Pentagon Fingered as a Source of Narco-Firepower in Mexico

The Big Clubs in Mexico’s Drug War Aren’t Slipping Through the Gun-Show Loophole

Another series of leaked State Department cables made public this week by WikiLeaks lend credence to investigative reports on gun trafficking and the drug war published by Narco News as far back as 2009.

The big battles in the drug war in Mexico are “not being fought with Saturday night specials, hobby rifles and hunting shotguns,” Narco News reported in March 2009, against the grain, at a time when the mainstream media was pushing a narrative that assigned the blame for the rising tide of weapons flowing into Mexico to U.S. gun stores and gun shows.

Rather, we reported at the time, “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.”

Those weapons, found in stashes seized by Mexican law enforcers and military over the past several years, include U.S.-military issued rifles, machine guns, grenade launchers and explosives.

The State Department cables released recently by WikiLeaks support Narco News’ reporting and also confirm that our government is very aware of the fact that U.S military munitions are finding their way into Mexico, and into the hands of narco-trafficking organizations, via a multi-billion dollar stream of private-sector and Pentagon arms exports.

Narco News, in a report in December 2008 [“Juarez murders shine a light on an emerging Military Cartel”] 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.

Tosh Plumlee, a former CIA asset who still has deep connections in the covert world, told Narco News recently that a special-operations task force under Pentagon command, which has provided training to Mexican troops south of the border, has previously “… found [in Mexico] hundreds of [U.S.-made] M-67s [grenades] as well as thousands of rounds of machine gun-type ammo, .50 [and] .30 [caliber] and the famous [U.S.-made] M-16 — most later confirmed as being shipped from Guatemala into Mexico as well as from USA vendors. …”

Similarly, an AP video report from May 2009 confirms that “M16 machine guns” have been seized from Mexican criminal groups engaged in the drug war.

“It’s unclear how cartels are getting military grade weapons,” the AP report states. 

Narco News offered an answer to that question in March 2009, when it reported that 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.

Those exports are approved through the State Department, under a program known as Direct Commercial Sales. A sister program, called Foreign Military Sales, is overseen by the Pentagon and also taps U.S. contractors to manufacture weapons (such as machine guns and grenades) for export to foreign entities, including companies and governments.

Between 2005 and 2009, a total of $41 billion worth of U.S. defense articles were exported under the FMS program and a total of nearly $60 billion via the DCS program, according to a recent U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report. The bulk of those exports went to seven nations, including South Korea, but Mexico, too, was a receiving nation, with some $204 million in military arms shipments approved for export in fiscal year 2008 alone, according to the most recently available DCS report.

So, based on that evidence, it is clear that there is a grand river of military-grade munitions flowing out of major gun factories in the U.S. and being exported globally — completely bypassing the mom-and-pop gun store. That river of doom, however, does not bypass the drug war in Mexico.

The WikiLeaks Cables

Two separate diplomatic cables that came out of the U.S. consulate in Monterrey, Mexico, in early 2009 discuss drug war-related attacks on the U.S. consulate in that city as well as on a Monterrey TV station — with each incident involving the use of U.S. military grenades.

From a State Department cable created on Jan. 12, 2009, by the American Consul General in Monterrey and sent to the Secretary of State, U.S. Northcom and other U.S. consulates:

On January 6 the Televisa TV station in Monterrey was attacked by unknown assailants, who shot eight .40 caliber rounds into the station wall and threw a grenade over a fence into the parking lot, which exploded but did not injure anyone.

… The Consulate [in Monterrey] was attacked in a similar manner on October 11, 2008, and is located approximately one mile from the Televisa station.

… The investigators recovered the grenade fuse spoon, which appears to be from a US military M67 fragmentation grenade. ATF is investigating if any M67 grenades from this lot were exported to foreign militaries. The M67 grenade is different than the M26 grenade [an older U.S.-made grenade from the Vietnam era] used to attack the Consulate on October 11, but five M67 grenades were recovered during a raid several days after the Consulate attack in a Gulf Cartel warehouse. [Emphasis added.]

So the State Department cable makes clear that the attacks on the TV station and on the consulate itself involved military grade explosives made in the USA that somehow found their way to Mexico. A second cable issued in March 2009 lays out the plausible path those grenades followed on their journey to Mexico’s drug war.

From a cable issued by the U.S. Consulate in Monterrey on March 3, 2009, and sent to the Secretary of State, the FBI as well as various other consulates:

AmConsulate General Monterrey's ATF Office, the ATF Explosives Technology Branch, and AmEmbassy Mexico DAO have been working with Mexican law enforcement authorities to identify the origin of various grenades and other explosive devices recovered locally over the past few months, including the unexploded M26A2 fragmentation grenade hurled at the Consulate itself during the October 11, 2008 attack. Other ordnance recovered includes 21 grenades recovered by Mexican law enforcement on October 16, 2008 after a raid at a narco-warehouse in Guadalupe (a working class suburb of Monterrey), and twenty-five 40mm explosive projectiles, a U.S. M203 40mm grenade launcher, and three South Korean K400 fragmentation grenades recovered the same day in an abandoned armored vehicle that suspected narco-traffickers used to escape apprehension.

Local Mexican law enforcement has recovered a Grenade spoon and pull ring from an exploded hand grenade used in a January 6, 2009 attack on Televisa Monterrey, a Monterrey television station. Based upon ATF examination, it appears that the grenade used in the attack on the Consulate has the same lot number, and is of similar design and style, as the three of the grenades found at the narco-warehouse in Guadalupe. On January 7, 2009, the Mexican Army recovered 14 [U.S.-made] M-67 fragmentation grenades and 1 K400 fragmentation grenade in Durango City, Durango. ....

The lot numbers of some of the grenades recovered, including the grenade used in the attack on Televisa, indicate that previously ordnance with these same lot numbers may have been sold by the USG [U.S. Government] to the El Salvadoran military in the early 1990s via the Foreign Military Sales program. We would like to thank AmEmbassy San Salvador for its ongoing efforts to query the Government of El Salvador as whether any of its stocks of grenades and other munitions have been diverted or are otherwise unaccounted for. [Emphasis added.]

Again, this is the U.S. state Department confirming that it suspects U.S. military munitions sold in the 1990s to a foreign military were subsequently diverted to Mexican narco-traffickers.

Narco News sources indicate that it is likely some of the U.S. military weapons now being used by Mexican narco-trafficking groups may be from a past era, but they also contend it is likely a number of those weapons, such as the guns, have been rebuilt for the current drug war.

Former CIA asset Plumlee told Narco News:

There was some talk among [U.S.] task force members about  a ... gun-making operation ongoing in or around Oaxaca, Mexico, more like a “refurbish” type operation from old stored weapons from the old Contra days (1980-‘90 era). [There’s] a lot of those weapons still around Panama and El Salvador. I was told most of those old weapons were “burned out" and of not much value. However, if there was a supplier or someone who could retrofit these weapons [they] could be fixed and moved just about anywhere....

And as food for thought on that front, a former U.S. Customs Inspector, who asked that his name not be used, brought to Narco News’ attention a federal criminal case now pending in U.S. court in Nashville.

In that case, five top officials with a gun manufacturer called Sabre Defence Industries LLC stand accused of illegally trafficking gun parts, such as gun barrels and components, on an international scale. Sabre, now shut down in the wake of its run-in with the feds, made and marketed assault rifles and machine-gun components for military, law enforcement and civilian use worldwide.

In fact, its biggest client was the U.S. military, which had awarded it contracts worth up to $120 million “for the manufacture of, among other things, M16 rifles and .50 caliber machine gun barrels,” according to the indictment returned in mid-January of this year against the company and its officers.

“The indictment unsealed today alleges a nearly decade-long scheme to thwart U.S. import/export restrictions on firearms and their components,” said Lanny A. Breuer, an assistant attorney general with the Department of Justice’s Criminal Division, in a press statement released on Feb. 8. “The defendants allegedly went to great lengths to conceal their activities and evade U.S. laws – mislabeling packages, falsifying shipping records, and maintaining a fictitious set of books and records, among other things. The illegal trade of firearms and their components poses serious risks and, as this case shows, we cannot and will not tolerate it.”

Federal authorities have not released any details on where the Sabre-made gun parts ended up, though the indictment alleges many of the parts were shipped overseas.

As a note of caution, however, the former Customs inspector points out that once a criminal group has a supply of parts, setting up a gun-making operation is not a complicated matter.

“For the small arms, and I would include, for simplicity, everything up to and including M2 .50 BMG machine guns, and even the 40 mm grenade launcher, M19, you can put them together on the kitchen table, or on the workbench in the garage,” the former inspector says.

For now, though, it simply is not known whether any of Sabre’s weapons parts ended up in gun-making chop shops south of the U.S. border, or elsewhere, or whether any of the M16s it made for the U.S. military were later provided to the Mexican government — via the FMS or DCS programs — and subsequently diverted by corrupt officials to narco-trafficking groups.

But the State Department cables recently made public by WikiLeaks do seem to confirm that the U.S. government is very aware that much of the heavy firepower now in the hands of Mexican criminal organizations isn’t linked to mom-and-pop gun stores, but rather the result of blowback from U.S. arms-trading policies (both current and dating back to the Iran/Contra era) that put billions of dollars of deadly munitions into global trade stream annually.

As the death toll mounts in the drug war now raging in Mexico, it pays to remember that weapons trafficking, both government-sponsored and illegal, is a big business that feeds and profits off that carnage. Bellicose government policies, such as the U.S.-sponsored Merida Initiative, that are premised on further militarizing the effort to impose prohibition on civil society only serve to expand the profit margin on the bloodshed.

Stay tuned….

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