Report: US weapons enrich cartels' power
by Diana Washington Valdez \ El Paso Times
Posted: 07/01/2011 12:00:00 AM MDT
Mexican drug cartels are having no trouble stocking up on military-grade weapons trafficked illegally from the United States to continue waging their bloody turf battles, according to a recent congressional report titled "Outgunned."
The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform is investigating arms trafficking in the wake of revelations that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' "Fast and Furious" operation resulted in the slaying of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry in Arizona.
Operation Fast and Furious would allow a person to buy a weapon on behalf of someone who could not and then trace where the weapon went, but many weapons were lost during tracking and wound up in the hands of organized criminals to kill or kidnap people. Two of those weapons were found at the scene of Terry's slaying.
"This is an issue of particular concern to me and my constituents who have witnessed, and in many circumstances been directly impacted by, the incessant violence in our sister-city Ciudad Juárez," said U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas. He went to Mexico on June 24-25 to speak with Mexican and U.S. officials about what can be done to stem the flow of arms into Mexico.
"As the owner of multiple firearms myself, I value my Second Amendment rights, but we must strike a balance between the need to respect gun ownership rights and the need for sensible measures to meet the current security challenges confronting the United States and Mexico," said Reyes, a former Border Patrol chief.
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, the House committee's ranking member, convened a forum Thursday in Washington, D.C., to continue gathering information on the issue.
According to Cummings' committee's "Outgunned" report, Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agent Jaime Zapata was murdered Feb. 15 in Mexico, allegedly with a Romarm-Cugir Draco weapon that was traced back to a dealer in Texas.
The weapon "has the same firing capacity as the AK-47, can hold a 75-round drum magazine, and can penetrate protective vests," the report said.
Closer to El Paso, several officials of Columbus, N.M., including the former mayor, a village trustee and the former police chief, and a firearms dealer in Chaparral, N.M., are accused of illegally providing or facilitating the smuggling of weapons to people in Mexico.
According to court records, weapons trafficked by the suspects in the New Mexico case were found at crime scenes in Juárez and in Palomas, Chihuahua. One of the suspects allegedly took some of his orders from an inmate of Cereso prison in Juárez.
Mexican President Felipe Calderón told a joint session of Congress in May that 80 percent of the 75,000 guns and assault weapons that officials seized in his country in the past three years came from the United States.
According to another report released June 13 by U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., "Military weapons are readily available for civilian purchase. ... Many of these are imported from former Eastern bloc countries and then can be bought by straw purchasers and transported to Mexico.
"Some importers bring rifle parts into the United States and reassemble them into military-style firearms using a small number of domestically manufactured components." Dr. Arturo Cervantes, an official in Mexico's Ministry of Health, told the House committee headed by Cummings that Mexico had 34,550 homicides from 2006 to 2010, and that drug-related killings also increased during that time, from 2,773 in 2007, to 5,661 in 2008, then to 8,281 in 2009.
The homicide rate in Mexico has also increased, to 18.4 from 8.4 per 100,000 people since 2007. Nationally, homicide is the leading cause of death for Mexicans between the ages of 15 and 44. Most of the victims were killed by gunfire.
"In Ciudad Juárez," Cervantes said, "the (homicide) rate has increased from 14.1 to 170.4 per 100,000 people."
Guns from the United States were used to kill 111 U.S. citizens in Mexico last year, a 70 percent increase from four years before that, the House report said.
ATF Agent Peter Forcelli, who testified for the House committee, said that current U.S. gun laws are toothless, but "some people view this as no more consequential than doing 65 in a 55 (mph zone)."
For example, the report said, U.S. federally licensed dealers are required to report multiple purchases of handguns, not long guns, including .50-caliber semiautomatic rifles and multiple AK-47 variants that are favored by international drug cartels.
Reyes testified, "As a result of legislation favored by the (National Rifle Association) and passed by Congress, our agents are prohibited from inputting gun ownership information into a computerized database that would find records quickly and efficiently when tracing a firearm.
"Clearly, we are relying on antiquated methods to fight an evasive enemy. But, sadly, the greatest obstacles hindering our ability to confront these challenges are the result of our own creation," Reyes said.
The Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, a national gun-rights advocacy group, issued a statement and accused the Cummings forum of playing politics.
"It's a Capitol Hill kangaroo court with the singular goal of deflecting public attention away from the Justice Department's horrible mishandling of a gunrunning sting that has flooded Mexico with guns," said Alan Gottlieb, the organization's chairman. " 'Operation Fast and Furious' is a product of the Obama administration, and Cummings is running interference for the White House and Attorney General Eric Holder.
"The real culprits here are the ATF officials and people in the Justice Department who either approved this operation or knew about it and allowed it to happen, and everybody knows it."
Cummings plans to offer recommendations that will give U.S. law enforcement the tools they need to effectively confront arms trafficking.
Diana Washington Valdez may be reached at dvaldez@...
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
Mexican drug cartels prefer these weapons to carry out their activities:
Bushmaster XM15 rifle
Romarm-Cugir 7.62 x 39mm rifle
FN 5.7 x 28mm pistol
50-caliber Barrett or Beowulf rifle
DPMS .223 rifle
Beretta Model 92 pistol
Taurus PT 9mm pistol
Colt .38 Super pistol
Source: Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives