Ciudad Juárez is a northern Mexican city that lies just three miles from the centre of El Paso in Texas. Last year, 3111 civilians were killed in drug fuelled violence in Juárez. That’s one in every 427 inhabitants. Compare this to the 2421 civilian murders that took place in the whole of Afghanistan in 2010.
After coming to office in 2006, Mexican President Felipe Calderón unleashed a crackdown on the kingpins of the notorious drug cartels.
Since then, there have been 43,000 reported drug violence-related deaths in the country. Mexico’s National Commission on Human Rights says a further 5400 people are missing.
While drug supply and demand are often in the spotlight, more attention is now being given to the role weapons play in the violence in Mexico.
It is legal to own a gun in Mexico, however the laws around obtaining weapons are extremely restrictive. There is only one gun store in the whole country, and it is overseen by the Mexican army.
In 2009, the US Government Accountability Office controversially claimed that around 90 per cent of guns seized in Mexican violent crimes could be traced back to the United States.
The US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) recently estimated that 20,504 of the 29,284 firearms seized by authorities in Mexico during 2009-2010 had come from the US, putting the figure closer to 70 per cent.
After working for four years as border security analyst for the state of California, Sylvia Longmire is now an independent analyst covering Mexican drug trafficking organisations (DTOs) and border violence issues. She believes that the debate around the precise figure of guns from the US is overshadowing the bigger picture.
"Does it really matter if it’s 60 per cent of the guns, or 30 per cent of the guns, or 90 percent of the guns? The fact is, is that there are weapons coming from outside of Mexico into Mexico that are being used to kill police, are being used to kill other criminals, and more and more nowadays are being used to kill innocent people. That’s the big point that everybody seems to skim over," she says.
Since such a substantial proportion of these weapons are believed to come from north of the border, elements of US gun policy have come into question.
But the suggestion of changes to US firearms legislation will ignite staunch opposition from pro-gun lobby groups.
Lisa Guáqueta has reported on the issue extensively. "The Second Amendment to the constitution… gives individuals in the U.S. the right to bear arms," she told New Matilda. "And so any debate that opens up any suggestion of control by the federal government on gun possession or gun distribution is very complicated".
The ATF is responsible for investigating illicit gun trafficking in the United States. More generally, it regulates the sale, possession and transportation of firearms and ammunition.
Because so many weapons from the US are illegally flowing south of the border, the operations of the ATF attract scrutiny from all corners.
"They’re getting hammered by the gun lobby for trying to restrict Second Amendment rights, and they’re getting hammered by the White House and the federal government for not doing enough to stop gun trafficking," says Longmire. "Because of the political nature of the gun lobby, they have been extraordinarily restricted in how they accomplish their missions."
The laws that the ATF is required to abide by are often cited as a hindrance to tackling the flow of weapons south.
The ATF falls under the jurisdiction of the Department of Justice, which also oversees the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). There are 87 lines of congressional direction imposed on the ATF, compared with 19 for the FBI and 10 for the DEA.
Longmire says one of these legal restrictions directly had an impact on her when she worked as a border security analyst.
She tried to write the first state fusion centre report of southbound weapons trafficking with her colleagues at centres in other southern US states, but was blocked by the Tiahrt Amendment.
It was passed by Congress in 2004 under the Bush administration and meant that the ATF was no longer able to share trace data on arms trafficking with intelligence analysts.
"Because of the Tiahrt Amendment, they could not give us information that we needed to find out what kind of threat was out there, or how the guns were flowing from the south west border states," she says. "They could only share it with investigators who were conducting an active criminal case against somebody who had some connection with a gun that had been used in a crime."
Such information would have been useful to Colby Goodman, co-author of a groundbreaking 2010 report into US firearms trafficking to Mexico. He says there was a major gap in knowledge when he began researching the issue.
"We have lots of firearms going from the US to Mexico and they’re being used… [in]a variety of very brutal ways," he says. "You would think that there would be a lot more researchers looking at this issue, but there wasn’t."
Goodman has since addressed Congress on how the Government and ATF can curb illicit arms trafficking to Mexico.
He says that it is extremely difficult for the ATF to prove that someone is an illicit firearms dealer within the United States. "ATF has to prove that the person that’s illegally doing it, that’s their main business … it has to be [their]main source of income," he says.
Furthermore, he notes that the U.S. does not have one specific law that outlaws the trafficking on firearms.
"There’s a lot of weak penalties associated with the particular crimes that ATF most frequently uses," he says. "ATF is also restricted by the amount of times that they can formally go into a gun store and investigate the books. They can only do it one time a year unless it’s specifically connected with a criminal investigation."
As well as these legal restrictions, a resource and funding shortfall is being flagged as another limit to the ATF’s capacity to deal with arms trafficking.
The Washington Post reported last year that the number of agents working at the ATF has essentially stayed the same since 1972. Since then, the number of FBI agents has almost doubled and the DEA has more than tripled in size. The ATF currently has only 600 inspectors to cover the 115,000 firearms dealers within the United States.
One of their main challenges is trying to rein in the practice of straw purchasing, which is believed to be the main tactic used by DTOs to obtain firearms within or from the United States.
In most of these cases, straw purchasers are US citizens who legally buy a weapon, and then pass it on through a chain of hands until it reaches a DTO.
Operation Fast and Furious was an attempt by the ATF to catch the kingpins of illicit arms trafficking, by allowing 2000 guns bought by suspected straw purchasers to walk into the hands of Mexican drug cartels. To say the operation backfired is an understatement.
Mexican authorities say the guns have since been linked to more than 179 crime scenes. To make matters worse, weapons from Fast and Furious were found at the murder scene of US Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry. The US Senate last month voted 99-0 in favour ending the program.
A host of issues south of the border are making the situation worse. Longmire says there is a high level of corruption within Mexico that is hindering efforts to keep weapons out the hands of the DTOs.
Since 2006, drug cartels in Mexico have fragmented and multiplied to make it harder for the military to stamp out their drug smuggling routes. When the stakes get higher, so too does their desperation.
There have, however, been some recent developments that are looking for new ways to respond to the violence in Northern Mexico.
The Mérida Initiative will see more of the $1.6 billion of allocated U.S. aid going towards local police in Northern Mexican border states.
The Obama administration also recently passed a law requiring gun dealers in the US to report to the ATF any purchase of more than one assault rifle by an individual. This measure is extremely controversial, with gun store owners in south west border states challenging the reforms in the federal court.
Despite concerted efforts on both sides of the border, drug violence in Northern Mexico isn’t wavering.
In August this year, armed men stormed in to a casino in the city of Monterrey in an arson attack that left 52 dead — most of them innocent women with no ties to DTOs. The Los Zetas cartel was responsible.
This year is on track to be one of, if not the most deadly on record for drug violence in Mexico. As of September, there had been more than 8600 drug related violent deaths across the country.
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