Mexican drug cartels have easy access to thousands of American gun dealers just on the other side of the border.
A minute is all the time that it takes for an employee in one of almost 7,000 gun shops dotting the U.S./Mexico border to accept a wad of cash from an eager customer, fill out a triplicate sales slip, and slide a nice, new Taurus .45 caliber pistol across the counter. Or two, or three, or twenty, as the case may be. Add those handguns to the countless tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of pistols, sniper and assault rifles, semi-automatic machine guns, shield-piercing bullets, grenades, plastic explosives, as well as anti-tank weapons outfitted with self-propelling rockets -- plus countless thousands of drug warriors, of one sort or another, who are ready, willing, and able to use them. If it looks like you've got a battle on your hands, you do -- the Mexican drug war has hit boiling point.
Mexican authorities have been quite vocal in the past year about the role that the U.S. is playing in the escalation of gun violence in Mexico. Last year, no less than 20,000 weapons were seized in drug-related actions, raids, arrests, and shoot-outs; nearly all of them were sold in the U.S. (The Mexican government has finally been given electronic access, by the U.S. Department of Justice, to be able to trace the origins of registered weapons, but only if they are used in the commission of crimes.)
Last month, the U.S. government's own Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, released its policy-shaping "2009 International Narcotics Strategy Report." As the bureau had to admit, "U.S.-purchased or stolen firearms account for an estimated 95% of the Mexico's drug-related killings."
Nowhere in the report was it emphasized, however, that there are at least 6,600 licensed gun dealers in the four states adjacent to the Mexico border. Or that legal loopholes grant thousands of other unlicensed gun "enthusiasts" and collectors across the country to sell their wares, without inspection or oversight, at weekend gun shows across the country.
"A vast arms bazaar is rampant along the four border states, enabled by porous to nonexistent American gun laws," The New York Times editorialized on February 27, 2009, after the indictment of George Iknadosian, a gun-shop owner facing federal charges for knowingly providing weapons to members of the Sinaloa cartel. "There should be immense shame on this side of the border that America's addiction to drugs is bolstered by its feckless gun controls."
The shame is warranted, and worth pondering. The action that needs to be taken, on the other hand, can afford no such luxury, because the people who have the misfortune to live in one of Mexico's deadly drug war zones have already become the casualties of our demanding drug habits, our orgiastic worship of guns, and our obsession with profit without concern for consequence.
In the international munitions and intelligence-gathering marketplace, the U.S. is the #1 supplier/dealer of arms, military transport, law-enforcement and detention equipment, surveillance technology, and "non-lethal" weaponry. On the higher end, weapons deals are usually on the up-and-up, insofar as they're attached to complex military aid packages, contracts with private contractors, and international "drug interdiction" agreements of the sort that Mexico has with the U.S. through the $1.3 billion Merida Initiative. Other times, the large-scale transfer of weaponry is far less "legitimate," as in the urban battleground that Mexican law enforcement and military forces now find themselves contending with, courtesy of the weaponry provided to Reagan and Bush-era Central American "allies." These weapons of war have found their way back up north -- and into the hands of Mexican drug cartels.
Nearly every governing body or law enforcement entity imaginable (including Mexico's equivalent of the FBI, its federal drug control agency, and Attorney General's office) has been infiltrated by the cartels and wracked with espionage, graft, and corruption scandals. But Mexico is right to insist that the U.S. truly acknowledge the extent to which its own citizens (and policies) create and sustain the consumer market for illicit drugs. There's no getting around the fact that Americans have the highest illicit substance use and abuse rates in the world, and Mexican drug cartels are but the latest of our transnational network of "suppliers."
In the 21st century, the drug trade is like any other major industry in that it has been fully globalized -- sin fronteras, without borders. In just so happens that Mexico's narco-cartels are now in the lucrative position of picking up where other players in the transnational drug trade have left off -- or, more to the point, were temporarily or permanently forced out because of individual arrests, sting operations, asset seizures, or other interdiction efforts. Even if the Gulf, Sinaloa, Juárez, and Tijuana cartels were to be completely dismantled tomorrow, there will always be some enterprising individual, group, or full-fledged criminal syndicate to step in where others have been derailed. Why? Americans have a seemingly insatiable appetite for mind-altering substances, whether in the form of cocaine, heroin, hallucinogens, tranquilizers, uppers, downers, and painkillers of all kinds. And what a profit-generating market this is. According to the National Drug Intelligence Center, wholesale drug profits amount to somewhere between $18 billion and $39 billion annually for the Colombian and Mexican drug cartels. Internationally, the illicit drug trade is estimated to generate at least $320 billion per year.
In light of that, the international drug war coordinating agency known as the United Nations on Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), has become a bit more forthcoming about pointing out the causal and interconnected variables linking the U.S. with their "supplier" nations.
Leading up to the International Commission on Narcotic Drugs, which was called into session on March 11th in Vienna, UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa oversaw the preparation of several reports to measure the extent of progress toward a "drug-free" world, as outlined by an United Nations meeting and strategy in 1998. These reports, "The Threat of Narco-Trafficking in the Americas" (October 2008), and "Organized Crime and its Threat to Security: Tackling a disturbing consequence of drug control" (March 2009), are unsurprisingly opposed to the decriminalization or legalization of drugs. But they do, somewhat surprisingly, sing a different tune about the U.S. role in the international drug trade than in previous years.
Noting that 95% of the world's population does not engage in illicit drug use, and that there are far more deaths attributable to alcohol, tobacco, and legal drugs, the "Organized Crime" report highlights a "disturbing consequence of drug control," by way of "creation of a lucrative black market for controlled substances, dominated by powerful crime cartels and resulting in unprecedented violence and corruption."
"Drugs are a commodity," as the UNODC states. "Profits are ploughed back into increasing the capacity for violence and into corrupting public officials. Together, violence and corruption drive away investment and undermine governance to the point that the rule of law itself becomes questionable."
In his preface to "The Threat of Narco-Trafficking in the Americas," Costa makes another bolder-than-expected statement: "Tackling the threat of narco-trafficking in the Americas is a shared responsibility. No country is immune from the problem: all participate, either as a source of drugs, a transit country for trafficking, or an importer."
On this point, Costa is absolutely right. By now, it has been clearly and abundantly demonstrated that Americans aren't just the biggest consumers of illicit drugs in the world, but that the sheer number of our gun shops -- and the ease with which weapons can be purchased -- are significantly responsible for the level of gun violence in Mexico. Still, as recently as August 2008, by comparison, FBI Director Mueller's speech at the 5th Annual Border Security Conference made no mention whatsoever of the role of American-sold weaponry in the violence on Mexican streets. (Instead, he attributed the situation, as many American drug warriors do, to "gangs," "stronger border security," and "progress" by the Mexican government in taking down drug cartels.)
The cartels are swimming in money, while everyday Mexican citizens in several parts of the country are swimming in terror and fear, edged in between violence between the narco-traffickers (and their School of Americas-trained assassins, The Zetas), the federal police, and the military. But never mind all of that, because there are bigger things for Americans to worry about.
For the past month, the crisis of drug-related violence in Mexico has (finally) become the focal point of numerous Congressional subcommittee hearings, press conferences, and high-level Cabinet meetings. (It took nearly 6,300 murders last year, and more than 1,000 since the beginning of 2009, to get this country to start paying attention.) U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has called Mexican drug trafficking cartels "a national security threat," while President Obama met with Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Admiral Michael Mullen to discuss options to support the Mexican government, including surveillance and reconnaissance. And last week, Roger Rufe, director of operations for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), appeared before a Congressional subcommittee to explain that DHS is ready to act, if necessary, to secure border towns. The Defense Department and National Guard would only be called in, he assured members of the House, if a "tipping point" were reached -- without explaining what such circumstances would entail.
For their part, television news networks ranging from FOX to CNN have set about creating a hysterical flutter of speculation about the likelihood of about teenage Latino "sleeper cells;" hypothetical collaborations between Hezbollah and drug cartels; the "nightmare scenario" of a crazed, drug-fueled invasion from Mexico; and the perceived need to militarize our border to new heights.
None of this would seem to be of particular comfort to the people of Ciudad Juárez. They wouldn't have much time to contemplate why CNN anchorman Don Lemon would take the time to argue with a Texan mayor about the "spillover effect" that the town of McAllen knows isn't taking place; or why FOX News' Geraldo Rivera turned to "terrorism expert" Bernard Kerik (disgraced Homeland Security nominee, former Taser-executive, and multiple felony-charged former NYC police commissioner), for his opinion on whether the U.S. federal agencies and military forces should be moving into Mexican territory to get the situation under control. (Although the connection was never made clear, Kerik and NYC comrade Rudy Giuliani were hired in Mexico City, several years ago, as high-level policing and counterterrorism preparedness consultants to the government.)
And that's because, across the border from El Paso, Texas, the people of Ciudad Juárez (pop. 1.5 million), exist for this moment in time underneath the unyielding thumb of Mexican military occupation. Daily life is being dictated by the commands and checkpoint interrogations of nearly 8,000 federales (black-riot-gear-clad federal police officers) and fatigue-green-clad military troops (nicknamed the "green tsunami" by Juárez media), who have taken complete control over local law enforcement agencies. Stationed across the state of Chihuahua, but concentrated in Juárez, most of these troops are exclusively trained in wartime offensive strategy and tactical maneuvers that leave little or no room for anything but a violent outcome. Although barely reported in the U.S. press, citizens of Juárez (and other cities or towns) have accused the military of serious human rights violations since President Felipe Calderón launched his 2006 crackdown on narco-trafficking, including beating people for "confessions," electrical torture, rape, and the practice of enclosing heads in plastic bags filled with water to simulate (or achieve) drowning.
Calderón wasn't without public support for the crackdown on drug cartels, who were battling each other-with increasing displays of public violence -- for dominance in the drug business. Indeed, crime had long since been an issue in border cities like Juárez owing, in large part, to the constant influx of hopeful migrants and dislocated workers looking for employment in one of the legions of foreign-owned factories, assembly plants built by foreign companies looking to cash in on the low-wage workforce handed to them by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Among other developments in the post-NAFTA border region, hundreds of young women have disappeared, raped, and been murdered in Juárez, by the hundreds, and they still do. Drugs are readied for cross-border journeys here in ways that are both mundane (e.g., kilos of cocaine hidden in the frame of a car) and mind-boggling (e.g., 140 pounds of marijuana strapped to the back of a man flying, in darkness, in an "ultralight," a motorized aircraft resembling a hang glider.) Increasingly, many of the drugs stay in Juárez, and other parts of Mexico, something that has led to large-scale addiction the likes of which the nation has never seen.
But just as the acts of gruesome sexual violence, murders and disappearances of young women in Juárez have gone beyond the realm of random sexual violence, so, too, have the escalating cartel v. cartel-military v. cartel battles over 'narco-turf' gone beyond what anyone would reasonably consider "drug-related crime." In this border city, nearly 2,000 drug-related murders have occurred since January 2008, including more than 200 murdered in the first two months of 2009.
In this sense, the people of Juárez are the actual, immediate victims of (our very own) drug war "spillover effect." It's too late for the thousands of people who have already lost their lives to related violence, but it's not too late to pull the plug on the easy flow of weaponry to Mexico. And it's certainly not too late for the American people to recognize and resolve, once and for all, that this is a war that cannot be won: not under any circumstance, not by any country, not by any political leader, and not with all the firepower in the world.
For the sake of Mexican people, the welfare of all of our global neighbors, and yes, for ourselves, it's time to close this ill-begotten book on the war on drugs, once and for all.
Silja J.A. Talvi is an investigative journalist and the author of Women Behind Bars: The Crisis of Women in the U.S. Prison System (Seal Press: 2007). Her work has already appeared in many book anthologies, including It's So You (Seal Press, 2007), Prison Nation (Routledge: 2005), Prison Profiteers (The New Press: 2008), and Body Outlaws (Seal Press: 2004). She is a senior editor at In These Times.