón, in Juarez, asserted that “the current period of violence in Mexico began in 2004 after a US federal ban on the sale of assault weapons expired.” According to the El Paso Times, “[H]e said that strong pressure from the U.S. weapons industry still exists and that he regretted the lack of political will in the U.S. Congress to renew the [assault weapons] ban.” (Critics of Calderon again argue that this represents an opportunistic strategy to divert attention from the Mexican government’s and military’s involvement in the surge of killings, a great number of them civilian deaths.)

The NRA’s successful defeat of an extended national ban on assault weapons has apparently played a significant role in the availability and use of increasingly military-style weapons among the cartels. According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) — as referenced in a court case — “firearms have been increasingly more powerful and lethal in recent years … [A]round 25 percent of the firearms seized in Mexico and traced in fiscal year 2008 [were] high-caliber and high-powered such as AK and AR-15 type semi-automatic rifles, which fire ammunition that can pierce armor often used by Mexican police.”

The link between the NRA and the gun industry – including manufacturers, gun dealers and “collectors” – makes them inseparable and a virtually indomitable force in Washington DC and state capitols. Whatever legal interpretations of the Second Amendment might come down from the courts, it is clear that semi-automatic weapons did not exist at the time of the American Revolution.

Mexican Cartels Are a Profitable End Market for US Gun Manufacturers and Sellers

“Militarization defines the U.S. gun market today – from assault weapons to armor-piercing 50 caliber sniper rifles,” says Tom Diaz of the Violence Policy Center and author of “Making a Killing: The Business of Guns in America.”

“The design and marketing of military style firearms by the US gun industry dovetails perfectly with the desires of Mexican traffickers who want lethal, reliable, affordable, and readily available weapons fit for an army.”

It is important to remember that the gun industry is a manufacturing/retail sector Chamber of Commerce-style business, but with the extra dimension of having a grassroots lobby of gun owners – primarily aging, white males – who see any regulation as an infringement on their maleness and what they regard as their Second Amendment rights. As Diaz points out, it is an industry looking for new expanded markets that can increase their profitability as the percentage of US consumers who own guns declines. One of the industry’s key “innovative” products is military-style weapons, and the Mexican cartels are a large, lucrative end consumer.

The NRA opposes not just major forms of gun control (bans on handguns, for examples), but even the most sensible laws and regulations that assist in law enforcement. Most recently, it has taken up a year-long struggle against its nemesis, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), against reporting requirements for high-volume, federally licensed dealers in the four-state area contiguous to Mexico who make multiple sales of assault weapons to a single customer.

This requirement was deemed necessary by the ATF because gun tracing has revealed that most firearms enter Mexico in the hands of what are called straw purchasers. These are individuals recruited by cartels to buy guns in states like Texas (or even farther north) pretending that they are personal purchases, when, in fact, the intent is to resell them for a large commission to the cartels in Mexico.

The reporting of multiple sales of highly lethal long guns to individual purchasers assists in identifying potential straw purchasers. ATF’s field offices in the four-state southland border region confirmed to Truthout that paperwork for multiple sales of certain long guns to the same person, a document known as form 3310.12, is currently being required for designated dealers in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.

But even this requirement does not enable law enforcement officials to vigorously obstruct the illegal trafficking to Mexico. That is because, as one ATF agent told Truthout, the form doesn’t solve the problem of an individual straw purchaser who purchases guns from multiple dealers or who buys them over the five business day reporting requirement limit. Nor does it deal with the gun-show loophole, where collectors can sell guns without any reporting requirements, or the issue of multiple sales of assault weapons outside of the four-state region. (Assault weapons rarely originate in California, the ATF agent said, because of the state ban there.) Nor does it remove the handcuffs that have been put on ATF and local law enforcement which prohibit many potential systemic, nationwide enforcement efforts and measures to stop gun crime.

NRA and Gun Industry Oppose Minimal Regulations to Reduce Illegal Firearms Bound for Mexico

Indeed, the National Shooting Sports Foundation and the NRA continue to push litigation against the minimal four-state multiple assault weapons reporting tool, even though it will help in reducing the number of guns crossing into Mexico.

When a federal district judge ruled in favor of the ATF regulation in January, the NRA quickly indicated that it would continue to fight to nullify the reporting requirement.

“We disagree with the judge and an appeal will be forthcoming,” ABC reported NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said when asked about the ruling.”This is more proof that the Obama administration is intent on blaming gun owners and the Second Amendment for a problem that is rooted in Mexico.”

Over the years, the NRA has conducted a withering and successful effort to neuter the gun-crime prevention authority of the ATF. That is the reason that the NRA-controlled Senate has not confirmed a director of the ATF since 2006, leaving the agency under the leadership of a series of acting directors.

One must understand that the NRA adheres to an Ayn Rand view toward gun law regulation: it shouldn’t exist in an idealized “free market,” even if it prevents criminal activity and violence. It opposes a UN effort to limit small-arms trafficking among nations. In the mid-1990s, NRA head Wayne LaPierre even compared ATF agents to Nazi storm troopers, calling them “jackbooted government thugs.” It so enraged former President George H.W. Bush that he renounced his membership in the NRA.

Most recently, the NRA has used California Republican Congressman Darrell Issa to conduct a crusade against the ATF based on its so-called Fast and Furious operation aimed at following straw purchasers to their cartel buyers in Mexico in order to identify the kingpins. Some guns “got “loose, and one of them was used to kill a Border Patrol agent. So, now, Issa and the NRA are lambasting the ATF in order to weaken gun regulation even further.

The only result of such a partisan witch-hunt would be even more guns finding their way to Mexico and more deaths there. Fast and Furious actually grew out of a Bush administration program called Project Gunrunner. It is worth noting that Representative Issa – who became chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in January of 2011 with the openly stated goal of hounding the Obama administration with subpoenas – voted for a House amendment that would have prohibited the ATF’s multiple-assault-weapon reporting requirement for the Southland states from being enacted. Issa has also bragged of his “A” rating from the NRA.

Weak US Gun Laws Enable Murders in Mexico, Washington Post Says

“Lax U.S. Gun Laws Enable Killing in Mexico” the Washington Post headlined an editorial this year, countering Issa’s assault on the ATF:

Fast and Furious was a well-intentioned, misguided response to – and not the cause of – the proliferation of illegal guns in Mexico. To stanch that flow, the Obama administration and Congress should heed the pleas of Mr. Poire Romero [a senior Mexican law enforcement and security official] and his countrymen by reviving the assault weapons ban and closing the gun show loophole that makes it far too easy to sell weapons without a background check. The White House and lawmakers should work to enact a federal firearms trafficking statute and call for stiffer penalties for illegal straw purchases. Lawmakers also should confirm a chief for the ATF and give the beleaguered agency enough money and personnel to fulfill its mission of keeping illegal guns out of the hands of criminals on both sides of the border.

Due to the NRA’s tight rein on Capitol Hill and state capitols, The Washington Post published another editorial, this one in 2011, that more directly targeted responsibility for the river of blood that results from the iron river of guns to Mexico: “The gun rights lobby has spent considerable time and energy in pursuit of one goal: crippling the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). It has largely succeeded – and with dire consequences.”

Modest law enforcement recommendations to facilitate the reduction in the flow of guns to Mexico – such as those included in a report authored by US Sens. Dianne Feinstein, Sheldon Whitehouse and Chuck Schumer – are all vigorously opposed by the NRA through intimidation and campaign contributions on Capitol Hill.

It Is Easy to Buy Guns in Texas That Are “Cheaper Than Dirt”

Not far from the main Brownsville bridge into Mexico, you can stop at a store that advertises, “Guns, Beer and Fireworks.” All you will need is money for the beer and fireworks and a driver’s license for the guns. Or, you might want to go on a shopping spree at a firearms store just north of Brownsville’s Boca Chica Boulevard, where they advertise guns that are “cheaper than dirt.”

Perhaps, some would argue, the generally large number of estimated guns traveling from the US consumer and illegal markets to Mexico is exaggerated. Charles Bowden, a legendary writer on the borderland, and Molly Molloy, a tenacious recorder of the deaths in Juarez from her position as research librarian for Latin America and the border at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, both believe that many more guns come from other sources, including firearms that the US allows American arms dealers to sell directly to the Mexican military and law enforcement agencies.

Indeed, according to CBS News, many State Department-approved, military-assault-style weapons sales result in arming the cartels due to the cross-pollination between corrupt segments of the Mexican army and the cartels. Even the National Shooting Sports Foundation’s Larry Keane told CBS News, “There have been 150,000 or more Mexican soldiers defect to go work for the cartels, and I think it’s safe to assume that when they defect they take their firearms with them.”

It has also been argued that the Mexican army has played a significant role in the shooting of civilians, and that, at least in some cases, they used guns sold to them by US companies. Furthermore, Bowden and Molloy make the case that even if a lot of guns stopped coming from the United States, the cartels and the Mexican government have billions of dollars to find other suppliers.

Bowden and Molloy, who shared with Truthout their concerns that the issue of guns being supplied from the United States should not divert attention from the Mexican government’s role in the ongoing Mexican killings, may very well be correct.

But regardless of whether the number of guns from the US is 90 percent, 70 percent, or even 50 percent or less of the cartels,’ Mexican military’s and “law enforcement’s” firepower – and regardless of whether these same parties who kill civilians have vast financial resources to buy firearms from other nations – at the current moment, isn’t it the moral obligation of the United States to limit its role in enabling the war-zone number of killings in Mexico?

This is one of the tacit deals that underlies US drugs and gun policy: we buy the drugs from Mexico, and the cartels buy many of their guns from us via straw purchasers and other illicit acquisition or with State Department sanction for the military and police. Disregard the political rhetoric; this is the reality in this grim exchange of goods, whatever “the collateral damage.”

There is another route for the United States to take. Joan Burbick, professor of English and American Studies at Washington State University, concludes her book, “Gun Show Nation,” with this alternative to current American gun policy:

How much easier it is to believe in the politics of the gun, and to fight for our right to be armed, than to step in front of the gun and build social and civil institutions that sustain our society and promote economic and political justice. The gun is ultimately a shortcut, a strategy to sidestep consent. Our will to engage in democracy is what is at stake. The question remains: Can we put aside the lethal politics of the gun and take up again the challenge of democracy?

That would be indeed be a worthy model we could provide to Mexico, instead of being the source of an iron river of guns that leaves such a deadly and gruesome toll in its wake.

The next installment of Truthout on the Mexican Border will be “The US War on Drugs in Mexico is a Grim Geopolitical Farce.”

This article is not covered by Creative Commons policy and may not be republished without permission.

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