Private-sector Arms Sales to Mexico Sparsely Monitored by State Department

Only Three Inquiries Targeting Firearms Exports Conducted Since 2007


The Department of State has weighed in officially on whether the sale of military weapons to Mexico through U.S. private-sector arms exporters might be a source of the high-caliber firearms now being employed by drug trafficking organizations in the bloody drug war south of the border.

The response is not very reassuring.

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].

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.

U.S. officials in recent months have attributed the rising firepower of Mexican narco-syndicates — who now are in possession of military grade firearms and explosives — to smuggling rings being supplied through fraudulent purchases at gun shows, gun stores and from gun dealers inside the United States. But the magnitude of military hardware flowing into Mexico legally through the DCS program, coupled with the well-documented, extensive corruption within the Mexican military and law enforcement agencies, has prompted concerns that the DCS program itself may well be a major source of the U.S. military munitions now in the possession of narco-trafficking groups.

[See prior Narco News story, Legal U.S. arms exports may be source of narco-syndicates rising firepower” for more details.]

Narco News recently presented the following questions to the State Department concerning the DCS program:

1. Given that the DCS program is subject to criminal manipulation [as evidenced by the Blue Lantern report] and given that there is a well-documented history of narco-corruption within Mexican law enforcement and the military, is the Department of State concerned that a major source of the weapons now being used in the escalating bloodshed in Mexico's drug war may in fact be the DCS program itself?

2. If so, are there any actions being taken by the Department of State to address that situation?

3. If it is not a concern, why not?

4. Finally, given the documented evidence of corruption within Mexican law enforcement and the military, is it fair to say that DCS weapons exports represent a far bigger and far more easily accessible source of arms for Mexican criminal organizations than do weapons obtained from private citizens in the U.S.?

[The State Department’s Blue Lantern program is designed to provide end-use monitoring for DCS exports. The fiscal year 2007 Blue Lantern report, the latest available publicly, reveals that a total of only 705 end-use checks were initiated on approved DCS exports worldwide while some 81,000 “license applications and other export requests” were acted on by the State Department during that year.]

Official Deflection

In response to the Narco News query, Jason Greer, public affairs officer for the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs at the Department of State, provided a long, jargon-laden response via e-mail. That response failed to answer directly the questions submitted by Narco News, though it did contain two revelations of note. [To view the State Department’s entire response, go to this link.]

First, Greer confirmed that the State Department since January 2007 initiated only three Blue Lantern end-use inquiries involving the export of firearms to Mexico. Greer adds that one of those cases came back with a favorable finding, one unfavorable and one case is still pending.

That means over the course of 2007, 2008 and the first three months of 2009, the State Department program set up to monitor potential DCS fraud only examined three export deals. In fiscal year 2007 alone, according to the DCS report released by the State Department, a total of some $240 million in military hardware was approved for export to Mexico — and that doesn’t even include the additional hundreds of millions of dollars in exports likely approved since then.

In the case of the one “unfavorable” finding, Greer explains that a U.S. firearms exporter had “submitted eight separate license requests based on a single purchase order.”

Greer continues:

The value of that order and the collective value of the license requests exceeded $1 million and therefore met the requirements for Congressional notification. … All eight license requests were returned without action requiring the applicant to submit one export license request for the total value of the transaction ….

And the end result of that misstep for the exporter, according to Greer, is that the export of the weapons “was subsequently approved following Congressional notification.”

With that strong defense of the State Department monitoring of the DCS program, Greer declares without ambiguity:

None of the Blue Lantern inquiries concluded during this time indicate the diversion of U.S. Munitions List items to illicit or unauthorized end-users in Mexico.

Do you feel assured?

If not, then this part of Greer’s response will do little to relieve your agitation:

In addition, all firearms licenses approved by [the State Department] for commercial resale in Mexico are exported to the Ministry of Defense (MOD), Mexico. The MOD is the import authority for firearms and is also responsible for licensing of Mexican firearms dealers. Upon receipt of the firearms, the MOD transfers the firearms to the end-user authorized on the [State Department-issued] export license.

The Mexican Ministry of Defense, of course, oversees the Mexican military. In fact, a reading of Mexico’s firearms law reveals that the Defense Ministry has a monopoly on approving and overseeing all licenses, sales, transport and storage of arms and munitions in Mexico, whether for private-sector players or other government units — including municipal, state and federal law enforcement units.

So, if you are a smart narco-trafficker, and they are smart, it might pay to spread some money and influence around Mexico’s Ministry of Defense to assure the necessary diversion of firearms to your cause.

One former DEA agent describes the situation this way:

The Mexican military has always been a problem. If all those weapons are going through the Mexican Defense Ministry, then there’s your answer right there [as to where the narco-syndicates are obtaining their high-caliber weapons]. … What do you think happens if anyone complains to the Mexican military that they did not get all the weapons they ordered?

The Evidence

It’s worth noting that the Mexican military, like law enforcement agencies in Mexico, has a long history of being tarred with charges of official corruption. Following is a sample of that troubling track record.

• Sensitive documentation provided by law enforcement to this committee states:

"[William Robert “Tosh”] Plumlee was a former deep-cover military and CIA asset from 1956 to 1987 with a long history of CIA activities in Central America, Cuba, and Mexico."

… Mr. Plumlee confirmed to this Committee the existence of Operation Whale Watch and Operation Watchtower, drug smuggling operations involving the CIA, U.S. military, with knowledge of the National Security Council. He mentioned drug flights from Central America to the United States for the CIA, with stops at places he marked on maps that he provided to Senator Gary Hart and Staff.

Plumlee testified under oath that there was close cooperation between Mexican and U.S. government personnel in drug smuggling (there is other evidence in later testimony from XXXXXX. which confirms sections of Plumlee's testimony. This defies comprehension. Plumlee described his undercover activities to this Committee, including the practice of the Mexican police and its military protecting drug traffickers, something that will be described in considerably more detail in later testimony. Transcribed summation of tape of 1991 Congressional testimony of former CIA contract pilot William Robert “Tosh” Plumlee

[A link to full testimony, which was classified sensitive by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, can be found here.]

While a great deal of the corruption plagues the law enforcement agencies in Mexico, the Mexican military and other institutions are also vulnerable to the corrupting influences of the narcotics trade. — 1997 Congressional testimony of Thomas A. Constantine, DEA administrator

… Despite increased intelligence efforts targeting the command and control and identifying the leaders of the Carrillo-Fuentes organization, key lieutenants have not been apprehended in Mexico. For example, Eduardo Gonzalez-Quirarte has been identified as a key manager for the Carrillo-Fuentes organization along the border. He is responsible for arranging shipments of cocaine across the border and ensuring that money is transferred back into Mexico. He has links to corrupt elements of the Mexican military and the law enforcement community, which makes him a significant leader in future Carrillo-Fuentes operations. — 1998 Congressional testimony of Donnie Marshall, DEA Chief of Operations

According to an extensive classified report by the Drug Enforcement Administration and other intelligence assessments, the arrest last year of the former official, [Mexican] Gen. Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, followed secret meetings between Mexican Army officers and the country's biggest drug mafia, officials say.

Exactly what transpired remains unclear. But the officials say there is growing evidence that military officers discussed a deal to let the drug gang operate in exchange for huge bribes, and that some such arrangement may have been in place before the gang's leader, Amado Carrillo Fuentes, died after extensive plastic surgery last year. — March 1998 story in the New York Times

• The Mexican military also has experienced narco-related corruption within its ranks. February 2000 Congressional testimony of William Ledwith, DEA chief of international operations

The investigation ultimately revealed the involvement of corrupt Mexican law enforcement elements, military and public officials, in the execution of [DEA special agent Enrique “Kiki”] Camarena's murder. — May 2000 Congressional testimony of William Ledwith, DEA chief of international operations

• In interviews, four senior U.S. officials, a senior Mexican intelligence official and three independent analysts all expressed concern about the expanding role of the Mexican military in the drug war. … 
"Corruption is more serious in the Mexican military than just about any other Latin American military," said a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "The reason is not that the Mexicans are any more venal; it's that we're talking about huge amounts of money because drugs flow into Mexico and that makes them more vulnerable." — December 2005 story in the Dallas Morning News

The Mexican army has experienced thousands of desertions in the last few years. According to an investigation of the newspaper Reforma, between 2001 and 2006, the army has lost an average of 30,000 members per year. Although the rate of desertion has decreased to 17,000 in 2007, this is still a very significant number; especially considering where these soldiers go after leaving the armed forces. — May 2008 blog entry on the Foreign Policy Association Web site

• A list of over 20 military agents allegedly for hire was found in one of the Beltrán Leyva brothers' safe houses in Culiacán, Sinaloa.
The information that was in a house belonging to Alfredo "El Mochomo" Beltrán Leyva, detained this past January 21, reveals that the Sinaloa [narco-trafficking] clan had in its possession files from the Assistant Attorney General's Office for Specialized Investigation of Organized Crime (SIEDO in its Spanish initials) and from the Sinaloa Attorney General's office about investigations that were in process. — October 2008 story published by Narco News (a translation of a story published by the Mexican newspaper Reforma)

More Food for Thought

Despite the widely published mainstream media meme that 90 percent of the weapons being used by Mexican narco-criminals are traced back to U.S. gun dealers,” it seems there is another part of that narrative that is not being communicated — likely because it undermines the meme itself.

Last week, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, held a hearing in the field — in El Paso, Texas, located along the U.S. border with Mexico. In his opening statement for that hearing, Kerry conceded the following:

Only about one out of every four weapons seized by Mexican authorities last year was submitted to the ATF so they could be traced back to purchasers and sellers in the United States. The Mexican government should provide the ATF with fuller access to these weapons.

So our own State Department concedes that the military weapons being shipped to Mexico are filtered through the Mexican military and ample public record indicates that this military has a history of corruption, yet the State Department since 2007 has only conducted end-use monitoring investigations on a paltry three arms-export transactions approved for Mexico through the DCS program — which in fiscal 2007 alone was responsible for shipping more than a quarter billion dollars worth of military hardware to Mexico. Still, we are asked to accept the State Department’s assurance that all is well with the program and there is no record of arms being diverted from the Mexican military to drug trafficking organizations.

And now a U.S. Senator concedes that three-quarters of the weapons seized by Mexican authorities are never sent to the U.S. for tracing. So where do those weapons come from, and why is the Mexican government failing to “provide the ATF with fuller access to these weapons” as Kerry is encouraging?

On top of these puzzling dilemmas, we now discover from a recent report by the Washington Post that former military commanders are taking over local Mexican police commands and supplying them “with automatic weapons and grenades.”

From the Washington Post story:

The government is attempting to vet and retrain 450,000 officers, most at the state and municipal levels, employing lie detectors, drug tests, psychological profiling and financial reviews to weed out corruption and incompetence. Nearly half of the 56,000 officers vetted so far have failed.

The government is also forging agreements with each of Mexico's 31 states and its federal district, Mexico City, for the military to deliver automatic rifles, high-caliber ammunition, grenade launchers and fragmentation grenades to state and municipal officers who obtain federally mandated security clearances.

Are we to believe, in this drug war, that lie detector machines, psychological profiling and sparse Blue Lantern reviews are any match for the devil’s bargain that marks the narco-trafficking trade: "Plata o Plomo" — take the money or you’ll be plugged with lead?

Sandra Avila Beltran, born to a family of drug smugglers and married twice to former Mexican police commanders turned traffickers who have both since been assassinated, is now herself sitting in prison facing narco-trafficking charges in Mexico.

In a recent interview with CBS’s 60 Minutes, Beltran makes it clear, in her mind, that it is the narco-syndicates — empowered by the billions of dollars that flow from prohibited drug sales north of the Mexican border — that have the inside track in this war:

Large shipments of drugs can come into the Mexican ports or airports…. It’s obvious and logical. The government has to be involved in everything that is corrupt. … You’d have to wipe out the government to wipe out drug trafficking.

Stay tuned….


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