Furious reaction to U.S. gun exporting scheme

Public opinion on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border is reacting angrily to a program called “Operation Fast and Furious”, through which officials of the U.S. Department of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) deliberately allowed thousands of automatic weapons to be smuggled into Mexico, resulting in the deaths of at least one U.S. Border Patrol Agent and at least 21 Mexican citizens. But Democrats and Republicans in Congress disagree about legislative remedies.

Operation Fast and Furious was conceived of as a mechanism for tracking massive illegal exports of automatic and other weapons from the United States into Mexico. This trade is carried on via straw buyers, who purchase various kinds of automatic weapons in some of the 7,000 legal gun stores on the U.S. side of the 1,900 mile border, and then pass these weapons on to the drug cartels. The drug cartels violent conflicts among themselves and with the Mexican government have led to 41,000 deaths since Mexican President Felipe Calderon declared “war”  on the cartels upon coming to power in 2006. Money to buy the guns comes from the tens of billions of dollars which residents of the U.S. spend on illegal drugs every year.

There is no law in the U.S. requiring gun dealers to report multiple purchasers of rifles and automatic weapons, only of pistols. So, the same straw buyer can show up at a given gun shop day after day for a year and walk away each time with one or more automatic weapons, without any report being made to U.S. authorities.

To trace exactly through what connections and pathways these weapons get into the hands of the cartels, ATF’s Phoenix, Ariz., office deliberately let the purchases and the exports to Mexico proceed, neither intervening themselves nor even notifying Mexican authorities. As a result, 2,500 dangerous weapons were deliberately allowed to be smuggled into Mexico. But ATF could not keep track of them, so some of them ended up being used by the cartels, resulting in the death of U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry in December of 2010, in Arizona, as well as many Mexican citizens.

After the killing of Terry, the U.S. government quickly shut down “Fast and Furious”. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., Chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and Sen., Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, ranking Republican member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, started a Congressional investigation. On July 4, Issa’s committee interviewed ATF acting head Kenneth Melson, who, while denying he knew of the details of “Operation Fast and Furious”, also hinted that other U.S. agencies, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) may have been aware of the program. 

President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have denounced Operation Fast and Furious and started an internal investigation.

Disagreements have arisen as to how wide the scope of both the investigation and proposed remedial action should be. In particular, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the ranking Democrat on Issa’s committee, called for a much wider investigation into the degree to which lax U.S. firearms laws are contributing to the increase in violence in Mexico.

A report prepared by Cummings’ staff  points out that from 2007 to 2009, the homicide rate in Mexico more than doubled, while in the border community of Ciudad Juarez, across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Tex., the rate increased more than ten times, with guns imported form the U.S. involved in many of the killings. Cummings’ report calls for new laws to require the reporting of multiple rifle and automatic weapon sales, and stiffer penalties for straw purchasers and illegal firearms traffickers. Issa appears to be opposing broader action out of his committee, which would create friction with the gun lobby.

Most authorities agree that at least 80 percent of the weapons being used in Mexico’s drug wars come from the U.S. and approve of the idea of cutting off the cross border sales. However, a huge number of guns are already there, in some cases having got into Mexico via the massive U.S. supply of weapons to the right wing regimes and “Contra” rebels in the Central American wars of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Secondly, Mexican police and army units are riddled with corruption, which probably means that arms are passing into the hands of the Cartels from that source as well. The U.S. sponsored “Merida Initiative”, which supposedly helps the Mexican police and military with training, arms and equipment, has to be evaluated in that light.

One new positive sign in Mexico is the formation of a massive new popular movement, headed by noted poet Javier Sicilia. His son was killed near Cuernavaca in March of this year. Large-scale marches have been organized, and Sicilia even managed to get a tense meeting with President Calderon on June 23. The demand of the movement is to back off from Calderon’s “war” strategy, which has only escalated the violence, and return to treating narcotics traffic as a social and criminal justice issue.

Photo: Display of guns seized in a raid by Mexican authorities against a drug cartel in the border city of Reynosa in 2008, at that time the largest arsenal seized in Mexico’s history. Gregory Bull/AP



Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Emile Schepers was born in South Africa and has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He has worked as a researcher and activist in urban, working-class communities in Chicago since 1966. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He now writes from Northern Virginia.



  • If you check Elijah Cummings’ report (linked in the article), and the sources cited therein, you can get an idea of the types of weapons suspected to be moving from the United States to Mexico. As I said, it is highly likely that many of the US origin weapons also came up through Central America. During the 1980s and 1990s, vast amounts of military and equipment and supplies were poured into Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Honduras, and many of those weapons are still out there. In addition, the CIA facilitated the establishment of drug sales networks which greatly empowered the Mexican cartels. Finally, sources suggest that at least 19% of the weapons that end up in Mexico via the United States were actually produced in Eastern Europe.
    $200 and a bit of paperwork, by the way, don’t seem to me to be a big deterrant to Cartels which bring in tens of billions of dollars per year in drug sales.
    For more detailed discussions of these and related matters, see two newly released books:
    1. To Die in Mexico, by John Gibler (2011, City Lights)
    2. Amexica, a War Along the Borderline, by Ed Vulliamy, (2010) Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

  • The drug war along the border is horrible. However, I contend most of the weapons are those we(our gov’t) dumped on Central and South America since the 1970s for para military operatives. Others are probably stolen from legit owners. Grenade launchers, light machine guns and anti-tank weapons aren’t normal fare at the average gun shop here in the states.

    Overall the article is informative but I must point out full auto weapons were not the issue since they require immense paperwork and registration, ad nauseum.

    The operation was focused on legal, civilian weapons, sold by federally licensed gun dealers. The BATF told these dealers to go through on questionable purchases because of this insane idea that selling weapons to criminals would help matters. The hope was that they could trace the weapons through the chain of distribution and net multiple arrests from the bottom up.

    The media has portrayed the licensed gun dealers as opportunist and thugs. The BATF is to blame on this one, and no one else.

  • “This trade is carried on via straw buyers, who purchase various kinds of automatic weapons…”

    This is inaccurate; machine guns (commonly referred to as “automatic weapons”) are heavily regulated under the National Firearms Act of 1934 (NFA). Each such item purchased (even those in the same transaction) requires a request for transfer of ownership from the ATF and a tax for the transfer paid directly to the Treasury Dept (as high as $200.00). This of course assumes that such an item is legal to own there (many states do not allow machine gun ownership by civilians). The whole ATF transfer process can take as long as nine months, and is very expensive. Combine that with the fact that Civilian-legal machineguns have to have been registered before May 19, 1986. This makes it a capped supply, and thus they are very expensive (a single machine gun from the ’70s can sell for several thousand dollars where a non-machine version of new manufacture is a few hundred).

    You comment that it is agreed that 80% of the firearms used in Mexico are coming from the US. This is not entirely accurate either. In fact, 80% of the weapons Mexico thinks are from the US actually are (or, 20% of what Mexico thinks came from us did not). The weapons that we trace for Mexico are not 100% of the weapons they have seized. The vast majority of military-grade weapons in Mexico are coming from their south, not their north.

    In several places you make a reference to “lax firearm laws” or a similar comment. It is worth noting that in almost every situation that this occurs a law is actually being broken. For “Fast and Furious” they were being broken under the authority of the DOJ via the ATF.

  • “So, the same straw buyer can show up at a given gun shop day after day for a year and walk away each time with one or more automatic weapons, without any report being made to U.S. authorities.”

    Last time I looked, automatic weapons are regulated under the National Firearms Act, and last time I looked, the transfer of an NFA weapon required the purchaser to pay a $200 tax to the federal government and provide a fingerprint card.

    “Most authorities agree that at least 80 percent of the weapons being used in Mexico’s drug wars come from the U.S.”

    No, 80% of guns sent to the US for a trace were found to have originated from the US, and they were probably sent to the US for a trace because they knew they might be from the US. They don’t know how many guns are confiscated in Mexico, so this statement is false.

    If you’re going to dare call yourself a journalist, could you at least bother to check your facts?


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