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U.S. Is Arms Bazaar for Mexican Cartels February 27, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Mexico.
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(Roger comment: the US government puts massive resources into keeping PEOPLE from crossing the border and token resources with respect to WEAPONS that kill)

JAMES C. McKINLEY Jr.

New York Times, February 25, 2009

PHOENIX — The Mexican agents who moved in on a safe house full of drug dealers last May were not prepared for the fire power that greeted them.

When the shooting was over, eight agents were dead. Among the guns the police recovered was an assault rifle traced back across the border to a dingy gun store here called X-Caliber Guns.

Now, the owner, George Iknadosian, will go on trial on charges he sold hundreds of weapons, mostly AK-47 rifles, to smugglers, knowing they would send them to a drug cartel in the western state of Sinaloa. The guns helped fuel the gang warfare in which more than 6,000 Mexicans died last year.

Mexican authorities have long complained that American gun dealers are arming the cartels. This case is the most prominent prosecution of an American gun dealer since the United States promised Mexico two years ago it would clamp down on the smuggling of weapons across the border. It also offers a rare glimpse of how weapons delivered to American gun dealers are being moved into Mexico and wielded in horrific crimes.

“We had a direct pipeline from Iknadosian to the Sinaloa cartel,” said Thomas G. Mangan, a spokesman for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Phoenix.

Drug gangs seek out guns in the United States because the gun-control laws are far tougher in Mexico. Mexican civilians must get approval from the military to buy guns and they cannot own large-caliber rifles or high-powered pistols, which are considered military weapons.

The ease with which Mr. Iknadosian and two other men transported weapons to Mexico over a two-year period illustrates just how difficult it is to stop the illicit trade, law enforcement officials here say.

The gun laws in the United States allow the sale of multiple military-style rifles to American citizens without reporting the sales to the government, and the Mexicans search relatively few cars and trucks going south across their border.

What is more, the sheer volume of licensed dealers — more than 6,600 along the border alone, many of them operating out of their houses — makes policing them a tall order. Currently the A.T.F. has about 200 agents assigned to the task.

Smugglers routinely enlist Americans with clean criminal records to buy two or three rifles at a time, often from different shops, then transport them across the border in cars and trucks, often secreting them in door panels or under the hood, law enforcement officials here say. Some of the smuggled weapons are also bought from private individuals at gun shows, and the law requires no notification of the authorities in those cases.

“We can move against the most outrageous purveyors of arms to Mexico, but the characteristic of the arms trade is it’s a ‘parade of ants’ — it’s not any one big dealer, it’s lots of individuals,” said Arizona’s attorney general, Terry Goddard, who is prosecuting Mr. Iknadosian. “That makes it very hard to detect because it’s often below the radar.”

The Mexican government began to clamp down on drug cartels in late 2006, unleashing a war that daily deposits dozens of bodies — often gruesomely tortured — on Mexico’s streets. President Felipe Calderón has characterized the stream of smuggled weapons as one of the most significant threats to security in his country. The Mexican authorities say they seized 20,000 weapons from drug gangs in 2008, the majority bought in the United States.

The authorities in the United States say they do not know how many firearms are transported across the border each year, in part because the federal government does not track gun sales and traces only weapons used in crimes. But A.T.F. officials estimate 90 percent of the weapons recovered in Mexico come from dealers north of the border.

In 2007, the firearms agency traced 2,400 weapons seized in Mexico back to dealers in the United States, and 1,800 of those came from dealers operating in the four states along the border, with Texas first, followed by California, Arizona and New Mexico.

Mr. Iknadosian is accused of being one of those dealers. So brazen was his operation that the smugglers paid him in advance for the guns and the straw buyers merely filled out the required paperwork and carried the weapons off, according to A.T.F. investigative reports. The agency said Mr. Iknadosian also sold several guns to undercover agents who had explicitly informed him that they intended to resell them in Mexico.

Mr. Iknadosian, 47, will face trial on March 3 on charges including fraud, conspiracy and assisting a criminal syndicate. His lawyer, Thomas M. Baker, declined to comment on the charges, but said Mr. Iknadosian maintained his innocence. No one answered the telephone at Mr. Iknadosian’s home in Glendale, Ariz.

A native of Egypt who spent much of his life in California, Mr. Iknadosian moved his gun-selling operation to Arizona in 2004, because the gun laws were more lenient, prosecutors said.

Over the two years leading up to his arrest last May, he sold more than 700 weapons of the kind currently sought by drug dealers in Mexico, including 515 AK-47 rifles and one .50 caliber rifle that can penetrate an engine block or bulletproof glass, the A.T.F. said.

Based on the store’s records and the statements of some defendants, investigators estimate at least 600 of those weapons were smuggled to Mexico. So far, the Mexican authorities have seized seven of the Kalashnikov-style rifles from gunmen for the Beltrán Leyva cartel who had battled with the police.

The store was also said to be the source for a Colt .38-caliber pistol stuck in the belt of a reputed drug kingpin, Alfredo Beltrán Leyva, when he was arrested a year ago in the Sinaloan town of Culiacán. Also linked to the store was a diamond-studded handgun carried by another reputed mobster, Hugo David Castro, known as El Once, who was arrested in November on charges he took part in killing a state police chief in Sonora.

According to reports by A.T.F. investigators, Mr. Iknadosian sold more than 60 assault rifles in late 2007 and early 2008 to straw buyers working for two brothers — Hugo Miguel Gamez, 26, and Cesar Bojorguez Gamez, 27 — who then smuggled them into Mexico.

The brothers instructed the buyers to show up at X-Caliber Guns and to tell Mr. Iknadosian they were there to pick up guns for “Cesar” or “C,” the A.T.F. said. Mr. Iknadosian then helped the buyers fill out the required federal form, called the F.B.I. to check their records and handed over the rifles. The straw buyers would then meet one of the brothers to deliver the merchandise. They were paid $100 a gun.

The Gamez brothers have pleaded guilty to a count of attempted fraud. Seven of the buyers arrested last May have pleaded guilty to lesser charges and have agreed to testify against Mr. Iknadosian, prosecutors said.

In one transaction, Mr. Iknadosian gave advice about how to buy weapons and smuggle them to a person who turned out to be an informant who was recording him, according to a transcript. He told the informant to break the sales up into batches and never to carry more than two weapons in a car.

“If you got pulled over, two is no biggie,” Mr. Iknadosian is quoted as saying in the transcript. “Four is a question. Fifteen is, ‘What are you doing?’ ”

Obama and the Lethal War on Drugs February 12, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Latin America, Mexico.
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The death toll in Tijuana, Mexico, is now higher than in Baghdad

by Johann Hari

With the global economy collapsing all around us, the last issue President Barack Obama wants to talk about is the ongoing War on Drugs. But if he doesn’t – and fast – he may well have two collapsed and haemorrhaging countries on his hands. The first lies in the distant mountains of Afghanistan. The second is right next door, on the other side of the Rio Grande.

Here’s a starter for 10 about where this war has led us. Where in the world are you most likely to be beheaded? Where are the severed craniums of police officers being found week after week in the streets, pinned to bloody notes that tell their colleagues, “this is so that you learn respect”? Where are hand grenades being tossed into crowds to intimidate the public into shutting up? Which country was just named by the US Joint Chiefs of Staff as the most likely after Pakistan to suffer a “rapid and sudden collapse”?

Most of us would guess Iraq. The answer is Mexico. The death toll in Tijuana today is higher than in Baghdad. The story of how this came to happen is the story of this war – and why it will have to end, soon.

When you criminalise a drug for which there is a large market, it doesn’t disappear. The trade is simply transferred from chemists and doctors to gangs. In order to protect their patch and their supply routes, these gangs tool up – and kill anyone who gets in their way. You can see this any day on the streets of London or Los Angeles, where teen gangs stab or shoot each other for control of the 3,000 per cent profit margins on offer. Now imagine this process on a countrywide scale, and you have Mexico and Afghanistan today.

Drugs syndicates control 8 per cent of global GDP – which means they have greater resources than many national armies. They own helicopters and submarines and they can afford to spread the woodworm of corruption through poor countries right to the top.

Why Mexico? Why now? In the past decade, the US has spent a fortune spraying carcinogenic chemicals over Colombia’s coca-growing areas, so the drug trade has simply shifted to Mexico. It’s known as the “balloon effect”: press down in one place, and the air rushes to another.

When I was last there in 2006, I saw the drug violence taking off and warned that the murder rate was going to rocket – but I didn’t imagine it would reach this scale. In 2007, more than 2,000 people were killed. In 2008, it was more than 5,400 people. The victims range from a pregnant woman washing her car, to a four-year-old child, to a family in the “wrong” house watching television. Today, 70 per cent of Mexicans say they are frightened to go out because of the cartels.

The cartels offer Mexican police and politicians a choice: plato o plomo. Silver or lead. Take a bribe, or take a bullet. Juan Camilo Mourino, the Interior Secretary, admits the cartels have so corrupted the police they can’t guarantee the safety of the public any more. So the US is trying to militarise the attack on the cartels in Mexico, offering tanks, helicopters and hard cash.

The same process has happened in Afghanistan. After the toppling of the Taliban, the country’s bitterly poor farmers turned to the only cash crop that earns them enough to keep their kids alive: opium. It now makes up 50 per cent of the country’s GDP. The drug cartels have a bigger budget than the elected government, so they have left the young parliament, police force and army riddled with corruption and virtually useless. The US reacted by declaring “war on opium”.

The German magazine Der Spiegel revealed that the NATO commander has ordered his troops to “kill all opium dealers”. Seeing their main crop destroyed and their families killed, many have turned back to the Taliban in rage.

What is the alternative? Terry Nelson was one of America’s leading federal agents tackling drug cartels for over 30 years. He discovered the hard way that the current tactics are useless. “Busting top traffickers doesn’t work, since others just do battle to replace them,” he explains. But there is another way: “Legalising and regulating drugs will stop drug market violence by putting major cartels out of business. It’s the one sure-fire way to bankrupt them, but when will our leaders talk about it?”

Of course, the day after legalisation, a majority of gangsters will not suddenly join the Hare Krishnas and open organic food shops. But their profit margins will collapse as their customers go to off-licences and chemists, so the incentives for staying in crime will largely end. We don’t have to speculate about this. When alcohol was legalised, the murder-rate fell off a cliff – and continued to drop for the next 10 years. (Rates of alcoholism, revealingly, remained the same.) No, Obama doesn’t want to spend his political capital on this. He is the third consecutive US President to have used drugs in his youth, but he knows this is a difficult issue, where he could be tarred by his opponents as “soft on crime”.

Yet remember: opinions are febrile in a depression. At the birth of the last great downturn, support for alcohol prohibition was high; within five years, it was gone. The Harvard economist Professor Jeffrey Miron has calculated that drug prohibition costs the US government $44.1bn per year – and legalisation would raise another $32.7bn on top of that in taxes if drugs were taxed like alcohol. (All this money would, in a sane world, be shifted to drug treatment.)

Can the US afford to force this failing policy on the world – especially when it guarantees the collapse both of the country they are occupying and their own neighbour?

Drug addiction is always a tragedy for the addict – but drug prohibition spreads the tragedy across the globe. We still have a chance to take drugs back into the legal regulated economy, before it’s too late for Mexico and Afghanistan and graveyards-full of more stabbed kids on the streets of Britain. Obama – and the rest of us – have to choose: controlled regulation or violent prohibition? Healthcare or warfare?

To join the fight to legalise drugs, good organisations to join are Transform or Stop the Drug War.

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