U.S. Drug-War Policy Planting the Seeds of Civil-Society Destruction

Escalating Murder Rate Is Byproduct of Decades of Legal and Covert U.S. Arms Shipments to Latin America

The rising death toll, more than 40,000 lives to date, in Mexico’s drug war has clearly been inflamed by President Felipe Calderon’s U.S.-appeasing militaristic policies, but many of the weapons fueling that war were put on the ground years ago via the vast quantities of arms shipped into Mexico and Central America, often covertly, during the civil and proxy wars waged in Latin America during the Cold War.

Evidence of that assertion is now beginning to surface in spades, through leaked State Department cables and congressional testimony deemed classified even until this day.

But the foreshadowing of the current Mexican death toll also can be found in documents easily accessed via the Internet, such as a 1998 white paper penned by Lora Lumpe, then director of the Arms Sales Monitoring Project for the Federation of American Scientists, excerpted below:

No one knows how many of these weapons are currently deployed with armies, criminals, and private security forces around the world, but estimates are in the hundreds of millions. The vast supply, though not directly causing conflicts, may encourage the resort to warfare (as opposed to other means of conflict resolution or state formation) and lengthen the duration of wars, thus creating more demand….

… Many small arms of U.S. origin (some authorized, some not) enter into illegal circulation. In 1994, foreign governments reported 6,238 unlawfully acquired, U.S.-origin firearms. More than half — 3,376 — were discovered in Mexico.

… A critical element of any good-faith change in U.S. foreign policy on small arms is a ban on the covert supply of weapons to insurgent forces by the U.S. government. … The U.S. must bear direct responsibility for collecting and destroying the massive quantities of light weaponry that it peddled in the 1980s.

A 2008 article penned by analysts with the Center for Defense Information (CDI) in Washington, D.C., depicts a similar grim causation for the situation now existing in Mexico, which in recent months has given rise to a nonviolent movement to end the bloodshed, a movement inspired by poet/journalist Javier Sicilia and the brutal murder of his son and six of his friends, all innocent victims of Mexico’s drug war.

From the CDI article:

Small arms and gun violence present the most dramatic threat to public safety in Latin America and the Caribbean. After decades of uncontrolled proliferation, at least 45 million to 80 million small arms and light weapons — that is, weapons operated by an individual or small group, including handguns, assault rifles, grenades, grenade launchers, and even man portable surface to air missiles — are circulating throughout the region. Gunshots kill between 73,000 and 90,000 people each year in Latin America, and guns are the leading cause of death among Latin Americans between the ages of 15 and 44, according to World Health Organization estimates.

… Millions of small arms and lights weapons continue to circulate throughout Latin America, leaving a path of destruction, crime, and conflict. Whether these weapons were provided to fight the Cold War or to fuel drug and gang wars, through legal or illicit channels, their presence is responsible, in part, for the crime and violence that has retarded development throughout Latin America.

To be sure, weapons shipped to Latin America during the 1980s and early 1990s Cold War era are not the only source of small arms (which include machine guns, grenades and anti-tank weapons, or LAWs) now creating havoc in the drug war in Mexico — which is spreading in its violent scope across the major drug transit routes in Central America as well. Weapons shipments by U.S. private companies, sanctioned by the U.S. State Department and Pentagon, are still flooding Latin America in quantities tallied in the hundreds of millions of dollars annually – often delivered to corrupt state players that divert them to the dirty narco wars of our era.

A recently released State Department cable obtained by the whistleblower organization WikiLeaks reveals:

Due to unreliable GOG [Government of Guatemala] counterparts, private sector practices that lack transparency, porous borders, and generally weak law enforcement, meaningful end-use checks cannot be done on [weapons] sales to Guatemala. Guatemala is a violent country awash in legal and illegal firearms. … It is not currently feasible to evaluate compliance with US export end-use regulations. …

Even with that grim report coming out of the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala way back in 2006, the U.S. State Department sanctioned the delivery of up to $36 million in arms shipments, via private U.S. companies, to that nation in fiscal years 2008 and 2009, according to government reports [links here and here].

And this pipeline of arms was put in motion even while reports continue to come out of the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala painting a dire picture of the continued collapse of civil society in that nation due to the drug war.

From a State Department cable drafted in early 2009:

Confronted by the threat from three narco-trafficking groups, including recently arrived "Zetas" from Mexico, the local Rule of Law (ROL) apparatus in the [Guatemalan] northern city of Coban [Guatemala] is no longer capable of dealing with the most serious kinds of crime. What is happening there is typical of many rural areas of Guatemala. Sources tell us that Coban's police are corrupt and allied with traffickers, and sometimes even provide them escort. Some judges and prosecutors are too frightened to do their jobs properly; others are in league with the traffickers.


Though it is bad enough that current U.S. weapons sales policies continue to feed the drug-war monster, the equally troubling reality is that we as a nation have failed to learn from our past mistakes —errors in foreign policy judgment that have already left Latin America awash in blood, guns and bullets, with a good share of that weaponry introduced into the region via covert and black operations. The blowback from that failed judgment has created a growing wave of violence in Latin America, a situation not unlike a Chinese finger puzzle, with one finger, representing militarization and the other prohibition, each pulling against the other as more pressure is exerted and all to no avail in escaping the trap.

Tosh Plumlee, a long-time CIA asset and contract pilot during the infamous Iran/Contra era, tried to blow the whistle on the misguided U.S. covert operations that were flooding Mexico and Central America with weapons during the 1980s and early 1990s. For his efforts, which included testifying before Congress, he was silenced and marginalized by the very bureaucracies, the Pentagon and CIA, that had employed him as an operative to assist in carrying out their various black ops.

Following is part of what Plumlee told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee back in 1991, a transcribed summation of a tape of his 1991 Congressional testimony that is still deemed classified [link to full testimony here]:

… 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.

… Mr. Plumlee provided the Committee with various documents relating to the drug trafficking by U.S. forces, one of which was marked DEA, Secret, dated February 13, 1990, which stated in part:

“… The reporter form Vera Cruz’ (FNU) Valasco, before his death (1985) was allegedly developing information that, using the DFS [a former Mexican intelligence agency] as cover, the CIA established and maintained clandestine airfields to refuel aircraft loaded with weapons which were destined for Honduras and Nicaragua.

American Pilots of these aircraft would load up with cocaine in Barranquilla, Colombia and enroute to Miami, Florida, refuel in Mexico at [a] narcotrafficker who operated CIA-maintained airstrips. ….

More from Plumlee’s testimony:

…. Mr. William Holden of Senator Gary Hart’s staff received additional information and has confirmed that Mr. Plumlee gave precise details, documents, and other CIA sensitive information to the Senator.

… In a February 14, 1991, letter to Senator John Kerry, Senator Hart stated:

“… Mr. Plumlee raised several issues including that covert U.S. intelligence agencies were directly involved in the smuggling and distribution of drugs. He provided my staff with detailed maps and names of alleged covert landing strips in Mexico, Costa Rica, Louisiana, Arizona, Florida and California where the alleged aircraft cargoes of drugs were off-loaded and replaced with Contra [Nigaraguan insurgency forces supported by the U.S.] military supplies....

Those weapons, delivered by the plane load, along with hundreds of thousands of other weapons shipped to Latin America, both legally and covertly, during the Cold War era are now turning up at crime scenes and in stash houses in this era’s dirty war — the war for drugs now being played out in Mexico.

Former CIA case manager Leutrell Osbourne warned of this outcome during an interview he did with Narco News in 2009.

Osborne, who oversaw spies and assets for the CIA in more than 30 countries on three continents during his 27 years with the agency, says if he if he could tell President Barack Obama anything, it would be to focus the CIA and other U.S. intel agencies on counterintelligence and to do away completely with covert action, which is defined as anything involving dirty tricks — assassinations, state-sponsored terrorism, drug running, weapons trafficking, coups, psy-ops propaganda, etc.

“I’d like to get to Obama and help him, to let him know what he needs to cut out,” Osborne said.

The reason covert operational tactics need to be eliminated, Osborne explains, is because they are not effective and have been the source of most of the CIA’s problems over the years. He says the blowback against the United States from those covert operations is always more damaging than any benefit attained.

A Spreading Virus

Thomas M. Harrigan, assistant administrator and chief of operations for the DEA, earlier this month testified before a Senate committee about the current environment in Central America with respect to the drug war. He described a dire landscape in which all progress toward civil society since the end of the civil wars of the 1980s is in danger of being rolled back:

Central American governments have stated that drug trafficking and the increasing presence of both dangerous transnational gangs and powerful Mexican cartels, such as Sinaloa and Los Zetas, are the biggest factors behind rising violence levels in the region. Central America is a key transit route for cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine precursors heading to Mexico and the United States. ….

According to 2010 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) information, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador currently suffer from some of the highest murder rates in the Western Hemisphere, with rates at nearly one homicide per 1000 inhabitants. In both Guatemala and El Salvador, the rate of killing is now higher than during their civil wars, and Guatemala’s government estimates that at least two-fifths of murders are linked to the drug trafficking. The presence of Mexican drug cartels and gangs in the region has also undermined much of the political and judicial stability that emerged following the resolution of the region’s civil wars, and is known to have increased corruption levels in already shaky criminal justice systems.

That increasing instability and corruption in Central America, fueled by the twin U.S. and Mexican drug war policies of prohibition and militarization, is blowing back on Mexico now, in terms of an escalating flood of arms into that nation and a resulting spiraling homicide rate that daily produces more victims with no consequence to the killers.

Several State Department cables made public recently by WikiLeaks offer evidence backing up that claim.

A 2009 cable from the U.S. Consulate in Monterrey, Mexico, indicates that U.S. government investigators traced the origin of various grenades discovered in stash houses in Mexico, including one used in an attack on a Mexican TV station, back to U.S. military shipments made to El Salvador in the early 1990s.

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.

Yet another State Department cable drafted in 2008 and made public recently by WikiLeaks traces a number of anti-tank weapons (shoulder-fired weapons that discharge missiles) recovered in Mexico and Colombia, as well as several high-powered U.S.-made 40-mm grenades, back to U.S. weapons shipments delivered to Honduras in the mid-1980s and early 1990s.

On July 9, 2008, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) published a report entitled "Honduras: Military Weapons Fuel Black Arms Market". According to the DIA report, three light anti-tank weapons (LAWs) were recovered in Mexico City in January 2008, and one was recovered in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico in April 2008.

Six more LAWs were recovered on San Andres Island, Colombia in March 2008. Factory markings analysis of lot and serial numbers undertaken by DIA's Military Materiel Identification Division (CHUCKWAGON)/MIO-5) indicates that these LAWs were part of a shipment of fifty sent to the Honduran 2nd Infantry Battalion's TESON training element. The LAWs were originally transferred to Honduras in 1992 as part of a U.S. Foreign Military Sales program. (C/HND)

In April 2008, an investigation undertaken by the Honduran military found that the 2nd Infantry Battalion's TESON training element could not account for 26 of these fifty LAWs. (S/NF) In addition, at least two U.S.-produced M433 40-mm grenades have been recovered in Colombia and Mexico, according to credible sources with direct access cited in the DIA report. The only foreign military sale of M433 40-mm grenades was to Honduras in 1985.

And as evidence that the U.S. weapons shipped, legally or covertly, to Latin America in the Cold War era respect no borders today, yet another State Department cable released by WikiLeaks reports that between November 2004 and April 2006, “[Colombian] paramilitaries turned over 9,521 rifles and 195 machine guns (the balance of the 15,000 WEAPONS were handed over outside this period).

“Of these, 1,877 were made in the United States and brought into Colombia by trafficking rings,” states the cable, drafted in 2006 by the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá.

It is worth emphasizing that the 2008 State Department cable referencing the anti-tank weapons traced back to a 1992 U.S. weapons shipment to Honduras indicates that six of those LAWs were “discovered [in April 2008] on San Andres Island, Colombia.”

Late last month, the Associate Press reported that Mexican authorities discovered a stash of weapons in a hidden room in a home in Juarez, Mexico — just across the border from El Paso, Texas. Included in that cache were “three anti-aircraft guns, dozens of grenades, a grenade launcher, AK-47s and other high-powered weapons,” the AP reported.

In early 2009, former CIA-operative Plumlee reported to Narco News that he, too, with the help of some of his intelligence world contacts, had discovered, and visited, a similar stash of weapons in a warehouse in Juarez. Narco News reported at the time that Plumlee claimed the warehouse was packed with U.S. military weapons — including grenades, grenade launchers, LAW anti-tank weapons, M16 rifles and night-vision equipment.

Plumlee conceded that he did 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 were subsequently relocated. Plumlee, in a recent interview with Narco News, said he also does not rule out that U.S. intelligence agencies are still up to some of the same dirty tricks [covert ops] that were employed in the Iran/Contra era, “because that MO [modus operandi] worked, nothing was done to stop it,” he adds.

Adding to that concern is the fact that, to date, narco-traffickers are not employing anti-tank weapons in Mexico’s drug war, yet they continue to show up in in significant numbers in weapons stashes discovered by law enforcers in Mexico. One DEA source, who asked not to be identified, agreed that “there’s not much use for [anti-tank] missiles in the drug war,” leading that source to speculate that those types of weapons may well be part of a much broader black-market arms trade that represents yet another profit center in the ever expanding war for drugs.

Regardless of whether the CIA, Pentagon or other elements of the U.S. intelligence bureaucracy are currently engaged in covertly shipping arms into Latin America [and the presumption of history is against them on that front], their past track record of doing so is already proving to be a curse on Mexico and Latin America overall, and for the victims of current drug-war policy.

And the flow of weapons, like those discovered in stash houses in Mexico, or on islands in Colombia, will continue to re-circulate, and be expanded, until U.S. drug-war policy is changed, until the leadership in the U.S. is made to understand that its citizens, like their brothers and sisters in Mexico, are “hasta la madre” [completely fed up with the drug war] and want to see “no mas sangre” [no more blood]!

At a press conference in late May announcing a “Civil Caravan” that will depart Cuernavaca, near Mexico City, on June 4 and arrive in Juarez for a June 10 collective action in that drug-war ravaged city, Mexican writer Sicilia, a central figure in Mexico’s rising nonviolent resistance to the drug war, summed up the issue succinctly: 

“The United States has imposed war on us, its legalized weapons are much more terrible than the drugs because they are severe and spreading and are killing us.”

Stay tuned……

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