Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton caused a stir last week by suggesting that Mexico's drug-trafficking gangs were beginning to resemble an insurgency, like that which has plagued Colombia. She's right in the sense that the cartels have come to effectively control parts of the country, where they "attempt to replace the state," as Mexican President Felipe Calderón put it last month. Like most insurgencies, the Mexican drug armies also have an external source of funding and weapons. Shamefully, that is the United States.
A new report details the abundance of U.S. weapons delivered to the cartels — and the inadequacy of U.S. efforts to stop the illegal trafficking. According to authors Colby Goodman and Michel Marizco, at least 62,800 of the more than 80,000 firearms confiscated by Mexican authorities from December 2006 to February 2010 came from the United States. Guns are being smuggled across the border at a rate of up to 5,000 per year. The top two varieties are assault rifles: Romanian-made AK-47s and clones of the Bushmaster AR-15.
The traffickers have used these weapons to inflict appalling casualties on Mexican police and other security forces, which frequently find themselves badly outgunned. More than 2,000 police and federal agents are among the 28,000 killed in drug-related violence in the past four years. According to Goodman and Marizco, whose work was sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson Center and the University of San Diego, just one gun store in Houston supplied 339 assault weapons, rifles and pistols to cartel buyers in just 15 months — which were responsible for the deaths of 18 Mexican law enforcement officers and civilians.
Some 7,000 gun stores operate along the U.S.-Mexican border. Most are not required to notify authorities even if an individual buys dozens of assault weapons in a short period. In fiscal 2009 U.S. agents revoked the licenses of just 11 stores for violations. Once the guns are purchased — usually by "straw" buyers acting on behalf of cartel middlemen — they are easily trafficked across the border.
The Obama administration and Calderón's government have stepped up programs to combat the trafficking; for example, Mexican officials have been supplied with a U.S. database system that allows them to more quickly trace captured guns and report the information to Treasury's Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives bureau.
Yet like the broader U.S. effort to assist Mexico's fateful battle against the cartels, the resources being applied to stopping the gun traffic are paltry compared to the threat. Despite an eloquent appeal by Calderón during an address to Congress last spring, neither the Democratic leadership nor President Barack Obama has dared to push for a reinstatement of the ban on sales of assault weapons.
On Thursday Obama quibbled with Clinton's comparison of Mexico to Colombia. Yet whatever the differences between the two countries, the fact remains that Mexico — a country of indisputable strategic importance to the United States — is in a desperate fight to preserve its civil order and its liberal democracy. That the United States should be the source of so many of the weapons being used to attack that order is scandalous and unacceptable. Obama should make stopping the weapons traffic one of his national security priorities.