Just a few steps south of the U.S.-Mexico border, President Calderón unveiled a towering billboard last week wielding a message written in plain English: "No More Weapons!" Weighing over 3 tons, the billboard itself is made of seized firearms that have been chopped, melted and welded together. Visible from the United States, the call is clear: halt the southbound flow of guns that fuel violence in Mexico.
Arms trafficking over our southern border has provided deadly firepower to brutal criminal organizations, fueling a tidal wave of violence that has led to some 60,000 dead in five years. Many of the dead include police officers, like the five massacred in Acapulco in 2007 with weapons that were later traced to Carter's Country gun shop in Houston. During the billboard unveiling ceremony, President Calderón directly appealed to the United States, saying, "Mexico needs your help to stop this terrible violence that we're suffering... the best way to do this is to stop the flow of automatic weapons into Mexico."
Unfortunately, it appears unlikely that Congress will enact meaningful measures to curb the flux of arms into Mexico anytime soon. Rep. Gerry Connelly (D-VA) has highlighted the failure of Congress to seriously address gun violence in Mexico, noting that the House Oversight Committee, which has held a string of hearings on the notoriously botched Operation Fast and Furious, has yet to hold even a single hearing to examine any of the three steps that many experts agree could actually reduce arms trafficking to Mexico: a federal law prohibiting the trafficking of firearms, stronger penalties for straw purchases, and the reinstatement of the assault weapons ban.
Rep. Connelly has a point. Amid the political fervor and pursuit of accountability related to Operation Fast and Furious, important questions surrounding the larger issue of arms trafficking to Mexico have been largely ignored. Here's what's missing:
For starters, it is critical to note that Operation Fast and Furious was a result--not the cause--of the staggering flow of arms into the hands of organized crime in Mexico. It's true that between 2009 and 2011 ATF agents allowed 2,000 weapons to be bought by straw-purchasers, in hopes of tracing those weapons to higher-ups in a cartel gun smuggling ring. Yet experts estimate that upwards of 2,000 guns are smuggled across the U.S. border into Mexico every day, whether the ATF is watching or not. A senior member of the Zetas drug cartel echoed U.S. law-enforcement findings last July, admitting that his cartel buys virtually all of their weapons from the United States.
How is this possible?
The simple answer is that for Mexican drug cartels, the United States is the easiest and cheapest place to purchase high-powered assault weapons, due to lax U.S. gun laws. According to Mexico's Secretary of the Interior Alejandro Poiré, assault weapons made up one-third of guns captured in Mexico back in 2005. Today, that number has grown to two-thirds, a dramatic rise that can be linked to the United States' failure to renew the assault weapons ban in 2004. Other commonly cited shortcomings that ease the path for arms traffickers include the ability to purchase firearms at gun shows with no background check or identification, weak penalties for straw purchasers, an absence of specific federal penalties for arms traffickers, and a continually underfunded ATF that has long suffered from the absence of a confirmed director.
At a congressional hearing on Fast and Furious earlier this year, one ATF agent noted that "there are stronger regulations on purchasing Sudafed than purchasing guns, and that penalties for gun trafficking are no more severe than those issued for minor traffic violations."
Perhaps from a partisan perspective in Congress, it makes sense to focus exclusively on finding out "who knew what" about Fast and Furious and "when they knew it." Indeed, the mismanaged tactics used in the investigation are troubling, and deserve scrutiny. But from across the border, Fast and Furious is not viewed as the lone enabler of the horrific levels of violence. From Mexico's perspective, weak U.S. gun policies are primarily responsible.
That's why a diverse civil society movement in Mexico initiated a petition urging President Obama to enact policies that would help stop the illegal flow of guns from the United States into Mexico. Some 35,000 people have signed the petition to the president, including a broad coalition of faith, anti-gun violence, and human rights groups in the United States and Mexico.
One of the founders of Mexico's peace and justice movement, Javier Sicilia, the Mexican poet whose 24-year-old son was allegedly murdered by members of organized crime last March, has spearheaded a charge against his country's spiraling violence. Last October, Sicilia came to Washington, DC to meet with policymakers about gun trafficking from the United States to Mexico. During one speaking engagement, he addressed a hushed crowd saying, "I know the U.S. has a culture of arms... but behind each and every one of your weapons are our dead -- and that's a grave responsibility."
We couldn't agree more.
The Latin America Working Group's Ben Leiter was lead authors on this blog.