Friday, March 18, 2011
Mexico's Customs enforcement and weapons trafficking
Las aduanas, coladeras para las armas
revista Proceso #1793
A little over a year ago, PRD Federal Deputy Hector Hugo Hernandez Rodriguez (Tlalpan/DF) proposed the formation of a special commission to review Mexico’s Customs operations after hearing Defense Ministry officials discuss the situation of violence in the country and hearing that those who "traffic in drugs are the same as those who traffic in weapons.”
The special commission of Federal Deputies was formed and began its work. The plan was to visit all the 49 formal Customs ports of entry in the country, see how they work and propose appropriate changes and improvements to their operations.
However, the "pressures" received by the commission during its year of work forced the legislators to halt their investigation and only propose general reforms to comply with customs law. No progress was made.
“Too many toes were stepped on” said the chairman of the commission, “there was a coordinated effort and pressure to block our work.”
The problem is that illegal merchandise, drugs and the weapons that are responsible for the growing violence in Mexico are flowing through Customs facilities. Another member of the commission put it this way: "Customs is a pig’s sty.”
In an interview with the weekly Proceso newsmagazine, Hernández Rodríguez, the chairman of the special commission, states that sudden unannounced visits and reviews of Customs operations "caused a lot of pain…..and disrupted many interests", and reveals that the customs authorities are tightly managed and created conditions in perfect coordination to prevent the lawmakers from doing their job.
Hernandez Rodriguez avoided describing in detail what was discovered at the Customs facilities, but in several of the commission’s documents reviewed by Proceso’s staff it is calculated that weapons are illegally entering the country at a rate of one per minute, which, according to the analysis of the legislators, is a major cause of "insecurity and criminality."
video of drug cartel weapons cache seized in Reynosa, 2008
The special commission was proposed in October 2009 and began work in February 2010. According to the analysis presented this month by the chairman of the committee:
"In the Customs sector there are problems that must be urgently assessed and addressed in order to avoid a situation of greater vulnerability for the economy and the health of the republic. I specifically refer to the uninhibited movement of illegal merchandise, weapons, drugs and other banned substances that each year enter the country through the checkpoints, ports and airports without sufficient control by customs authorities.”
"It is also an issue of national security and public safety that the traffic and marketing of illegal weapons leads to increased insecurity, crime and drug addiction. Every minute it is estimated that one gun enters our country illegally. According to the Attorney General's Office (PGR), the arms trade is the second most important issue affecting our national security. It is a problem that fuels the violence of organized crime. "
In the documents the commission states that corruption in the 49 Customs facilities in Mexico has increased and recognized that bribes and threats from organized crime are directed at Customs agents.
According to the documents, in 2006 and 2007 customs seized only 2% of illegal weapons entering the country, a total of 900, while from 2006 to 2008, in raids and clashes, authorities seized 38,404 illegal weapons.
Besides establishing that there is a "lack of an institutional plan”, the documents state that Customs operations have not been adequate for the country's needs during the globalization era and although not a complete failure, deficiencies in Customs enforcement in the last 20 years have lead to real problems for the country's economy and national security.
"The illegal trafficking of goods, weapons and illicit substances has revealed the porosity and permissiveness in Customs facilities, which has led to the deterioration of national security.”
“Criminal organizations take advantage of this situation, violating the rule of law thru bribery and concealment to traffic in humans, drugs, weapons, toxic waste and protected species, and to launder money.”
The documents state that even large companies and corporations, including multinationals, smuggle merchandise, creating informal distribution channels for the purpose of avoiding taxes.
According to the documents, "58% of the market of garments for clothing is supplied thru illegal channels."
The documents stress that the profits from these crimes are "outrageous" and "can only be explained by corruption, the incompetence of Customs staff and the lack of technological equipment."
Based on reports obtained from the PGR and CESOP, a research arm of Mexico’s Chamber of Deputies (the lower house of the national legislature equivalent to the House of Representatives in the U.S.), the special commission established that the U.S. is the source of between 40 to 60 percent of illicit firearms and that there are four weapons smuggling corridors in the country.
The CESOP text states: "In conjunction with the market for drugs the weapons industry has also proliferated. In the U.S. there are 40 major manufacturers and importers of firearms which sell about 3 million guns (annually). This activity represents sales of more than 30 billion dollars a year for the U.S. economy.”
According to the PGR there are more than 100,000 federal firearms licensees on the southern border of the United States who sell weapons at established retail businesses or through gun shows.
"This accounts for the fact that most of the weapons used by criminal organizations in Mexico (40 to 60 percent) comes from the United States. According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, 40 percent of the weapons introduced into Mexico fall into the hands of drug traffickers."
The PGR reports and figures on which the commission based their findings were made in 2008 and 2009, during the term of Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora. Since the ascension to the post of Attorney General of Arturo Chávez Chávez in September 2009, no further reports of weapons smuggling into Mexico have been released.
These documents clarify that the primary smuggling mechanism is through the introduction of small quantities in a somewhat steady stream, in what is called "Operacion Hormiga” (an operation that resembles a stream of ants operating in single file and each carrying a small amount of material). They also highlight four transshipment corridors: Pacific, Central, Gulf and South.
Among the main points of entry for the Pacific route are Tijuana, Mexicali, San Luis Rio Colorado and Nogales. From these crossing points the weapons flow to Hermosillo, Culiacán, Tepic, Guadalajara, Morelia, Chilpancingo and Oaxaca.
Another point of entry is Ciudad Juarez. From Juarez the firearms follow the corridor to Chihuahua, Durango, Guadalajara, Morelia, Chilpancingo and Oaxaca.
The third route, the Gulf, utilizes the numerous ports of entry in the border states of Coahuila, Nuevo Leon and Tamaulipas. From here the weapons flow to Monterrey, Veracruz, Oaxaca and Tuxtla Gutierrez.
The fourth route, the South, is centered at Balancan, Tabasco, where the weapons then proceed to Tuxtla Gutierrez, Ciudad Cuauhtémoc, Tapachula, Ciudad Hidalgo and Oaxaca.
The CESOP document quotes Baja California Senator Fernando Castro (PRI) who states, "every day 2,000 potent caliber weapons enter Mexico," adding that this implies an annual aggregate of 730,000 weapons, "which goes far beyond the ability of Mexican authorities to record, secure and detain.”
The document notes that during his election campaign, U.S. president Barack Obama pledged to "make a serious effort to disrupt arms trafficking and money laundering since the U.S. provides the Mexican cartels with weapons and funds."
The special commission mentions in January 2008, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) launched project Gunrunner, in which 35 new agents and 15 field researchers were assigned along the border with Mexico. Operation Fast and Furious, which led to the illegal entry of nearly 2,000 U.S. arms to Mexico, was part of this project.
PGR reports used by the special commission document how the weapons traffickers use “straw purchasers”, legal residents and citizens with the ability to purchase firearms legally, to obtain the weapons for “brokers” in exchange for money."
"So these arms traffickers then introduce the weapons into Mexico thru the 19 formal border crossings operated by Customs as well as through the countless informal crossing points that are scattered along the 3,152 kilometer long common border.
“For example that there are four formal Customs operated ports of entry in Chihuahua and 300 informal gaps approachable by dirt roads where the border can be crossed from Ojinaga to Juarez."
And while the PGR maintains that the weapons are primarily smuggled hidden in automobiles, the special commission confirmed that Customs have never detected anything, even though they have equipment to measure and weigh vehicles when crossing the border to detect hidden contraband.
PGR documents also highlight the importance of the ATF in the detection of trafficking weapons to Mexican drug cartels and gives as an example the arrest in 2008 of Victor Varela, who said "was involved in supplying weapons to the Carrillo Fuentes criminal organization in Ciudad Juarez."
The documents clarify that "organizations engaged in drug smuggling do not directly control firearms smuggling; there is a distribution network where they place orders with the brokers who manage the people (straw purchasers) who buy guns." In the border area between Mexico and the U.S. there are at least 12,000 armories.
Something for everyone
The cost of weapons on the black market range $800 to $ 2,000. Most are of American origin and the most widely used brands are Colt, Marlin, Bushmaster, Beretta, Raven, Remington, Smith & Wesson, Browning, Mossberg and Jennings. Glocks comes from Austria. Other brands include Romarm Cugir from Romania and Norinco from China
Most firearms have been confiscated in Tamaulipas, Michoacan, Sinaloa, Sonora, Baja California and Chihuahua, while most grenades have been confiscated in Michoacán, Tamaulipas, Chiapas, Sinaloa and Nuevo Leon.
According to the PGR reports, The Gulf cartel and Los Zetas are the most violent organizations and possess the most lethal weapons.
"Their more notable weapons include M72 and AT-4 light anti-tank weapons, RPG-7 rocket launchers, 37 mm caliber MGL grenade launchers. 37 and 40 mm grenade launcher attachments, grenades, .50 caliber Barrett rifles and newer generation weapons such as the Belgian FN Herstal 5.7x28 mm “cop killer” pistols and submachine guns that can pierce Kevlar or CRISTAT body armour.”
“The Arellano Felix and Sinaloa cartels are more conventionally armed and use some Barrett rifles, rocket launchers and FN Herstal 5.7 submachine guns to a lesser extent.”
A total mess
According to a recent special report on the current state of the drug war undertaken by the Ministry of Defense (Proceso issue #1791) one of the necessary steps in fighting organized crime was the modernization of Mexico’s 49 Customs facilities. That was the objective of the special commission, but the pressure it received left it drifting increasingly away from that goal.
Hernández Rodríguez, the special commission chairman, recalled that at the start of their on site reviews deficiencies such as missing cameras and gamma ray scanners were missing in some facilities. Journeys were made to 18 of the 49 Customs facilities. "We were doing an on site diagnosis but Customs authorities created conditions that blocked our work”
The chairman revealed that irregularities were detected and "some things" were reported but he refused to provide details, claiming that the information was confidential. “We were stepping on so many toes…..talking about problems at Customs is more complicated than you may think.”
On the southern border with Guatemala, in the border crossings of Talisman and Ciudad Hidalgo, the smuggling of contraband and humans is done within view of Customs officials, “this happens daily and no one keeps order.”
Another example from the commission’s document if the experience of commission member, and Federal Deputy, Hector Pedroza Jimenez during an attempted on-site inspection of Customs facilities at the Mexico City airport, “we were not allowed to enter ... What are they hiding that we were not allowed inside? They wanted to obstruct our work because Customs is totally corrupted and a mess "
Hernández Rodríguez argues that weapons trafficking has plunged the country into an unsustainable and intolerable violence: "Weapons and drugs are smuggled through Customs and there is a network of complicity at all levels."
“The members of the commission have gone out to the field, the matter is that there is corruption at all levels, in all sectors ... it is very difficult."
“The problem of the weapons is a serious issue because they enter everywhere from Ciudad Juarez to Talisman, Chiapas, and these guns, used by the criminals, are generating the violence we are living.”