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US Attorney General cleared by Fast and Furious report

September 20, 2012

Two U.S. Justice Department officials were forced to step down on Wednesday when the Inspector General made public the findings of a 19-month investigation into the botched “Operation Fast and Furious.”

In this illegal gun-walking operation, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) purposely allowed at least 2,000 firearms to fall into the hands of Mexican drug gangs. The purported aim was to identify and eliminate arms-trafficking networks, but the weapons were never recovered and no arrests were ever made.

In his report, Michael Horowitz criticized those behind the operation for “a series of misguided strategies, tactics, errors in judgment and management failures.” He cited 14 people for possible disciplinary action, the most senior being Lanny Breuer, head of the Justice Department’s criminal division, but did not recommend criminal charges

Within minutes of the report’s release, former ATF chief Kenneth Melson announced his retirement, while Deputy Assistant Attorney General Jason Weinstein was also forced to resign. However the report cleared Attorney General Eric Holder, having unearthed no evidence that he knew about the gun-running operation.

Cross-border arms trafficking a ‘20-million-dollar’ industry

During his month-long tour of the United States, which culminated in Washington D.C. last week, Mexican poet, journalist and activist Javier Sicilia sought to draw attention to a problem often overlooked in the war on drugs: that of arms trafficking.

While the United States is the final destination of most drugs smuggled through Mexico, there is a steady flow of firearms that comes the other way across the border.

“I came to the U.S. because this is a shared problem and we have to work together to save our dignity, our democracy and our children,” said Sicilia, who became a prominent figure in Mexico’s peace movement following the murder of his son Juan Francisco in Cuernavaca last year. “I won’t get my son back but I don’t want more parents or children to suffer the way we’ve suffered,” he added.

Along the 6,000-mile journey across the United States, Sicilia led his Caravan for Peace with Justice and Dignity to a a gun show in Pasadena, Texas. In a matter of minutes, they purchased a .357 Magnum pistol and an AK-47 assault rifle with minimal background checks, demonstrating the ease with which deadly weapons can be bought north of the border before being smuggled into Mexico.

Upon arriving in Houston, the caravan participants destroyed both guns in protest at the role firearms bought in the United States have played in the death of around 60,000 Mexicans, the disappearance of another 10,000 and the displacement of 160,000 over the last six years.

Like U.S. citizens, Mexicans have a constitutional right to bear arms, but gun ownership is much more tightly controlled south of the Rio Grande. There are no retail gun shops and the Mexican military has a monopoly on gun sales, with citizens obliged to register separate licenses to own, purchase and register handguns with the Department of National Defense (Sedena).

Mexicans are only permitted to buy weapons of a lower caliber than a .357 Magnum, such as a .380 or .38 Special, while in contrast, U.S. citizens can acquire a wide range of guns relatively easily and inexpensively.

“The United States is the world’s largest exporter of small caliber ammunition and military small arms and light weapons … it has the most heavily armed civilian population in the world, with about one quarter of all adults having at least one firearm,” noted a 2010 report on “The Globalization of Crime” by the United Nations (UN) Office on Drugs and Crime.

Mindful of the Mexican market, U.S. arms dealers have opened 6,700 gun stores along the U.S.-Mexican border alone. The UN report estimated that each year around 20,000 weapons worth at most 20 million dollars are smuggled from the United States to Mexico. The majority are purchased legally in “firearms shops and gun shows along the south-west border of the United States, especially in Texas, California and Arizona.”

By 2010, there were around 15.5 million firearms in Mexico, including “around 10 million unregistered weapons, or enough to arm one in three of the adult males in the country,” the UN estimated.

“Mexico’s underworld appears to be well armed, and further import would be necessary only to replace lost or stolen firearms or to access specialty weapons,” the report said, noting that arms trafficking differs markedly from drug trafficking because the product is durable. A constant chain of supply is not as essential, because once in circulation, guns remain operable almost indefinitely.

Of all the weapons used by Mexican drug gangs, the proportion that were imported from the United States remains the subject of much debate. In June 2009, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported to Congress that 87 percent of guns seized in Mexico the previous year and successfully traced by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) were from the United States.

However, the GAO report said that Mexico seized about 30,000 firearms that year, with only 7,200 of these submitted to the ATF for tracing (those not submitted were either untraceable or believed to have come from other sources).

A February 2011 report by Stratfor Global Intelligence agency entitled “Mexico’s Gun Supply and the 90 Percent Myth” notes that the ATF successfully traced about 4,000 of the 7,200 guns submitted. Of these 4,000, some 3,480 (87 percent) were traced back to the United States. In total, these 3,480 arms account for just 11.6 percent of the total number of weapons seized in Mexico that year.

The actual proportion of guns that came from the United States could well have been higher, as many weapons seized by Mexican authorities have had their serial numbers erased, while those bought at U.S. gun shows are rarely recorded or registered.

The Stratfor report acknowledges that the United States is the primary supplier of 9 mm, .45 and .40 caliber handguns, semi-automatic assault rifles such as the AK-47 and AR-15, and high-power .50 caliber rifles to Mexico’s cartels.

However, heavier weaponry outlawed in the United States, such as fully automatic assault rifles, machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and fragmentation grenades are more commonly smuggled from South and Central America or supplied by corrupt Mexican military officials.

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