Blog dedicated to reporting on Mexican drug cartels
on the border line between the US and Mexico

Wednesday, May 19, 2010


Mexican soldiers are outgunned by drug traffickers. Too bad Washington won't let them buy better arms.

By Michael Miller


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.


  1. The answer to this is not to supply Mexico with better weapons but to nip it at it root - "The Mexican Economy". If it wasn't for the poor living conditions that the Mexican citizen have to live under - they would'nt be tempted to make a fast buck selling drugs. Instead you want to up the stakes and supply Mexico with better weapons? That will just make the drug lords desire to top it and buy just as good weaponry or better. Mexico is quick to say that it is the US fault for having such a large drug comsumtion that fuels this war; yes that is part of it but let me remind you that Mexico has legalized personal use drug possesion for the reason of freeing up resource to fight larger scale drug possession. What does that tell you? Mexico has a high drug consumtion as well. Mexico should fess up to the reality that is their own fault for the state they are in. They let it happen. Look else where in the world and people stand up against the injustice - look at the Iranian election riots. Wake up Mexico and began to progress mentally!

  2. How many of the .50 caliber Barrets taken from the cartels were stolen from the Mexican army? How many of the G3 rifles taken from the cartels were stolen from the Mexican army? How many of the m203 grenade launchers were stolen from either the Mexican, El Salvador or Guatelmalan military? How about the rpg's? Why do Mexican authorities routinely provide little if any of the seized weapons to BATF for review of their origin? The answers to the above questions are a shame to one govt and it is not the one with BHO as it's leader.....

  3. if we give the mexican army better arms, they will just wind up in the cartels' hands by the next day. we need some type of mercenaries, eliminating these threats, before they multiply.

  4. In America "assault" rifles in the commercial market are semi-automatic only, they can only fire one round per trigger pull. The Cartels have fully automatic rifles. So...

    Isn't it more likely they're getting AKs from certain Latin American countries that have acquired large Russian arms supplies?

    Maybe Mexico should be partnering with Columbia and Honduras in the war on communist Narco-terror groups and their backers.

  5. Perhaps the US should make it illegal to purchase a firearm with the intention to transfer it to someone else (i.e. Straw purchase). Or maybe it should make the unlicensed and unauthorized transfer of those weapons across international borders illegal. Actually, these are already illegal.

    Also, if the "narcos' primary source of weapons" is the US, then where do they get the grenades, rocket launchers, and machine guns? Those aren't for sale in US gun stores (except some machine guns in very limited situations that include very inflated prices, background checks, taxes, several month waiting periods, and the approval of the chief of local law enforcement). The article correctly referenced the black market of weapons, which is really the main source of nacro weapons, not legal gun sales in the US. Why would the cartels spend thousands of dollars, wait several months, and obtain law enforcement approval for each weapon they purchase, when they can purchase any weapon (in any quantity) they desire at a much lower price on the black market, imported to directly to Mexico from Korea, South America, Iran, or any other arms producing nation or region?

    If Mexico wants to stop the influx of weapons to the narcos, the Mexican government should secure its own borders. If so many weapons are coming from the US, why don't they inspect any vehicles or persons entering Mexico from the US? Perhaps they should secure their ports and better inspect incoming freight. You can't hide a rocket launcher in a backpack......

    Instead of the US supplying heavier weapons to the Mexican authorities, (which will likely just end up in the narcos hands eventually), the Mexican government should buy their weapons off the black market also. That way they can have access to the same weaponry as the narcos. They might even get a group discount.....

  6. All these comments made me remember Nicholas Cage movie "Lord of War" allegedly based on actual events.

  7. I'm pretty sure the movie had some influence on what is being said here. It's not as easy as bread and butter.

  8. What a crock, the Mexican army has the same or better weapons than the cartels. The cartels don't have tanks, assault helicopter, fighter jets, large automatic weapons, etc...what a crock.

  9. Cartels have a bigger weapon "politicians"


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