The camcorder shakes as it films the thud of thick .50 caliber bullets ripping through a steel plate target in the heat of the Arizona desert. Panning across the jagged rocks and cacti, the camera then focuses on the shooter: a smiling Mexican sitting down on the dust as he uses both hands to fire the huge state-of-the-art weapon that can tear through tank armor. He was the happy customer, having bought the killing machine from an Arizona gun shop for about $21,000. The grainy video was seized by ATF agents in a raid on a weapon traffickers’ safe house in Yuma. One man in the film was arrested and faces charges. But the man who showed off his shooting on the video is believed to be south of the border using the cannon-like gun to wage Mexico’s relentless drug war.
This traffic of heavy weaponry from American gun stores to Mexican drug cartels will once again feature in talks between the U.S. and Mexico when President Barack Obama and Mexican President Felipe Calderon meet at a North American summit in Guadalajara on Aug. 9 and Aug. 10. Mexico with its strict gun laws has long complained that the vast majority of firearms used by the gangs wrecking havoc here are brought in El Norte. Meanwhile, Obama has said more unequivocally than any president before that the U.S. has responsibility to stop American guns getting into the hands of the mobsters .
But seven months into Obama’s administration the guns keep flowing south and show no sign of abating. Mexican government raids continue to turn up vast arsenals of brand new firearms that can be traced to shops north of the Rio Grande. Another sign of the gangster’s abundant supply of firepower is that they can afford to leave some weapons at murder scenes to avoid detection. Along with the river of guns, Mexico’s bloodbath has deepened into the Obama era. Last month was the deadliest since Calderon launched a frontal offensive against drug cartels in 2006, with 854 drug related killings. In total, more than 13,000 people have perished in massacres, beheadings and execution-style hits under Calderon who Obama has compared to the “untouchable” Elliot Ness for his fight against organized crime.
Obama concedes that one major problem in stopping the traffic is the strength of U.S. gun laws and the gun lobby supporting them. Mexican officials have pushed for the United States to reinstate a Clinton-era ban on assault rifles. Such weapons especially Kalashnikovs and AR15s are behind the vast majority of Mexican gang killings. Both types of guns have been sold widely in Arizona and Texas since the U.S. ban on sale of assault weapons was repealed in 2004. A 2008 Supreme Court decision reinforces the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, making a future ban even more difficult. In his first visit to Mexico in April, Obama said apologetically that it was beyond his power to overturn that. “Assault weapons, as we now know here in Mexico, are helping to fuel extraordinary violence,” he said. “Having said that none of us are under any illusion that reinstating that ban would be easy.”
But perhaps Obama could also better use the resources he does have to stem the flow of firepower. His administration has ordered new checkpoints with hundreds of Homeland Security Agents searching for guns heading south. However, such random stop tactics have had little impact on a border that stretches 2,000 miles from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico. Meanwhile, ATF agents who run the intelligence work that nets most convicted traffickers still complain about being overstretched. In the Phoenix Area, for example, the ATF has only 20 dedicated firearms investigators for thousands of gun sellers; some shops don’t get inspected for years. “The traffickers have very organized operations. Intelligence work and investigations are the best way to get at them,” says Peter Forcelli, who runs the Phoenix firearms trafficking group. A veteran of the New York Police Department, Forcelli says the scale of the problem in the southwest is overwhelming. “I seized more AK47s in my first week in Arizona than in 15 years in New York,” he says.
Calderon will be especially keen to see new efforts on the U.S. side because a large chunk of the American money promised for Mexico has been delayed. Under the Merida Initiative, $1.4 billion was earmarked to help Mexico fight cartels over three years. But following accusations of Mexican army abuses including torture, rape, and murder the Senate has held back 15% of those funds until it can certify that Mexico is making efforts to clean up its human rights record. Mexico’s Congress this week issued a statement condemning this certification process. While American shops are arming the cartels, the lawmakers said, they have no right to judge the Mexican army for fighting back. “We can never agree with a foreign government unilaterally judging us in return for economic help to deal with a shared problem,” said Rep. Tomas Torres.