Legal U.S. Arms Exports May Be Source of Narco Syndicates Rising Firepower
More Than $1 billion In Private-Sector Weapons Exports Approved For Mexico Since 2004
Mainstream media and Beltway pundits and politicians in recent months have unleashed a wave of panic in the nation linking the escalading violence in Mexico, and its projected spread into the U.S., to illegal weapons smuggling.
The smokescreen being spread by these official mouthpieces of manufactured consensus is that a host of criminal operators are engaging in straw (or fraudulent) gun purchases, making clandestine purchases at U.S. gun shows or otherwise assembling small caches of weapons here in the states in order to smuggle them south of the border to the “drug cartels.”
The Obama administration is now sending hundreds of additional federal agents to the border in an effort to interdict this illegal arms smuggling to reassure an agitated middle-America that Uncle Sam will get these bad guys. The cascade of headlines from mainstream media outlets printing drug-war pornography assures us in paragraphs inserted between the titillation that the ATF’s Operation Gunrunner and other similar get-tough on gun-seller programs will save America from the banditos of Mexico.
To be sure, some criminal actors in the U.S. are smuggling small arms across the border. But the drug war in Mexico is not being fought with Saturday night specials, hobby rifles and hunting shotguns. The drug trafficking organizations are now in possession of high-powered munitions in vast quantities that can’t be explained by the gun-show loophole.
At least one report in a mainstream media outlet deserves credit for recognizing that trend.
“[Mexican] traffickers have escalated their arms race, acquiring military-grade weapons, including hand grenades, grenade launchers, armor-piercing munitions and antitank rockets with firepower far beyond the assault rifles and pistols that have dominated their arsenals,” states a recent story in the Los Angeles Times. “The proliferation of heavier armaments points to a menacing new stage in the Mexican government's 2-year-old war against drug organizations. …”
Narco News, in a report last December [“Juarez murders shine a light on an emerging Military Cartel”] also examined the increasing militarization of narco-trafficking groups in Mexico and pointed out that U.S. military-issued ammunition popped up in an arms cache seized in Reynosa, Mexico, in November 2008 that was linked to the Zetas, a mercenary group that provides enforcement services to Mexican narco-trafficking organizations.
So where are these military-grade weapons really coming from?
Rather than address that valid question head on, the mainstream media, and now even the Obama administration, have been attempting to paint lipstick on the pig, trumpeting, in the words of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the “courageous efforts undertaken by [Mexican] President Calderon.”
And the “courageous” Mexican President Felipe Calderon, for his part, redirects the blame for the Mexican narco-organization’s increasing firepower back to the U.S.
In a story published by the Associated Press in late February of this year, Mexican President Calderon is quoted alleging the following:
We need to stop the flow of guns and weapons towards Mexico. Let me express to you that we've seized in this two years more than 25,000 weapons and guns, and more than 90 percent of them came from United States, and I'm talking from missiles launchers to machine guns and grenades.
But no matter how hard Calderon and U.S. officials try to disguise the pig, it still oinks.
A Narco News investigation into the flow of arms across the U.S. border appears to lead right back to the systemic corruption that afflicts a vast swath of the Mexican government under President Felipe Calderon and this nation’s own embrace of market-driven free-trade policies.
The deadliest of the weapons now in the hands of criminal groups in Mexico, particularly along the U.S. border, by any reasonable standard of an analysis of the facts, appear to be getting into that nation through perfectly legal private-sector arms exports, measured in the billions of dollars, and sanctioned by our own State Department. These deadly trade commodities — grenade launchers, explosives and “assault” weapons —are then, in quantities that can fill warehouses, being corruptly transferred to drug trafficking organizations via their reach into the Mexican military and law enforcement agencies, the evidence indicates.
“As in other criminal enterprises in Mexico, such as drug smuggling or kidnapping, it is not unusual to find police officers and military personnel involved in the illegal arms trade,” states an October 2007 report by the for-profit global intelligence group Stratfor, which Barron’s magazine once dubbed the Shadow CIA. “… Over the past few years, several Mexican government officials have been arrested on both sides of the border for participating in the arms trade.”
The U.S. State Department oversees a program that requires private companies in the United States to obtain an export license in order to sell defense hardware or services to foreign purchasers — which include both government units and private buyers in other countries. These arms deals are known as Direct Commercial Sales [DCS]. Each year, the State Department issues a report tallying the volume and dollar amount of DCS items approved for export.
The reports do not provide details on who the weapons or defense services were exported to specifically, but do provide an accounting of the destination countries. Although it is possible that some of the deals authorized under the DCS program were altered or even canceled after the export licenses were issued, the data compiled by State does provide a broad snapshot of the extensive volume of U.S. private-sector arms shipments to both Mexico and Latin America in general.
According to an analysis of the DCS reports, some $1 billion in defense hardware was approved for export to Mexico via private U.S. companies between fiscal year 2004 and fiscal year 2007 — the most recent year for which data was available. Overall, during the same period, a total of some $3.7 billion in weapons and other military hardware was approved for export under the DCS program to all of Latin America and the Caribbean.
In addition to the military hardware exports approved for Mexico, some $3.8 billion in defense-related “services” [technical assistance and training via private U.S. contractors] also were approved for “export” to Mexico over the same four-year period, according to the DCS reports.
That means the total value of defense-related hardware and service exports by private U.S. companies to Mexico tallied nearly $5 billion over the four-year window. And that figure doesn’t even count the $ 700 million in assistance already authorized under the Merida Initiative [Plan Mexico] or any new DCS exports approved for fiscal years 2008 and 2009 [which ends Sept. 30].
Following is a sample of the types of arms shipments approved for export to Mexico through the DCS program during fiscal years 2006 and 2007 alone:
• $3.3 million worth of ammunition and explosives, including ammunition-manufacturing equipment;
• 13,000 nonautomatic and semiautomatic firearms, pistols and revolvers at a total value of $11.6 million;
• 42 grenade launchers valued at $518,531;
• 3,578 explosive projectiles, including grenades, valued at $78,251;
• Various night-vision equipment valued at $963,201.
[Clarification: The figures above are taken from the actual DCS reports, which list the “quantity” and total dollar “value” of various defense articles approved for export. It is possible that the quantity figure listed, in some cases, such as the grenade launchers, represents a unit (or group) composed of more than one weapon.]
A troubling revelation about the DCS program, which has direct relevance to the drug war in Mexico, is contained in a fiscal 2007 report issued by the State Department. That report summarizes the results of the State Department’s Blue Lantern end-use monitoring program for DCS exports.
That Blue Lantern report found that "the Western Hemisphere (especially Latin America and the Caribbean) continues to be a region with a high incidence of unfavorable cases involving firearms and ammunition." The unfavorable finding indicates that fraud may have occurred and those cases "may be subject to civil enforcement actions or referred to law enforcement for criminal investigation."
For the entire DCS program, and this is a disturbing figure, of the 634 Blue Lantern cases closed in fiscal year 2007, a total of 143, or 23 percent, were deemed “unfavorable."
The Blue Lantern report does not mention specific transactions in detail, but does provide case-study examples. One included in the report indicated that a Latin American firearms dealer acted as a “front company for another Latin American company.”
“[The] owner admits that [the] company exists only on paper…,” the fiscal year 2007 Blue Lantern report states. “[The] host country authorities had temporarily suspended the firearms import licenses to [the] parent company because of its link with small arms smuggling to gangs in [a] third country.”
Given Mexico’s strict gun laws with respect to private individuals, it is likely most of the DCS program defense hardware approved for export to that nation was directed toward the military or law enforcement agencies. But it is precisely that fact which should be raising some alarm in Washington.
Mexico, by Calderon’s own admission, is dealing with a serious corruption problem within the ranks of Mexican law enforcement.
From a December 2008 report in the Los Angeles Times:
Mexican President Felipe Calderon on Tuesday said his government was making strides against corruption but warned that graft remained a threat to the nation's efforts against crime.
Calderon’s rival in the 2006 Mexican presidential race, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, in recent open letter published in the Mexican newspaper Por Esto! and addressed to U.S. Secretary of State Clinton, is even more blunt in his assessment of the extent of corruption within the Calderon regime.
You surely know that all of this began when a group of about 30 traffickers of influence and corrupt politicians, using the cover of so-called neoliberal economic policies, took control of the Mexican State, as well as a good part of national and so-called public goods. And these policies of pillaging that has enriched a minority in an exaggerated and obscene manner, in a way that has not occurred in any other part of the world, has condemned the Mexican people to exile and survival.
And that corruption is not limited to Mexican law enforcement. Sources provided Narco News with a PowerPoint presentation prepared for the DEA that indicates the following:
Between Jan 2000-Dec 2006: More than 163,000 military members were criminally processed during former president Vicente Fox’s 6 years term of office. The majority of the crimes were: [the list includes abuse of power, homicide, embezzlement, kidnapping, bank robbery, illegal possession of firearms and health crimes [essentially organized crime].
Another slide in that same DEA PowerPoint presentation states that the Mexican military reported an average of 1,200 desertions per month in 2006.
And it should not be ignored that the Zetas, one of the most violent drug-organization groups in Mexico right now, was founded by former elite Mexican special-operations troops — many of whom received some training in the United States.
The Elephant in the Room
A former senior U.S. Customs Inspector, who asked that his name not be used, provided the following reaction when presented with the DCS data:
I would agree entirely [that] DCS (and DoD gifted, as opposed to DCS sold) weapons are obviously the simplest explanation for the massive rise in the number of fully automatic weapons, grenades, rockets, etc., obtained by the narcotics gangs. … That is to say, they are obtaining their weapons from their own, Mexican, government, by various illegal means.
… The Mexican government has a long and well-documented history of corruption at all levels, from city to federal. Most of the weapons being "displayed" [in the media] are simply not available for sale to American civilians, particularly including the grenades — both 40mm and hand types. …
… The source of these weapons can be easily traced by ATF. … All foreign sales must be reported to ATF prior to shipment, just in case the government wishes to hold up a shipment to a particular country, etc. Tracing the serial numbers would be easy, with US government assistance, of course.
But that assumes the Mexican government, and our own government, really want to trace those weapons. A November 2008 report in the San Antonio Express News, which includes details of the major weapons seizure in Reynosa, Mexico, that same month involving the Zetas, reveals the following:
Another example of coordination problems occurred this month. Mexican authorities in Reynosa across the border from McAllen, seized the country’s single largest stash of cartel weapons — nearly 300 assault rifles, shoulder-fired grenade launchers and a half million rounds of ammunition.
But weeks later, Mexican authorities still have not allowed the ATF access to serial numbers that would help them track down the buyers and traffickers on the U.S. side.
To be sure, cartel corruption and intimidation of Mexican law enforcement at every level and in every agency has caused some dysfunction.
A former DEA agent, who also asked not to be named, says the shipment of military-grade weapons to the Mexican government under the DCS program, given the extent of corruption within that government, is essentially like “shipping weapons to a crime syndicate.”
At least one individual with long connections to U.S. intelligence agencies is convinced that the corrupt transfer of arms between the Mexican military and narco-criminals in Mexico is more than theory.
Tosh Plumlee is a former CIA contract pilot who flew numerous missions delivering arms to Latin America and returning drugs to the United States as part of the covert Iran/Contra operations in the 1980s, according to public records. After becoming troubled by those government-sanctioned missions, Plumlee decided to take his concerns to Congress.
Plumlee was eventually called to testify before Congress on a number of occasions, only to find that the Congressional committees hearing his testimony ordered it classified — which meant if Plumlee later spoke about it publicly, he would be violating the law.
Plumlee, however, still has deep contacts in the spook world, some of whom, it seems, want him to bring some information forward concerning the nature of the drug war in Juarez, Mexico. As a result, Plumlee says he recently made a journey with individuals he described as “sensitive sources” to a small warehouse in Juarez — located just across border from El Paso, Texas. Plumlee says he agreed to accompany the sources because he is currently doing research for a book he is writing about the drug war.
Plumlee says it was clear to him that the warehouse was not part of a Mexican military operation, yet it was packed with U.S. military weapons — including grenades, grenade launchers, LAW anti-tank weapons [essentially high-tech bazookas], M16 rifles and night-vision equipment.
Plumlee says his sources indicated that the U.S. weapons in that warehouse — as well as another warehouse located elsewhere in Juarez that he did not visit — were now under the control of a narco-trafficking organization, which had obtained the munitions from corrupt elements of the Mexican military.
Plumlee concedes he does not know why he was allowed to step inside that warehouse and later walk out alive. All he can say for sure is that he was being used to get the information out and suspects that those weapons have since been relocated.
As incredible as Plumlee’s story sounds, it cannot really be surprising that there would be stores of weapons in clandestine warehouses in a city like Juarez, which, since the beginning of 2008, has produced about 2,000 of the estimated 7,000 murders in Mexico’s bloody drug war. And whether anyone chooses to believe Plumlee’s information or not, it is clear he has a long history of being a player in the netherworld of black operations, and might well be trusted by some players who still engaged in that dark art.
Mike Levine, a former DEA agent who has years of experience participating in dangerous undercover operations overseas, says Plumlee is who he claims to be. Levine now hosts a radio show in New York City on a Pacifica Radio station [the Expert Witness Radio Show] and Plumlee has appeared on that show several times over the years.
Here’s what Levine has to say about Plumlee’s credibility:
Before I invited Tosh to come on the air, because his story was so incredible, I vetted him through government agents, all of whom said he is the real thing. I have a copy of the air map he turned over to a San Diego Weekly newspaper, bearing notations of all his drug flights, which first sold me on the guy.
After he had made many revelations on-air in New York, and mainstream media continued to ignore him, Congress was apparently listening. I had been told by my own sources that agencies like CIA were regularly recording our show. (I used to remind them, on air, to make sure they pressed the red button to record.)
So Tosh calls me one day in around 1997 and says that Congress had asked him to testify about his experiences, in closed-door session. I told him, "If you do that, they are going to do nothing but classify your testimony making it illegal for you to tell your own story."
And that, indeed, is what did happen, according to Tosh.
Could it be that Plumlee was used as a type of message in a bottle because, like has happened so many times in the past history of this nation, the normal chain of command and our politicians in Washington, D.C., simply don’t want to hear the truth, don’t want to risk rocking the boat of international relations with Mexico or interrupting the free-trade flow of a multi-billion dollar “legal” arms business?
After all, if our government had to concede that the Mexican military is so wracked with corruption and beyond the control of Mexican President Calderon that it cannot be trusted to control its own weapons, then how can U.S. cooperation with Calderon’s government have any hope for success in what many would argue is an already ill-conceived drug war?
In fact, if that is what we are now confronting in Mexico, it is likely that U.S. cooperation with Calderon’s government, when it takes the form of U.S. weapon shipments, is likely only going to fuel further bloodshed and put U.S. agents and operatives now in the field assisting in those efforts at grave risk.
Narco News did seek to get comment from officials at both the Department of Justice and the Department of State about the issues raised in this story. To date, those queries — both by phone and e-mail — have been met with dead silence.
Stay tuned ….