Why Is U.S. Pumping AK-47's and Military Rifles Into The Hands Of Mexican Drug Cartels?

The atmosphere was tense and emotions were running high at the Phoenix field office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) late last year. “Are you prepared to go to the funeral of a federal officer killed with one of [our] guns?” an ATF agent shouted at one of his superiors. 

Another agent described the scene in the room as “ugly,” with a lot of “screaming and yelling.” A third agent gave what would be a prophetic warning: “This is crazy, somebody is gonna get killed.” 

Somebody, as it turned out, did get killed by December 2010. When that somebody was a border patrol agent, anonymous testimonies offered to CBS this past February soon gave way to more detailed whistle-blower revelations and a flurry of controversy.  

The agents were dissenting against the continuance of the previously classified “gun-walking” program named “Fast and Furious,” which deliberately permits gun sales to suspected “straw purchasers” (arms buyer conduits to drug cartels) for the sole purpose of tracking the weapons in the hope of prosecuting prominent drug cartel members when they use those guns to commit crimes or when the guns are seized by authorities. The program was first started in October 2009 and accelerated in September 2010.  

In effect, a U.S. federal law enforcement organization charged with regulating guns was purposefully allowing the sales of high-powered weaponry, which included AK-47's and military-grade .50 caliber rifles, to flow directly into the hands of Mexican drug cartels.  

In spite of the internal dissent and the ensuing controversy, damning documentation and hours of Congressional testimony and ongoing investigations -- as well as seething anger on the part of the Mexican public -- there is no end in sight to the ill-fated program. 

Revelations Sparked in Wake of Death, Strong Mexican Reactions Ensue 

It was a typically chilly December night in Peck Canyon just north of Nogales, Arizona. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry, along with three of his fellow agents, were in hot pursuit of suspects attempting to rob undocumented immigrants.  

At about 11pm on December 14, a frenetic firefight ensued and Terry was shot and killed. Four suspects were initially apprehended while a fifth remained at large.  

What made Brian Terry’s death unique was the fact that the guns captured at the scene of the firefight were traced back to the Fast and Furious program. The Phoenix ATF agent’s prediction had come true.  

“You feel like shit. You feel for the parents,” a Phoenix agent lamented. 

The program continues to this day, however, and many others have died, mostly Mexican civilians caught in the line of fire.  

Estimates vary, but many experts put the death toll since the start of Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s “drug war,” as high as 40,000, dating back to when Calderon took office in a disputed election in 2006.  

Unsurprisingly, when news of the program arrived in Mexico in March, a firestorm of criticism ensued. Media coverage boiled even further in the wake of Congressional hearings into the program held on June 15. 

Much of the criticism coming from Mexico, however, has been left out of stateside news coverage. Nevertheless, officials from across the political spectrum voiced outrage, as did the Catholic Church.  

Isabel Miranda de Wallace, a drug-war activist, suffered through her son’s kidnapping in 2005. “The Americans seemed really upset when one of their agents died here,” she told the Center for Public Integrity. “But it appears that all of the Mexican lives lost in this don't add up to the same value for them. Instead of restricting violence, [operations such as these] generate even more of it.” 

Wallace’s critique was echoed by the Mexican Archdiocese’s office, which lambasted U.S. officials for crafting a situation whereby, “one of the most fervently anti-immigrant states [Arizona] is also the prime site for permitting the illegal passage of arms to go right into the hands of Mexican criminals.” 

One of Mexico’s most important political figures, former Presidential candidate Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, characterized the Fast and Furious program as, “one of the many intrusions by U.S. policy into Mexican sovereignty.” Cárdenas added he doubted that these previously secret policies reflected the will of the American people, tagging them as “convoluted” and “poorly thought out.”  

The center-left People’s Democratic Revolutionary Party’s (PRD) candidate for governor in the State of Mexico, Alejandro Encinas, echoed those sentiments,  describing the program as a “flagrant violation of sovereignty.” Encinas went further, accusing the Calderon administration of “tacitly supporting these types of violations.”  

Calderon administration officials, such as Jorge Alberto Lara, Mexico’s Deputy Attorney General, claimed ignorance. “We could never have known, and we would have never approved an operation that entailed any sorts of arms trade, or a controlled traffic of weapons from the US into Mexico,” Alberto Lara said in a statement to the press.  

Mexican Experts Decry Lack of Official Action on Both Sides of the Border 

Rhetoric from Mexico was fiery when revelations of the Fast and Furious program first came out, but when it's come to substantive action on the issue, analysts say the Calderon administration has been largely quiet.  

“There hasn’t been a lot of interest on the part of the Calderon administration. He hasn’t really wanted to touch this topic and has maintained a distance from it,” said Carlos Zamudio, who is a researcher at the Collective for an Integrated Approach to Drugs (CUPIHD), a Mexico City-based think-tank. 

Back in March, legislators called for hearings seeking testimony from high-ranking officials. Congressman Porfirio Muñoz Ledo of the Worker’s Party told AlterNet, “The Congress issued a condemnation of the program, but the Calderon administration only went the ‘diplomatic’ route.”  

Muñoz lamented this strategy, adding that the root of the problem goes even further than the Fast and Furious program and calling for the decriminalization of drug use, which he said would neutralize illicit programs like Fast and Furious.    

“The killer isn’t the marijuana that the people smoke, it’s the arms that kill,” Muñoz told AlterNet.  

An international investigatory commission convened by former presidents, including Cardoso of Brazil, Gaviria of Colombia and Zedillo of Mexico, as well as former U.N. head Kofi Annan, agreed with Muñoz.  

Earlier in the month, the Commission purposefully coincided the announcement of its findings to shortly precede the 40th anniversary of President Nixon’s launch of his “war on drugs.” In its findings, the commission called for the decriminalization of drugs, dubbed the “war” on drugs a failure and called for a variety of treatment options for addicts as part of a comprehensive policy change on the issue.  

Brutal Murders Inspire Social Movement

Seven young adults – Julio César Romero Jaimes, Luis Antonio Romero Jaimes, Álvaro Jaimes Avelar, Jaime Gabriel Alejo Cadena, María del Socorro Estrada Hernández, Jesús Chávez Vázquez and Juan Francisco Sicilia Orteda – went for a ride in Cuernavaca, the city of eternal spring located some 60 miles west of Mexico City, on March 28. None of them ever returned home, and their dead bodies would later be found by federal authorities.  

Were it not for the fact that one of the dead, Juan Sicilia, was a son of a prominent poet and author, Javier Sicilia, the odds are that no investigation or arrests would have ever occurred (only 5 percent of drug-war related murders are ever investigated by Mexican authorities). By May 25, however, Julio de Jesús Radilla, a drug cartel member of the South Pacific Cartel, was arrested for having ordered the murder.  

An enormous and sprawling social movement has been spawned by the murders of Juan Sicilia and his friends. Juan's father, Javier Sicilia, has become the moral leader and spokesperson for the movement, and has routinely led marches in the tens of thousands, including a nation-wide, cross-border caravan that recently ended with gripping testimonies and accounts of families of victims of the drug war in El Paso, Texas.  

The movement Sicilia is leading has been adamantly opposed to Calderon’s tactics of state-led violence and military-like confrontations with the drug cartels. 

Sicilia told AlterNet these tactics were nothing short of “stupid.” The demands of the social movement have included the decriminalization of drugs, the retreat of military forces from the streets, and at one point, the removal of Felipe Calderon as president.  

“This strategy is mistaken,” Sicilia elaborated. “Treating the problem of drugs as a national security issue, when it is clearly one of public health policy, is a grave mistake.” 

“There is a responsibility very strong on the part of the United States for the violence that is incurring in the drug war,” Sicilia explained, adding that the roots of the drug war find themselves, “inter-woven with the flawed policies inspired by the U.S. and the drug war Calderon is fighting on their behalf, with the overwhelming majority of the costs of the war flowing to the pueblo (people in the community) of Mexico.”  

Agent Says 'There’s No Excuse' For the Program 

Back in the States, the Fast and Furious program continues to have its share of critics. John Gibler, a specialist on the drug war, dubs the program, “another example of how the U.S. government's ideological commitment to failure on drug policy leads again and again to incompetence and horror.”  

Laura Carlsen, an analyst on U.S.-Mexico relations who heads up the Americas Program in the Center for International Policy and has long resided in Mexico, agrees with Gibler. Carlsen said, “They came out with absolutely nothing in terms of results on this.” She boiled the issue down to the following:  

    The whole problem was that it wasn't even illegal to go in and get assault rifles, in grand part thanks to NRA successfully lobbying against gun-control laws, so they couldn’t get to them that way. The thing is, they lost track of many of the guns they let across the border and thus couldn’t “prove” any crimes or eventual wrongdoings. 

The ATF has gone on record admitting some 1,998 high-powered firearms have been allowed to be sold to straw purchasers dating back to even before the program had its official start in October 2009. Of those "tracked" guns, only 602, or about 30 percent, were recovered in the US and only 195, or just under 10 percent, were recovered in Mexico.  

Senator Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Congressman Daniel Issa, R-California, have led the charge against the program. The latter held a Congressional hearing that lasted a full afternoon and featured gripping testimony from members of Brian Terry's family, as well as ATF whistle-blowing agents. Thirty-one Congressional Democrats wrote the president on June 3, asking for greater transparency. 

ATF officials, for their part, have offered the convincing case that their hands have long been tied by the NRA in terms of their ability to prosecute straw purchasers. The Justice Department released a report late last year that was highly critical of the ATF’s ability to get to the Mexican drug cartels, particularly honing in on the failed past focus on straw buyers and their inability to prosecute them.  

By September 2010, this pressure only resulted in the ATF further strengthening the Fast and Furious program. Mark Chait, the ATF’s assistant director in charge of field operations, told the Center for Public Integrity that he personally attended to the expansion of the program.  

It wasn’t long after this that the dissenters in Phoenix began to raise their voices, as well as Darrin Gil, the former ATF attaché for the US embassy in Mexico, who resigned in protest over the continuance of Fast and Furious.  

Gil, Dodson and others revealed to the media that their superiors were fully aware and supportive of the program, in spite of the fatal consequences they warned would surely happen. Gil said that Senior Justice official Lanny Breuer considered the program to be “getting good results,” while Melson, ATF's acting director, told Gil that “it's a good case, it's still going on … and we'll close it down as soon as we possibly can.” In Dodson's case, his superior told him, “If you’re going to make an omelet, you’re going to scramble some eggs.” 

Both Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder denied having knowledge of the program. Obama told Univision, “this is a pretty big government … I got a lot of moving parts.” Meanwhile, in Congress, Holder told Senator Grassley, “I frankly don't know” what happened. 

In spite of these high-level denials, damning information continued to flow in on U.S. responsibility for fatal flaws in the drug war, while Mexican reactions continued to be more strident.  

Headlines were recently generated in Mexico in the wake of a 

report released by Senator Diane Feinstein and two other senators citing Government Accountability Office findings that, depending on the time period, anywhere from 70 percent to 87 percent of the arms seized by Mexican authorities could be traced back to gun sales back in the States. Many of these arms were seized from drug cartel members.  

President Calderon also cited the report and criticized U.S. policies, imploring the U.S. to strengthen its weak gun control laws.  

Findings like these, some officials reasoned, pointed to an inability of the ATF to “control” illegal gun trafficking by ordinary means. Dodson and his fellow agents, however, are not swayed by such arguments.  

Agent Forcelli responded by telling AlterNet, “There’s no excuse for this program, there’s simply and absolutely no excuse.”  

What is clear is that expert analysts in Mexico, dissident public officials and the vast swaths of the Mexican population that are forming a growing social movement roundly agree with Forcelli that “there is no excuse.” Instead, many Mexicans are not only hoping to see a quick end to a program that provides the guns to the cartel members who are killing many of their people, but also an end to the ineffective “war on drugs.”

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.