Last week, on the heels of continuing violence that claimed the lives of three individuals associated with the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juarez, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton led a high-level delegation to Mexico City in an effort to expand support for Mexico's crack-down on organized crime.
Mexico has been plagued by bloodshed since President Felipe Calderon declared war on the drug cartels in December 2006. To date, nearly 18,000 people have lost their lives in the civil strife.
Just to put things in perspective, that's almost triple the number of US and allied soldiers killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan combined, and approximately six times the number of lives lost on September 11.
Speaking at a press conference in Mexico City, Secretary Clinton acknowledged the contribution of the U.S. to the turmoil. "Yes, we accept our share of the responsibility," she told reporters, recognizing that "guns purchased in the United States ... are used to facilitate violence here in Mexico."
Pentagon assessments estimate that the cartels have armed upwards of 100,000 "foot soldiers" -- the majority of them possessing firearms obtained in the U.S.
Mexico has some of the toughest gun laws on the books. There are only about 6,000 guns registered in Mexico. Yet, as President Calderon told CNN this weekend, "We seized 66,000 weapons in three years, half of them assault weapons. We made a sample one year and a half ago, above 80 percent of those weapons came from the United States." Authorities claim that between 250-300 guns enter Mexico from the U.S. every day, most obtained in the four Southwest border-states.
The problem is compounded by the fact that there are more licensed gun dealers in the four border-states than there are registered guns in Mexico. If you add in the Brady Center's allegation that 40% of all gun sales are made without conducting proper background checks, you can see how this is a recipe for disaster.
The failure of the U.S. to address its national appetite for illegal drugs and its reluctance to better regulate gun sales has recently led to a degree of blowback, with Mexico's violence spilling over into the border-states. Cartel-related murders, assaults, home invasions, and kidnappings are now overwhelming local authorities.
President Barack Obama has declared the mounting chaos just south of the border to be a national security threat: "I think it's unacceptable if you've got drug gangs crossing our borders and killing U.S. citizens. I think if one U.S. citizen is killed because of foreign nationals who are engaging in violent crime, that's enough of a concern to do something about it."
But do what exactly?
To date, the Obama administration has implemented several new initiatives for combating the growing cross-border bedlam:
- Creating a new FBI-led Southwest Intelligence Group;
- Increasing the federal government's law enforcement presence along the border (doubling of the number of personnel assigned to Border Enforcement Security Task Forces, tripling the number of ICE intelligence analysts, and quadrupling the deployments of Border Liaison Officers); and
- Deploying new technologies (scales, automated license-plate readers, and X-ray devices) to gather intelligence and spot weapons.
All of these measures represent yet another attempt to fight the problem with traditional law enforcement tactics. But gun trafficking has always managed to elude the police, and the administration's build-up will be no exception.
In fact, in the past year, 1,400 firearms have been seized at the border. While that might seem like a lot of guns, that's actually less than the total number of guns authorities estimate cross the border in any given week. Even if by next year authorities drastically step up their efforts and begin catching half of the weapons entering Mexico (an absurdly optimistic scenario), it still means that perhaps upwards of 150 guns will be getting through daily.
The current weapons problem needs a more unorthodox approach.
Ideally, the U.S. could change its gun laws which at present are fairly lax. But it's naïve to believe this is feasible, as it ignores the realities of gun politics in Washington. As President Calderon told CNN, whenever he raises the solution of stricter gun legislation with American officials, they reply that "they are facing strong oppositions and very powerful lobbyists in the Congress."
Nor are prosecutions likely to succeed on this side of the border. Proof in point: last year, the case that authorities were touting as their exemplar for how crooked gun dealers will be jailed for knowingly selling weapons to straw purchasers was dismissed by judge for failure to prove a crime had been committed.
In that case, licensed Arizona gun dealer George Iknadosian was charged with fraud for knowingly selling over 700 guns -- including about 500 AK-47 semi-automatic rifles -- to American straw purchasers. These conduits would then transport the weapons to Mexican smugglers, often receiving $100 for each gun delivered. An Arizona judge ruled, however, that helping straw buyers fill out falsified purchase forms did not amount to fraud because the trial produced "no proof whatsoever that any prohibited possessor ended up with the firearms." So long as the buyers were eligible to purchase the weapons, there was no "material falsification" as required by the law. As such, Iknadosian was acquitted by directed verdict.
American laws just don't facilitate cracking down on shady weapons dealers and traffickers.
Mexican laws, however, do.
If the U.S. is truly serious about curtailing the flow of illegal guns into Mexico, then it should start extraditing those who are willing to jeopardize Mexico's national security for financial gain. Under the current extradition treaty, both fraud and "offenses against the laws relating to prohibited weapons, and the control of firearms, ammunition, explosives, incendiary devices or nuclear materials" are extraditable infractions.
If you're an American citizen, you might not be swayed from selling guns to straw purchasers or delivering guns to Mexican runners so long as you know that you are unlikely to be tried successfully in a U.S. court. But change the legal calculus to incorporate the Mexican criminal justice system, and then the question becomes: Are the few thousand dollars to be made from illegally selling or running guns really worth the risk of spending several years in a Mexican prison?
The Obama administration should consider offering to extradite U.S. citizens to Mexico to stand trial for egregious acts of arms trafficking.
President Calderon, after all, has extradited over 175 Mexican citizens to the U.S. to stand trial for drug trafficking given their activities on the Mexican side of the border. Isn't it time we return the favor?