Swapping guns for cash

This is a short news spot by Al Jazeera English about a gun buyback program at the end of the year in Iztapalapa, a district in the capital where crime is high. I believe the gun buyback program has come to an end. In a nation awash with guns, it is probably only symbolic. But I think it sends a good sign to the citizenry that authorities are doing what they can.

I'm back in Mexico City after being out of the country, and am surprised by the level of smog in the city. The TV news says it's partly because of the wild abandon in which people set off fireworks for New Year's. Could it be?


A new U.S. regional sidekick: Colombia

The Lone Ranger had Tonto. Fred Flintstone had Barney Rubble. Batman had Robin. And the United States has Colombia.

Or so it seems when it comes to public security issues in the Western Hemisphere -- and even in Afghanistan. Colombia is becoming the U.S. sidekick, the go-to guy, subcontractor Numero Uno, on all matters security-related.

With dollars tight in Washington, the Obama administration (and the Bush administration before it) increasingly has asked Bogota to shoulder some of the burden on training police and prosecutors around the hemisphere.

After all, Colombia has vast experience in battling insurgents and drug cartels, dating back to the emergence of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, rebels to 1964. When I lived in Bogota for nearly half a decade in the latter part of the 1990s, the Attorney General’s Office was a heavily guarded bunker. Upon entry, there was a sandpit where one was expected to discharge any remaining cartridges in one’s sidearm.

The intelligence unit of the National Police was good and getting better.  I’d regularly stop in to see a young lieutenant colonel who was in charge of the unit. Today, Oscar Naranjo is the national police chief with a hemispheric reputation.

Just how much the Colombians have done has not been made public. Much of it is under wraps. Few will talk about Colombian help in spotting and tailing drug planes leaving Venezuela for Central America. Colombia-Venezuela relations are too tense to risk provoking them with this kind of information.

But with last weekend’s Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, the State Department issued a number of statements and “fact sheets” regarding Colombia’s broadened role.

This one noted that Colombian trainers over the past three years have trained 11,000 police officers from 21 Latin American and African countries, and even in Afghanistan.
Curiously, the webpage omits the following paragraph about Colombian activity in Mexico that was included in the U.S. "fact sheet" emailed to me:

“Colombia has trained more than 6,000 Mexican federal and state law enforcement personnel, over 500 prosecutors and judicial personnel, and 24 Mexican helicopter pilots. To complement this bilateral relationship, the U.S.-Mexico Merida Initiative supports a training program being conducted by Colombia’s National Police Junglas for the Mexican Federal Police. Colombia and Mexico are sharing information, are seeking to expand their bilateral extradition treaty, and are planning to conclude an evidence-sharing agreement.”

It went on to say that “Colombia's security assistance in the region also includes training programs and exchanges with Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Jamaica, Haiti, Peru, and Paraguay.”

And all this is only what is said publicly. Like a good sidekick, Colombia has learned to remain silent about all it does.


The free-for-all in Mexico's prisons

Mexico Prison Fight_Nost
Inmates at a state prison in Ciudad Juarez whipped out their guns in a deadly clash Monday night, and when a shootout ended 17 inmates lay dead

The fight was between members of Los Aztecas, a gang aligned with the Juarez cartel, and Los Mexicles, enforcers for the Sinaloa drug cartel in the border city.

I’ve been in the state prison in Juarez and heard the prison director talk about why the walls are so high between cellblocks. It’s to prevent this kind of shootout. Gang members are sequestered, according to their gang affiliation.

Foto-Cereso But what rarely gets addressed is the corruption that allows family members to bring guns, dope, cell phones and all matter of other stuff in to the inmates.

Prison corruption has emerged in numerous ways in the last week or so.  Last week, press reports and photos talked about the “luxury suites” at the state penitentiary in Hermosillo, capital of Sonora state. The 130 suites are air-conditioned and equipped with plush furniture, wooden cabinets, TVs and kitchens. 

The state’s prison director, Ricardo Ornelas, said he’d heard reports the prison also contained illegal barber shops, grocery stores, markets, pawnshops and even a shellfish bar.

Clearly the suites are designed so that narcos won’t have to undergo undue hardship when they do “hard” time.


You, too, can kill like a cartel hit man

Call of Juarez The Cartel Screenshot
Chalk it up to bad taste, and a strong profit motive. 

In a few months, the video game company Ubisoft will release "Call of Juarez: The Cartel," the latest installment in a series. The company’s website describes the video game:

You'll embark on a bloody road trip from Los Angeles to Juarez, Mexico, immersing yourself in a gritty plot with interesting characters and a wide variety of game play options.

Take justice into your own hands in this modern Western shooter.

While details of the game are sketchy, a picture on the company's Facebook page shows characters toting big guns walking down a street in a bleak urban setting, i.e. Ciudad Juarez, Mexico’s most violent city, which tallied 3,100 plus murders last year.

Not surprisingly, Texas police chiefs are not happy with the video game. The following is from a story in the Brownsville Herald:

“Unfortunately there are companies that are looking to capitalize on the violent situation in Mexico which has had a very negative impact on the country,” said Brownsville Police Chief Carlos Garcia. “There have been spillover cases in certain areas of our country with cases of kidnappings and murders. This is a serious topic and this is just another violent video game.”

While the game is supposed to be set in Ciudad Juarez, Garcia said that any game dealing with organized crime sets a bad example for teenagers.

“It doesn’t matter if it deals with the cartel in Juarez, the Gulf Cartel or the Sinaloa Cartel. It is simply not something that is appropriate for our youth,” the chief said. “This leaves lasting images and ideas in teenagers who get caught up in the game and may try to make it a reality and live the violent lifestyle they see in these games.”


The TPMMuckraker website got this comment from Ubisoft:

Call of Juarez: the Cartel is purely fictional and developed by the team at Techland for entertainment purposes only. While Call of Juarez the Cartel touches on subjects relevant to current events in Juarez, it does so in a fictional manner that makes the gaming experience feel more like being immersed in an action-movie than in a real-life situation. Ubisoft is an entertainment company and our intention is to create a unique experience for video game fans.


Reuters did a story on the game’s imminent release which included the following paragraphs:

Community leaders in the troubled Mexican manufacturing city of Ciudad Juarez, which averaged eight murders a day last year including shootings, beheadings and torture killings, said the game glorifies and trivializes the violence for youngsters already drawn to crime.

“Lots of kids say they want to be a hitman, because they are the ones that get away with everything,” said youth worker Laurencio Barraza.

His Independent Popular Organization works with youngsters in the city's dirt-poor tin and plastic-roofed shanties that serve as both a recruiting ground and killing field for the cartels.

“This glorifies violence, as if victims were just another number or another bonus,” he added.



The huge mark-up for weapons

Stratfor, the Austin-based company that does strategic forecasting, has an interesting new report on the supply of guns to Mexico used by the criminal narcotics organizations. The report, available here, suggests that the view once expressed in a U.S. government report that 90 percent of weapons used by the cartels originate in the United States is a myth. The true figure may be significantly lower.

But what I found interesting is their analysis of the mark-up price of weapons. Just as you or I would buy daily groceries at Safeway rather than Dean and Deluca, or any other pricy food mart, the cartels also look for the cheapest way to buy weapons.

That said, they have a lot of cash and will spend whatever is necessary. Here's the cogent part of the report:

To really understand Mexico’s gun problem, however, it is necessary to recognize that the same economic law of supply and demand that fuels drug smuggling into the United States also fuels gun smuggling into Mexico. Black-market guns in Mexico can fetch up to 300 percent of their normal purchase price — a profit margin rivaling the narcotics the cartels sell. Even if it were somehow possible to hermetically seal the U.S.-Mexico border and shut off all the guns coming from the United States, the cartels would still be able to obtain weapons elsewhere — just as narcotics would continue to flow into the United States from other places. The United States does provide cheap and easy access to certain types of weapons and ammunition, but as demonstrated by groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, weapons can be easily obtained from other sources via the black arms market — albeit at a higher price.

There has clearly been a long and well-documented history of arms smuggling across the U.S.-Mexico border, but it is important to recognize that, while the United States is a significant source of certain classes of weapons and ammunition, it is by no means the source of 90 percent of the weapons used by the Mexican cartels, as is commonly asserted.




Seizing AK-47s at the Texas border

110113harlingen_sm To judge by the comments that poured in after I wrote this story about the smuggling of automatic weapons from the U.S. to Mexico, many Americans don’t believe that it is happening. And they told me so in dozens of emails and postings.

They say the Mexican drug cartels use automatic weapons, not the semiautomatic weapons available at gun shops in Texas and Arizona.  

The cartels are stealing their weapons from the Mexican army, getting them from Central America and buying them on the world market. But getting them at a gun shop in Houston or Phoenix? No way, Jose.

In fact, it is not hard to alter an AK-47 semi-automatic weapon into a fully automatic one. A Mexican army general showed me how. And regardless of what some readers say, the guns are flowing across the border. Just today, the customs and immigration branch of Homeland Security announced that it had caught a pickup truck with 15 AK-47s coming across the border (press release here).  

“Federal agents received a call from Hidalgo Police Department after officers conducted a traffic stop on the city's east side on highway 281. During the officer's routine inspection of the vehicle, they identified suspicious activity. ICE HSI agents arrived at the scene of the traffic stop and took the vehicle to the Hidalgo Port of Entry where U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers conducted an intensive examination of the vehicle. It was during the examination that officers discovered the rifles hidden inside the fuel tank of the pickup truck.

"Weapons trafficking fuels violence by criminal organizations and threatens the security of communities along our borders and throughout the country," said Jerry Robinette, special agent in charge of ICE HSI in San Antonio." 

Authorities arrested the driver and the passenger, Antonio Ibarra, 41, and Edwardo Ibarra, 37, respectively, on state charges for firearms smuggling.



Armored cars at the mall

At one of the local malls in Mexico City, we were walking along and spotted the vehicle on display above to advertise the services of a company that armors vehicles. In this case, it’s an armored Jeep. On the window of the Jeep is displayed the kind of caliber gunfire it could withstand. I noticed this particular one was not armored against the 7.62 caliber ammo used in AK-47s, the assault weapon favored by the narcos. So what good is “sort of” armoring? If you’re gonna do it, might as well go all the way. The kind of people shopping at this mall are the kind that have money _ which means they likely have security concerns. 

After taking the photo above, a young saleswoman came up to me and told me no photos were allowed. She asked me to erase the photo. I talked my way out of it.



Mexico's spate of hand grenades

Take a wild guess at how many hand grenades the Mexican authorities have confiscated from the bad guys from Dec. 10, 2006, through Dec. 23 of last year:

1) 416

2) 1,809

3) 4,002

4) 7,516

The correct answer is No. 4, according to a joint statement over the weekend by the Attorney General’s Office, the army, the navy, the Interior Ministry and the Public Security Secretariat.

Mexico is awash in guns. Everyone knows that.  Even if it only has one official gun store, as the Washington Post noted a few days ago in this story. But it is also flooded with hand grenades. From what I am told, some of the grenade stockpiles are coming up from leftover military depots in Central America from the 1980s.

Some have been taken/bought/stolen from the Mexican army itself. A remainder are homemade grenades. The criminal organizations buy what are known as “hulls,” or the outer shells. They obtain timing fuses and explosives themselves and arm the grenades. The homemade kind are not particularly reliable. News reports indicate that many don’t detonate.

What are the grenades used for? Generally, I’d say, intimidation. They’ve been thrown at newspaper offices, at parties of rival drug cartels, at a U.S. consulate, and at police precincts. The latter is occurring frequently in Nuevo Leon state where many police are either allied or on the payroll of criminal groups. Rival groups trying to break the police/cartel alliance toss a couple of grenades at the police stations. A powerful grenade blast or two can cause one to reevaluate one’s thinking.


Mexican-style violence creeps south

Honduras Violence_Nost
It’s been a day now since three armed assailants in the Honduran city of San Pedro Sula burst into a women’s shoe factory with assault rifles. When the shooting stopped, 18 people lay dead or dying.

Initial blame fell on rivalries between street gangs, the feared Mara Salvatrucha and the equally violent 18th Street gang, both of which have roots in Los Angeles and operate through much of Central America.

But on a deeper level, the attack is a reflection of how Mexican-style violence is moving south. The gangs of Central America are subcontracting out to the narcotics cartels of Mexico and adopting their violent tactics.

“Yesterday’s massacre is the kind that takes place in some Mexican states, where drug trafficking and hired killings are the rule. But the massacre yesterday occurred on a main street in San Pedro Sula,” the local La Prensa newspaper said, “and it stunned a nation that hasn’t seen this much bloodshed in one place in many years.”

The assailants in the attack used AK-47 assault rifles, a favorite of the Mexican cartels as well. In Mexico, the rifles are called “ram’s horns” because of the curved ammo chamber.

The cause of the slaughter isn’t clear. Honduran papers say the 18th Street gang controls the neighborhood around the factory, where a lot of small-scale drug dealing takes place. The owner of the factory said none of his workers wore the facial and neck tattoos common among gang members. Forensic workers found no drugs or weapons in the factory after the shooting.


A satirical cartoon touches a nerve

 The political cartoon above, done by Daryl Cagle and published on the msnbc.com website, has drawn a measure of outrage in Mexico. It shows the eagle on Mexico's flag flattened by a spray of bullets.

The Reforma newspaper published it on its front page this morning, and the comments poured into its own website.

If there is some sensitivity about a cartoon using the national flag, it’s partly because of the time of year. Mexico’s Independence Day on Sept. 16 is approaching, and flags are fluttering around the nation in anticipation. This year also marks the nation’s bicentennial.

Here are some of the comments so far this morning on Reforma’s website. I’ve translated most of them although one was in English.

“Miguel” wrote: “If we’re going to reflect reality, let’s show a U.S. flag with the words ‘property impounded.’

 “To the cartoonist” wrote: “I have an idea: tomorrow draw the american flag, instead of stars picture small dollars and guns, the withe stripes can be the white powder the americans keep inhaling, and the red stripes can be the blood they are responsible for. Its essential that they realize they are part of the problem... they will never help fix it because it is not their problem, but is the VERY LEAST they can do for the innocent victims.

“Lalo” wrote: “Ignorant gringo!”

“Isabel” wrote: “When they make fun of a Mexican or something that represents Mexico, they are making fun of all of us. If that flag has bullet holes in it, it is thanks to the total lack of arms control in the United States…”

“Mariana” wrote: “To get even, they should draw the bald eagle with a machinegun, an army beret, smoking a joint and wearing rose-colored skimpy underwear.



This blog is written by Tim Johnson, the Mexico bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers.

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