Drugs move North & Weapons go South


When a vehicle pulls up to one of the international bridges in Brownsville in order to enter Mexico, one of the first things noticed is a huge sign warning of the dire consequences of crossing into Mexico with guns.  And, lately, more and more military checkpoints are encountered on the main highways leading out of Matamoros and into the interior of Mexico. When asked, military personnel manning those positions are straightforward in answering that their mission is to impede the flow of arms from the US into their country.

During the fall and winter months, gun shows are common on the US side of the river, in towns like McAllen and Harlingen.  Since the Clinton assault weapons ban was allowed to lapse in 2004 by the Bush administration, these weapons extravaganzas are replete with AK-47s, AR-15s and the usual run-of-the mill Tec-9s, Glock-9s and .350 Magnums. In Texas, where gun regulations are notoriously lax, firearms aficionados who are able to pass a rudimentary background check that takes no more than 10 minutes and prove  they reside on the US side are free to tap into these virtual cornucopias of guns, ammo and related items.

With the drug turf-wars between the Gulf and Sinoloa cartels proliferating over control of the 145-billion-dollar annual flow of drugs into the US, much of the border between the two countries resembles a battleground, and the number of war deaths for 2008 in Mexico is steadily climbing toward 5,000.  At the same time, President Felipe Calderon’s determination to eliminate the drug traffickers has opened another major front, which has escalated the violence.

Although some on the northern side of the border tend to think of the conflict as a Mexican problem, that point of view cannot stand up to close examination.  For, just as drugs are flowing northward from Mexico into the US, guns are flowing to the south, from the US into Mexico. From Texas, major points for the outflow of weapons have been identified as the border towns of Brownsville, Laredo and El Paso.

2nd Amendment advocates such as the National Rifle Association, with their clout in Congress, have a long history of thwarting the Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Bureau (ATF) in its efforts to control the gun trade.  For example, congressional conditions placed on annual appropriations bills to support the agency prohibit the establishment of a country-wide data base of gun owners.  And even more illogically, the ATF forms that purchasers of guns are required to fill out are not assembled into any sort of file by the agency, but rather they are kept by the gun dealers themselves!  Individuals wishing to become gun dealers in the US, by the way, have only to complete a fairly simple application form and submit photographs and finger prints for a background investigation. Once approved, they may obtain weapons from any manufacturer and transfer arms from state to state and even to foreign countries.

It is well known along the border that local persons with clean records are regularly recruited to buy up weapons stocks from gun shows and sporting goods stores in the US by representatives of the drug cartels. Guns changing hands in this manner command more than 300 percent of their customary retail value.  And, once stockpiled in secure locations in the border states, they are then gradually smuggled into Mexico, where they take their place in what have become the nation’s killing fields.

With a population approaching 110 million, Mexico has less than 7,000 non-law enforcement, legally registered gun owners.  Mexican laws which regulate gun ownership are some of the toughest in the world; and, despite the Mexican Constitution of 1917 giving to Mexican citizens the privilege of possessing arms for self-defense, that right is effectively circumscribed by stipulations that gun ownership may be affected by laws enacted after passage of the constitution and by conditions whereby the use of firearms might be reserved for the military.  

Practically speaking, Mexico has found it impossible to obstruct the torrent of firepower that has invaded the country.  Unfortunately, the upper echelons of the George W. Bush administration have not been cooperative and not even forthcoming in attempting to control the guns that cross from north to south.  Last year, for example, Director of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, in meeting with a congressional committee, professed that he had no idea about the origins of the guns that were flooding into Mexico.

In my state of residence, Texas, burglaries of sporting goods and gun stores have become commonplace in locations such as Laredo, El Paso, San Antonio, Del Rio and McAllen. Young gangsters, commonly known as “Zetitas,” or little Zetas, have too often been identified as the perpetrators of such robberies, which are committed with the intention of forwarding the weapons into the hands of cartel members in Mexico.

It would be remiss to fail to recognize that it is not unusual for Mexican officials to be caught up in the web of complicity of the illegal gun trade and its immense profits.  High-ranking Mexican police officers, for example, have been detained on both sides of the border for illegally purchasing and transporting guns.  And, no doubt, more such arrests will be made.

However, from the perspective of having lived along the border and in the interior of Mexico for several years, the pretense, double standards and insincerity of the Bush administration must be called to account for the negative attitudes that have been devastating in terms of the 1000’s of lives that have been lost to the gunfire of the last eight years.  And it has been embarrassing to witness the efforts of the United Nations and the European Community to take on the international arms trade frustrated by lack of support from the US.  Speaking candidly, Rebecca Peters of the Open Society Institute has said: “It is unbelievably selfish that the nation that produces more than half the small arms in the world is prepared to jeopardize the safety of other countries for the sake of pandering to its own domestic interests.”

Ultimately, the guns along the Border will not be silenced without US willingness to deal effectively with its society’s insatiable appetite for drugs, for guns are inextricably tied to drugs.  Whether it is by hard-nosed enforcement or by legalization, only a drying up of the domestic demand for illegal drugs will be adequate to suppress the demand for illicit weapons.  In this regard, the Bush administration has been a dismal failure. Fortunately, the last few weeks of Republican power in the White House are quickly coming to an end.  It is to be hoped that an incoming progressive president, with both houses of Congress in the control of his party, will reverse the sad state of affairs that currently characterizes the gun trade between the US and Mexico.

Byline:  John Barham, formerly a dean at the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College, retired from the University of Missouri in 2006.  He divides his time between San Miguel de Allende and Brownsville and is a frequent lecturer for Elderhostel International in Mexico.