Guns: The U.S. Threat to Mexican National Security

The strength of the Mexican drug cartels' firepower now rivals even that of the regular army. Both the cartels and the Mexican state get their arms from the United States. During Fox’s administration, an astonishing 2,000 guns entered Mexico every day, overwhelmingly from across the northern border, according to official Mexican estimates. This “iron river” of guns, as it has been called, has swollen since the U.S. Congress allowed the federal ban on assault weapons to expire in 2004. Mexican authorities confiscated an unprecedented 10,579 smuggled weapons in 2005, and they say 90% of them came from the United States. Drug smuggling also make a key part of this equation.

March 23, 2008

Shipping powders back and forth
Black goes south and white comes north.

— “Throwing Stones,” John Perry Barlow
for the Grateful Dead, 1982

The violent struggle between Mexican drug cartels for supremacy over the multi­billion-dollar narcotics trade is starting to look like a real war. With local police outgunned, President Felipe Calderón began his term in the final days of 2006 by deploying the army to fight the cartels.

The violence, simmering for more than a decade, exploded in 2003 in Nuevo Laredo, a crucial crossing point to U.S. Interstate 35, when Gulf Cartel kingpin Osiel Cárdenas was apprehended. Seeing a strategic vulnerability, the rival Juárez and Tijuana cartels started moving into Nuevo Laredo, traditionally a Gulf Cartel stronghold.1 The Zetas—the Gulf Cartel’s paramilitary force, thought to be composed of former military personnel—began a reign of terror to protect their turf. Several Nuevo Laredo police officers were killed by presumed Zeta assassins in the opening months of 2005, prompting then president Vicente Fox to flood the town with 700 federal agents and army troops in what he dubbed “the mother of all battles” against the drug trade.2

Yet the Mexican state’s armed response has done little to solve the problem. In 2007, drug-related killings surpassed 2,500, up from 2,100 in 2006.3

A crucial part of the problem lies in the cartels’ firepower, which now rivals even that of the regular Mexican army. Both the cartels and the Mexican state get their arms from the United States. During Fox’s administration, an astonishing 2,000 guns entered Mexico every day, overwhelmingly from across the northern border, according to official Mexican estimates. This “iron river” of guns, as it has been called, has swollen since the U.S. Congress allowed the federal ban on assault weapons to expire in 2004.4 Mexican authorities confiscated an unprecedented 10,579 smuggled weapons in 2005, and they say 90% of them came from the United States.5

“The arms the narcos use are the most sophisticated that you can imagine,” says Luz Maria González Armenta, leader of Defense and Promotion of Human Rights–Emiliano Zapata (DEPRODHEZAC), which has been monitoring violence from the often overlapping narco gangs and police alike in the city of Matamoros since 1994. “The 9 mm cuerno de chivo, or AK-47, continues to predominate. But they use fragmentation grenades, shotguns, grenade launchers.” Spectacular shoot-outs in the border city, which is the nerve center of the powerful Gulf Cartel, sometimes make headlines—but discrete executions are more common, González says. “Bodies are frequently found with signs of torture and the famous tiro de gracia,” or final death shot, she says.

And she has no doubts about where the weaponry originates. “Considering that Mexico is a country that does not produce arms, and yet the narcos have access to arms far superior to those used by the police forces, we presume these arms come from the United States,” she says. “It is very close, and with the corruption in customs, an elephant could pass undetected.”

The arms intercepted on the border are likely a small fraction of those that make it through. In December, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF) raided a Phoenix storage locker and seized 42 weapons, including AK-47s and Belgian FN handguns; just weeks earlier, BATF agents in Phoenix had seized more than 60 AK-47s, other assault rifles, handguns, and an Uzi. In both cases, bureau agents said most of the weapons were purchased at gun shows and were bound for Mexico.6

Seizures across the border have been even more dramatic. In August, a single raid at the Nogales crossing yielded 163 weapons, and in February 2007 the Mexican army seized a tractor-trailer loaded with some 20 M-16s, M-4 carbines, and grenade launchers—along with an armored pickup truck—in Matamoros. A federal agent involved in the raid was killed the following day by AK fire.7

A new AK-47 sells for less than $1,000 in Mexico, and an AR-15 starts at $825.8 According to a 2005 government estimate, U.S. guns are recovered in 80% of crimes in Mexico.9

In a strange case of role reversal, Mexican officials are increasingly taking the United States to task for failing to stop the guns from entering their national territory—echoing their counterparts in Washington, with their continual criticism of Mexico over the northward flow of drugs. In his first published interview with the foreign press after becoming Mexico’s president, Calderón told the Financial Times: “The United States is jointly responsible for what is happening to us. . . . In that joint responsibility the U.S. government has a lot of work to do. We cannot confront this problem alone.”10 Mexican prosecutor general Eduardo Medina Mora put it succinctly: “We have done our part; we hope the United States will do its part.” Medina added that about $10 billion in drug cash flows south each year, and that gun stores in border states sell twice as many weapons as outlets elsewhere in the United States.11 Mexico’s “drug czar,” the assistant secretary of public safety, and the head of the Mexican army’s northeastern drug operations have all made similar comments.12

Just how will the U.S. government “do its part”? The answer is to be found in the Mérida Initiative, a $550 million military aid package now being considered in the U.S. Congress.


In June, the Calderón government formally requested military aid from the U.S. Congress, saying such assistance was necessary to defeat the cartels. The request was made at the U.S.-Mexico Inter-Parliamentary Meeting held in Austin and was revealed to the Mexican daily La Jornada by Representative Silvestre Reyes (D-TX), leader of the House Intelligence Committee.13 The resulting Mérida Initiative was named after the Mexican city where the presidents of Guatemala, Mexico, and the United States held meetings in March 2007, when the idea was first discussed. U.S. representatives Eliot Engel (D-NY) and Tom Lantos (D-CA) complained that Congress had not been involved in—or even notified of—the proposal’s development.14

The Bush administration calls the Mérida Initiative “a new paradigm” of bilateral cooperation in the war on drugs and terrorism, and says the $550 million will be but the “first tranche” of a $1.4 billion, multiyear “security cooperation package.”15 Some 40% of the funds are slated for new helicopters and surveillance aircraft for the Mexican army; $60 million is earmarked for the Prosecutor General of the Republic (PGR), Mexico’s justice department, to beef up forensic capabilities, digitize intelligence, and train federal police. About $30 million would go to Mexico’s National Migration Institute, for stepped-up enforcement on the southern border with Guatemala.16 A total of $50 million would go to the military and police forces of the Central American republics.17

The Mérida Initiative also includes a “Southwest Border Initiative,” which calls for greater cooperation between the BATF and Mexican authorities to interrupt arms smuggling.18 But some Washington policy watchers doubt this will be effective as long as arms are so freely available north of the line.

“Because of how loose the gun laws are here, anyone can walk over, buy large quantities of arms, and go back and use them to kill a presidential candidate,” says Bill Hartung of the Arms and Security Initiative at the New America Foundation. (In fact, the .38 Special used in the 1994 assassination of candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio in Tijuana was traced to a gun sale in Arizona.19) “If we had some kind of gun control here, if we didn’t have these kitchen-table dealers, if there were limits on how many weapons you can have—it would prevent people from buying a lot of guns and bringing them in by the shopping bag to Mexico or Colombia.”

Hartung’s critical first step is closing the “gun show loophole.” While licensed dealers are required to check purchasers’ ID and to perform background checks, private sellers at gun shows are not subject to these requirements under federal law, allowing many purchasers to evade scrutiny. The question is left to the states, 17 of which have passed legislation closing the loophole. Among those that have not are the border states of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas.20

About 40% of U.S. gun sales are in the “secondary gun market,” according to Garen Wintemute, director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California–Davis. The secondary market thrives especially­ in Arizona and Texas, which Wintemute calls a “gun runner’s paradise.” He notes three varieties of illegal sales at gun shows: In the first, the buyer is prohibited from purchasing—for instance, someone from out of state—“and the seller knows not to ask questions.” Second are “straw purchases,” in which a legitimate purchaser serves as a surrogate for someone barred from purchasing from a licensed dealer. In the third, “a licensed or unlicensed dealer knows sale is prohibited and turns a blind eye.”

Assault rifles like the AK-47 remain high on the Mexican cartels’ shopping list, despite the fact that any weapon more powerful than a hunting rifle is outlawed in Mexico for use outside the military or law enforcement. The sturdy AK-47, ironically designed by the Soviets as an asset to guerrilla forces in the third world, is today produced by several U.S. companies, including Arsenal of Las Vegas and Armory USA of Houston.21 Arizona is a major producer of firearms. In 2004, 11 companies in that state produced more than 100,000 weapons, according to the most recent BATF data. Red Rock Arms of Mesa makes a variety of high-powered rifles; Bushmaster Firearms of Lake Havasu City produces AR-15 parts; Sturm, Ruger & Co. of Prescott manufactures pistols.22

“In effect, we allow military-style weapons to be readily available,” says Paul Helmke of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence (and former mayor of Fort Wayne, Indiana). “They’ll check you out when you get on an airplane, but you can show up at a gun show and walk out with an AK-47.”

Federal gun laws have followed a paradoxical trajectory, actually getting looser since the post-9/11 obsession with “security,” after decades of getting tighter. The first was the National Firearms Act in 1934, which required fully automatic weapons to be federally licensed, essentially barring them from civilians. The Gun Control Act of 1968, passed in the wake of that year’s political assassinations, set up prohibited purchases—including to convicted felons, the dangerously mentally ill, and undocumented immigrants. In 1993, the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act (named for White House press secretary Jim Brady, permanently disabled in the 1981 attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan) instated a criminal background database called the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). Then came the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which was allowed to sunset—just as the Patriot and Homeland Security acts were coming into force.23 In December, Congress passed the NICS Improvement Amendments Act in response to April’s Virginia Tech massacre. The law imposes a cut of federal law enforcement funding to states that do not turn records over to the NICS, but it still does not address the gun show loophole.24

Wintemute says the BATF has abdicated its responsibility to crack down on gun smuggling, having been starved for funds by a pro-gun Congress and pressured to turn a blind eye. He points to a series of BATF stings at gun shows in Richmond, Virginia, in 2004 and 2005 that resulted in the confiscation of several firearms. Afterward, Wintemute says, the agency was “grilled” by Representative James M. Sensenbrenner (R-WI) in hearings of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security.

Perhaps most surprisingly, given the U.S. government’s commitment to fighting the “war on terror,” the National Rifle Association has urged the Bush administration to withdraw its support of a bill that would prohibit people on terrorism watch lists from buying firearms. In an open letter to the Justice Department, NRA director Chris Cox said the bill “would allow arbitrary denial of Second Amendment rights based on mere ‘suspicions’ of a terrorist threat.” Yet current law already denies sales to “illegal” immigrants—and the NRA has no problem with that.25

This comes amid ominous signs of a resurgence of right-wing militia activity in the United States—this time in reaction to the supposed immigration crisis. In early May 2007, just as Cox issued his letter, the BATF announced the arrest of five members of an “Alabama Free Militia” in that state’s DeKalb County, and the seizure of 130 grenades, a grenade launcher, a machine gun, a short-barrel shotgun, and 2,500 rounds of ammunition. The men were denied bail after BATF agents said they had been planning attacks on Mexican immigrants.26

The U.S. gun lobby’s obstructionism takes a global toll, Helmke adds. “The U.S. is the world’s biggest importer and exporter of guns. There’s no limits on the amount or type you can buy, no limits on the amount of ammunition. We’re the marketplace of choice for drug gangs and dealers around the world.”

The NRA did not return numerous phone calls requesting comment for this story.


While U.S. domestic gun laws may be at the root of the problem, foreign policy critics worry not only that the Mérida Initiative’s arms-trafficking provision will do little to stem the flow of guns into Mexico—but also that its aid to the Mexican army and police agencies will only escalate the violence. For this reason, La Jornada dubbed the initiative “Plan Mexico”; a persistent criticism of Plan Colombia has been that U.S. military aid indirectly supports the army-linked paramilitary network whose long litany of atrocities is well-documented (and whose very leaders are wanted in the United States on drug charges).27

U.S. and Mexican officials avoid such analogies. Andrew Selee, director of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute, told the BBC: “The idea of comparing this package with Plan Colombia generates resistance in both countries. At least in the U.S., more and more voices question the effectiveness of the help that was given to Colombia.”28

But Prosecutor General Medina implicitly endorsed the analogy on a trip to Bogotá in 2006. Mexican law enforcement, he said, should “learn through an exchange of information with Colombia about the best way to combat organized crime.” Meeting with his Colombian counterpart Mario Iguarán, Medina hailed President Álvaro Uribe’s “democratic security” program as “a comprehensive, integrating vision.” He noted that the two governments in 2003 formed the High-Level Security and Justice Group, a joint effort to fight narcotics and arms trafficking.29

Evident interpenetration of Mexico’s drug cartels and security forces suggest this dynamic experienced in Colombia is poised to repeat itself. In his congressional testimony in support of the Mérida Initiative, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Thomas A. Shannon said cartel operatives have infiltrated municipal and state law enforcement in Mexico, “substantially weakening these governments’ ability to maintain public security and expand the rule of law.”30 Bringing the Mexican army massively to bear in drug enforcement may only make it easier for the cartels to infiltrate the military.

The violent contest for Nuevo Laredo exemplifies the risks of military involvement in the cartel wars. President Fox’s 2005 deployment of army troops to the town only seemed to escalate the violence. That summer, a clash broke out between Zetas and their rivals with machine guns, grenades, and rocket launchers. Residents of the city’s Colonia Campestre district reported hearing several rounds of shots and explosions at a local home. When authorities arrived, the house was empty but damaged by machine-gun fire and rocket blasts. Federal agents discovered three AK-47s, two 9 mm handguns, a hand grenade, and hundreds of rounds of ammunition. Agents also found two ­grenade-damaged vehicles on a nearby street. In response to the incident, the United States temporarily closed its consulate in Nuevo Laredo.31

After Alejandro Domínguez, a veteran agent of the federal prosecutor’s office, was gunned down hours after he was sworn in as Nuevo Laredo’s police chief in June 2005, more federal agents were sent in to investigate his slaying—and got into a shoot-out with city police three days later, leaving one federal officer wounded.32 Army troops took control of the city, suspending the local police force’s powers.33

If Zeta co-optation of the municipal police was evident, it is less clear whether the federal forces were attempting an even-handed crackdown or were themselves collaborating with the Gulf Cartel’s rivals. In any event, the federal presence did nothing to de-­escalate the violence. “The army is here and the federal­ police are here,” said Raymundo Ramos, president of the Nuevo Laredo Human Rights Committee in the summer of 2005. “But the thugs carry on killing with impunity.”34

Another indication of the drug-smuggling industry’s penetration of local law enforcement is the access that the cartels seem to have to official (or at least very official-looking) Federal Agency of Investigation (AFI) uniforms. In May 2007, federal army troops exchanged fire with 20 gunmen equipped with AR-15s, bulletproof vests, and AFI uniforms at a checkpoint in Michoacán.35 In Chiapas, presumed Zetas dressed in­ AFI uniforms opened fire on a state police patrol with AR-15s, leaving one dead and two wounded.36 In Coahuila, four men in AFI uniforms kidnapped the state’s chief anti-kidnapping investigator, Enrique Ruiz Arevalo, in Torreón.37 The cartels also evidently have access to army uniforms. In February 2007, gunmen armed with AK-47s and dressed as federal soldiers attacked two police stations, killing seven, in Acapulco.38 The cartels’ use of rocket launchers may also indicate friends in the Mexican military.

In Colombia as well, the U.S. has been complicit in arming violent outlaws. Human rights groups have repeatedly accused the United States of supplying arms to Colombian military units that collaborate or even overlap with the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), the country’s most powerful right-wing paramilitary organization, which is officially listed by the United States as a terrorist organization. Despite official efforts at “demobilizing” illegal armed groups in Colombia, paramilitarism has exploded in the eight years Plan Colombia has been in effect—and has survived the official disbanding of the AUC.39 While noting some modest improvements, Amnesty International’s 2006 year-end report on Colombia found that “serious human rights abuses remained at high levels, especially in rural areas,” and that “abuses by paramilitary groups continue despite supposed demobilization.”40

U.S. complicity in arming Colombia’s paras evidently­ extends beyond military aid to co-opted army units. The Colombian government has announced that it will seek the extradition of eight unnamed persons affiliated­ with the U.S. banana giant Chiquita Brands International­ for their involvement in the company’s payments to illegal right-wing paramilitary groups. In March 2007, Chiquita pleaded guilty in U.S. federal court to making payments to the AUC, and agreed to pay a $25 million fine.41 An Organization of American States study into the affair found that thousands of AK-47s bound for the AUC—which is held responsible in thousands of killings and massacres—entered Colombia through Chiquita’s private banana port of Turbó. The largest shipment was apparently brokered by Israeli dealers in Panama, with the weapons pirated from the Nicaraguan police force.42

The Brady Campaign’s Helmke­ expresses some reservations about weapons falling into the wrong hands under the Mérida Initiative. “You want to make sure they’re being used for the purposes they’re intended to be used for,” he says. “I’ve read enough about how weapons in Iraq have wound up missing. People like guns for a lot of different reasons, not just the official business.”

But the dilemma may run deeper than that, even if the nightmarish violence on the southern border finally prompts Congress to buck the gun lobby and seriously crack down on the arms trade. Prohibitionist solutions have dramatically failed to halt the illegal drug trade and may be no more likely to work for arms. Guns may be harder to hide than drugs, but their capacity to co-opt military and law enforcement—the more fundamental issue, ultimately—is likely the same. By providing further firepower and intelligence capabilities to military and police forces that are themselves infiltrated by (or collaborating with) the cartels, the Mérida Initiative could fuel Mexico’s violence, upping the ante in the war for narco-supremacy.

Bill Weinberg is author of Homage to Chiapas: The New Indigenous Struggles in Mexico (Verso, 2000) and editor of the online journal World War 4 Report. He is at work on a book about indigenous movements in the Andes.
1. Jason Trahan et al., “Drug War’s Long Shadow,” Dallas Morning News, ­December 13, 2005.

2. Ioan Grillo and Zeke Minaya, “Unafraid, Mexican Lawman Pays With His Life,” Houston Chronicle, June 10, 2005; “Mexican Soldiers Take Over City,” BBC News, June 14, 2005.

3. Alfredo Corchado and Tim Connolly, “U.S. Anti-drug Aid Proposal Could Heighten Violence in Mexico,” Dallas Morning News, January 2, 2008.

4. Sam Logan, “Guns: The Bloody US-Mexico Market,” ISN Security Watch ­(Zurich), October 31, 2007.

5. Chris Hawley and Sergio Solache, “US Guns Pour Into Mexico,” Arizona Republic, January 16, 2007.

6. Chris Khan, “ATF Says More Guns Sent Illegally South of the Border,” Associated Press, December 27, 2007; “ATF Seizes Guns Destined for Mexico and LA gangs,” KNXV-TV (Phoenix), December 3, 2007.

7. Manuel Roig-Franzia, “U.S. Guns Behind Cartel Killings in Mexico,” The Washington Post, October 29, 2007; “The Coming Fight for Control of Matamoros?” Bahia de Banderas News (Puerto Vallarta), February 2007; Logan, “Guns: The Bloody US-Mexico Market.”

8. Prensa Latina, “Crime in Mexican Capital Escalates,” October 10, 2007.

9. Charlie Gillis, “American Guns, Canadian violence,” Macleans, August 10, 2005.

10. Quoted in “Calderón: More Help Needed From U.S. Government,” El Universal, online English edition, January 19, 2007.

11. Catherine Bremer, “Mexico Needs US Help to Crush Drug Gangs,” Reuters, December 10, 2007.

12. Mark Stevenson, “Gonzales: US Eyeing Gun Flow Into Mexico,” Associated Press, May 16, 2007; Marion Lloyd, “Five Severed Heads Thrown Onto Crowded Dance Floor,” Houston Chronicle, September 7, 2006; Laura Starr, “Does the Mérida Initiative Represent a New Direction for US-Mexico Relations?” Council on Hemispheric Affairs, December 14, 2007.

13. Andrea Becerril, “Calderón pidió a EU mecanismo similar al plan Colombia, revelan,” La Jornada (Mexico City), June 9, 2007.

14. Starr, “Does the Mérida Initiative Represent a New Direction for US-Mexico Relations?”; Tina Marie Macias, “House Panel Criticizes Latin America Anti-drug Plan,” Los Angeles Times, November 15, 2002.

15. Guy Taylor, “ ‘Merida Initiative’ Would Provide Counter-Drug Aid to Mexico, but Congress Remains Skeptical,” World Politics Review, December 13, 2007; Thomas A. Shannon, assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs, testimony before Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, November 15, 2007.

16. Starr, “Does the Mérida Initiative Represent a New Direction for US-Mexico Relations?”

17. Shannon testimony.

18. “The Merida Initiative: United States-Mexico-Central America Security Cooperation,” U.S. State Department fact sheet, October 22, 2007.

19. Manuel Roig-Franzia, “U.S. Guns Behind Cartel Killings in Mexico.”

20. “Gun Shows: Arms Bazaars for Terrorists and Criminals,” online fact sheet,

21. List of U.S. manufacturers on trade Web site

22. Hawley and Solache, “US Guns Pour Into Mexico.”

23. “Assault Weapons Threaten Public Safety,” online fact sheet, Brady Campaign, Washington.

24. Elizabeth Williamson, “Congress Passes Bill to Stop Mentally Ill From Getting Guns,” The Washington Post, December 20, 2007; “President Signs Bill to Strengthen the Brady Background Check System,” Brady Campaign press release, January 8, 2008.

25. “NRA Faults Bill Targeting Gun Sales,” Associated Press, May 4, 2007.

26. “Agent: Alabama Militia Planned Attack on Mexicans,” Associated Press, May 1, 2007.

27. “Truenan congresistas contra gobierno de EU por plan México,” La Jornada, November 14, 2007; Laura Carlsen, “Plan Mexico,” Foreign Policy in Focus, October 30, 2007.

28. “Doubts Over Bush Plan on Mexico Drugs,” BBC News, October 22, 2007.

29. “Mexico to Learn From Colombia,” El Universal, online English edition, January 27, 2007.

30. Shannon testimony.

31. Sergio Chapa, “Violence Prompts Consulate Closure in Nuevo Laredo,” The Brownsville Herald, July 30, 2005.

32. Grillo and Minaya, “Unafraid, Mexican Lawman Pays With His Life.”

33. “Mexican Soldiers Take Over City,” BBC News.

34. Grillo and Minaya, “Unafraid, Mexican Lawman Pays With His Life.”

35. Mirna Servin, “Enfrentan 20 hombres armados a soldados en Michoacán,” La Jornada, May 21, 2007.

36. “Atacan Zetas a la AEI,” Cuarto Poder (Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Chiapas), May 28, 2007.

37. “Deja 15 sicarios muertos enfrentamiento en Sonora,” El Universal, May 16, 2007.

38. “Gunmen Posing as Soldiers Slay 7 in Acapulco,” The San Diego Union-Tribune, February 7, 2007.

39. “Annual Report for Colombia,” Amnesty International, 2006.

40. Amnesty International Report 2007

41. Eoin O’Carroll, “Colombia Seeks Eight in Chiquita Terrorist Scandal,” The Christian Science Monitor, online edition, March 22, 2007.

42. Eric Jackson, “Going Through the Motions About AUC Arms,” The Panama­ News (Panama City), August 17–September 6, 2003.


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