The Borderline Spectator

Arming the Cartels

Why was the U.S. government arming Mexican drug dealers?

By 8.26.11

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The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives (ATF) program involving the sale of guns to intermediaries who would smuggle the weapons into Mexico has been "blown" (using the intelligence parlance for compromised). The congressional investigation of the project "Fast and Furious" produced considerable contradiction along with little hard information, while the White House aided the probe not at all.

When the story first broke, it was the size of the operation that attracted the most attention: 2,500 weapons -- semi and fully automatic, as well as 34 powerful .50 caliber sniper rifles. The ATF spokesman said the movement of this vast armory through "straw" buyers was intended to identify Mexican drug cartel leaders and gun smuggling routes across the border into the United States. If this project actually expected to be successful, it would have had to have a very sophisticated method of tracking the weapons. It appears that the congressional committee did not inquire regarding that point and the ATF witnesses were not about to volunteer this highly classified information.

In reality, the entire activity was clearly implied as early as April 2009 during the meeting in Mexico City between both American and Mexican presidents. That much heralded session specifically noted American willingness to contain the north-south flow of guns through what was quoted as "gun tracing." To underline this commitment, President Obama pointed out that he had marked $10 million for "gun control" in the February '09 stimulus package.

Whatever was to be the tracing method obviously had no control mechanisms. Weapons from the F&F project were found to be involved in crimes in four cities in Arizona and one in Texas, eventually totaling eleven crime scenes in the U.S. And these were in addition to the two weapons recovered after the killing of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry. While such events may be considered "acceptable casualties" or "collateral damage" by ATF and Justice Department operational planners, field agents don't enjoy such cavalier justifications.

Aside from the inconsistency of attempting to run a covert "gun walking" project where military-type gun sales are carefully monitored by local, state, and several federal agencies, the availability and distribution of 2,500 weapons clearly would draw attention. The question also arises as to why ATF needed a special project to track arms sales to cartels in the first place. Cartels have had numerous sources of weapons for years -- including the Mexican army and police. U.S. programs to assist in arming the Mexican anti-drug forces have already inadvertently provided the drug cartels with considerable armament and equipment through illicit Mexican military resale.

Nobody wants to discuss it, but it appears there may have been other reasons to mount "Fast and Furious." The ATF project may have been purposely aimed at arming certain Mexican drug elements in order to enable one chosen cartel operation to gain superiority over another. Why would the ATF have wanted to do that? There could be several explanations, but the one given to the congressional committee -- to track arms sales -- just does not pass the smell test.

According to the report by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Carlos Canino, Acting ATF Attache in the U.S. Embassy in Mexico, referred to the F&F black gun running operation as "the perfect storm of idiocy." Canino went on to say, "We armed the cartel." Apparently he meant the several cartels that have been mentioned as sites where F&F weapons have been recovered (Sinaloa, La Familia, and the El Teo branch of the old Tijuana organization).

As illogical as intentional arming of Mexican drug cartels may appear, the possibility exists that some ranking officers in Justice and ATF perceived that those delivering such arms would become valued assets for the cartel leaders. This would have the potential of placing ATF agents in a trusted relationship with command personalities in drug trafficking. The cartels certainly had alternate sources for weapon acquisition, though with more difficulty and at a higher price. It would have been argued within the ATF -- and even on the National Security Council Staff level -- that the weapons they provided would not in themselves be something to which the chosen cartels did not already have access.

Such thinking is not far separated from the idea that certain cartels are preferable to others, e.g. because of an apparent willingness to avoid civilian deaths. It is important to remember that the Calderon administration has as its top priority the reduction in civilian deaths. Public safety has a political impact in Mexico. Shipping vast amounts of drugs north to the U.S. does not. Well-contained battling between cartels that results in the domination of key Mexican states by one cartel theoretically could provide a unified vehicle with which Mexico City could negotiate. This has occurred before. Was this also in the minds of the ATF planners?

Scott Stewart has made clear in his recent authoritative analysis for Stratfor that the cartels fear the potential of American intervention capability along the U.S.-Mexico border. Poorly thought-out efforts such as project "Fast & Furious" do nothing to maintain the cartels' fears of American counteractions.

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.