Last week the Mexican Army made an important—if not entirely unexpected—discovery in the northern state of Nuevo León: a Zetas cartel hideout complete with a firing range, a fleet of armored trucks, and enough weapons to make Rambo blush.
After three years of bloodshed that has claimed more than 23,000 lives, there is still no winner in Mexico's deadly drug war—the main issue when President Felipe Calderón visits Washington this week. But in the arms race behind the conflict there is a clear front runner, and it's not Mexico's government.
In shootout after shootout across the country, soldiers and police are coming up against narcos with newer, better weapons. And Washington is not helping.
The United States is the narcos' primary source for weapons, a complaint Calderón is expected to repeat to President Obama. For years, the Mexican government has harped about the high-powered assault rifles pouring over the border, but now the situation is getting worse.
An internal Mexican government report recently revealed that narcos now pack explosive, armor-piercing bullets; fragmentation grenades; missile launchers; and even antiaircraft guns.
So far in 2010, authorities have seized more than 10,000 illegal guns, compared with less than 5,000 in all of 2007. Meanwhile, Amnesty International estimates that for every police officer in Mexico, there are 35 illegal guns.
This might even be a manageable situation if Mexico could keep up with the drug lords. But its arsenal is conventional, small, and dated. Of course, the Mexican Army is no shrinking violet, and high-caliber shootouts between the armed forces and equally armed cartels have torn apart many a Mexican city in recent months. But even the Army admits it is often outgunned.
After a recent shootout left two children dead in the northern state of Tamaulipas, authorities said it couldn't have been the Army's fault: unlike the gunmen, the soldiers didn't even have grenades. Most worrying, however, is how organized crime completely steamrolls the government in parts of the country patrolled only by local police, who are notoriously underequipped and often corrupt.
"The cartels are better armed than the security forces," says Martín Barrón, a criminologist at the National Institute for the Study of Criminal Science in Mexico City. "The sheer economic power of these cartels has allowed them to build these arsenals. It's reached a dimension we never used to see."
Two attacks last month underscored how the cartels have turned their weapons caches into a tactical advantage.
In Ciudad Juárez, a lightning attack by gunmen with assault rifles left seven police officers and a civilian dead. Hours later in Morelia, the capital of the western, drug-plagued state of Michoacán, at least 40 gunmen ambushed a convoy containing the state security director.
The attackers blocked the highway with a stolen semi before riddling the armored vehicles with nearly 3,000 bullets in four minutes. They fired grenades at the convoy and peppered it with six-inch bullets from a gun whose Spanish nickname is "the helicopter killer."
There seems to be a simple and self-evident answer for this: Mexico must acquire from its northern neighbor the same (or better) munitions used by the narcos.
But both Mexico and the U.S. have shied away from an arms race. For domestic political reasons, Obama backed away from a campaign pledge (to ban assault rifles) that would make it more difficult for cartels to arm themselves. Meanwhile, Washington has been reluctant simply to hand over heavy-duty equipment to a Mexican military already embroiled in hundreds of cases of alleged human-rights abuses.
In fact, a Government Accountability Office report found that by the end of 2009, only $77 million of a planned $1.4 billion security cooperation deal had actually been delivered to Mexico. After years of delays, three Black Hawk helicopters are still sitting on the shelf.
But joint U.S.-Mexico operations, one possible solution, are also off the table. Calderón has repeatedly rejected calls for a greater U.S. military presence that some—most recently Bill Clinton—say could turn the tide against organized crime.
"Politically, it's very hard to see a lot of concrete progress on controlling arms at this point," says Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue. "The politics are extremely difficult on both sides of the border," he says, with Obama unlikely to stir right-wing wrath over the Second Amendment and Calderón facing fierce opposition to greater American intervention.
But even if Obama and Calderón were somehow to agree on a plan to reduce gun smuggling across the Rio Grande, there is little evidence that things would improve for the federales. "It's a thorn in the side but not a bullet in the heart of criminal organizations if they can't get weapons from the U.S., because they can buy them on the open market," says George W. Grayson, an expert on Mexico's cartels at the College of William & Mary.
Assault rifles and hand grenades can be easily bought on Mexico City's black market, imported from China, Brazil, and Europe—or stolen from police stations and military outposts. "It's like Sisyphus: you can try to role that stone up the hill, but it's just going to fall back on you."
Ultimately, Mexico may be better off investing in other tools—intelligence gathering, criminal databases, and satellite technology—that have already led to the capture of dozens of cartel leaders.
Calderón has welcomed American offers of help in these areas, none of which require yanqui troops on the ground. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has also announced a pledge of more than $300 million to help reinforce Mexico's judicial system, so the government can catch money laundered by the cartels before that cash is used to buy weapons.
Yet few officials on either side of the border think that these nonmilitary initiatives can be carried out without well-armed soldiers and police. "It's hard to imagine a solution to the problem that doesn't involve the Mexican government being stronger and having greater capabilities," says Shifter.
With more and more Mexicans calling for Calderón to change course, the U.S. is right to refocus on nonmilitary spending. But that's no excuse for not delivering what was promised. Recent attacks have shown how outgunned Mexican authorities have become. This week is Obama's chance to help change all that. If the White House won't ban assault rifles, the least it can do is help Mexican authorities buy them before the cartels do.