Strategy shifts from illegals to cash, weapons
By Carolyn Lochhead
The San Francisco Chronicle, March 18, 2009
Washington, DC — California lawmakers and the Obama administration have begun to shift U.S. border policy with Mexico, abruptly changing focus from illegal immigration to the flow of cash and weapons from the United States that is fueling a savage war between the Mexican government and powerful drug cartels.
'It is unacceptable to have 90 percent of the guns that are picked up in Mexico and used to shoot judges, police officers, mayors, kidnap innocent people and do terrible things come from the United States,' Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said at a hearing Tuesday. 'I am appalled that you can buy a 50-caliber sniper weapon anywhere and it's not restricted to a federal firearms dealer – you can just buy it.'
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose, chairwoman of the House Judiciary Committee panel on immigration and border security, faulted the Bush administration for focusing on northbound immigrants and neglecting southbound arms and drug cash that some analysts contend are destabilizing the Mexican government.
'It was a priority policy decision that tens of thousands of agents would go arrest dishwashers and busboys, meanwhile letting the machine guns get smuggled into Mexico, which has contributed to a very serious problem in Mexico that should concern all Americans,' Lofgren said in an interview.
'Nobody is for people not adhering to the rules, but if I had to say what's more threatening to me, some guy busing my table or some guy shipping machine guns down to the drug cartels, I'd say it's the latter.'
Government officials say 90 percent of the arms in the drug wars come from the United States, including grenades and rocket launchers. Southbound drug cash is estimated as high as $25 billion a year. With the death count last year in Mexico at 6,290, more than the United States has lost in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Mexican officials are pleading with U.S. counterparts to help stop the southbound smuggling and focus on reducing U.S. drug consumption.
Feinstein produced a letter from Mexican Ambassador Arturo Sarukhan urging 'shared responsibility' for the drug problem. Sarukhan said that in 2007, there were 7,600 federally licensed arms dealers in U.S. border states and 50,000 nationwide, but the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms inspected just 5 percent of them. An assault weapons ban sponsored by Feinstein expired in 2004, but there is no appetite in Congress to renew it.
Reasons for shift
The shift in focus is driven as much by changes on the ground as by the differing political priorities of Republican lawmakers seeking a crackdown on illegal immigration and Democrats favoring expansive new legalization. Anecdotal evidence suggests that U.S. demand for Mexican labor has plummeted with the economic downturn. Jobs in the construction industry have dried up, unemployment among Latinos has risen sharply, and California farmers say they are seeing farmworkers who left to become roofers return to the fields.
In roughly the same period, Mexican President Felipe Calderon, hailed as a hero by U.S. lawmakers, opened an all-out offensive against drug traffickers, throwing more than 45,000 military into the fight. The offensive ignited a violent reaction by the cartels and destabilized a drug market that had operated quietly with tacit regulation and protection by Mexican police. The traffickers are now battling each other and the government, with violence breaking out even in such resort towns as Cancun.
Tijuana, near San Diego, is the base of one of the most powerful cartels, the Arellano Felix Organization. The drug syndicates are using extreme violence and intimidation against government officials, judges and journalists, including beheadings, kidnappings and military-style offensives that at times overwhelm the government.
Same routes used
For the United States, the problem is not confined to the flow of drugs into the country, said Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Garden Grove Orange County, in an interview. 'The same routes and the same methods used to traffic drugs can be used to traffic undocumented workers,' she said.
Drug traffickers increasingly are taking over the human smuggling business once dominated by 'coyotes,' Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard told the Senate committee, turning illegal immigration into a 'high-dollar crime' prone to the same violence. He cited a case in which illegal immigrants were told after their arrival at a Phoenix drop house that the price for their smuggling had doubled. When one of the group objected, he was shot.
Lawmakers are not sure how high-powered weapons get in the hands of drug traffickers, but some come from the U.S. military, said Sanchez, who held a hearing on the traffickers last week. 'We don't keep very good track,' she said, noting reports she reads on the Armed Services Committee 'about how they don't know where $1.5 trillion of assets are located, I mean, the Department of Defense doesn't have a good scanner system for all the things it buys.'
She said some confiscated weapons are Vietnam War vintage, some are homemade, some come from other countries. 'Wherever there's a buck to be made, there are arms dealers,' Sanchez said, 'Including in the U.S.'
Although some analysts contend that Mexico is in danger of slipping into a 'failed state,' Anthony Placido, chief of intelligence for the Drug Enforcement Administration, testified at a Senate hearing on Monday that the violence is not a sign of state failure so much as 'acts of desperation' by the cartels and a sign that the Mexican offensive is succeeding. He cited an increase in the price and decline in quality of cocaine, which now arrives from Colombia over land routes through Mexico after U.S. law enforcement disrupted Caribbean shipping routes in the 1990s.
Asked repeatedly whether they needed more resources or changes in laws, U.S. officials said they have the tools they need. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has begun shifting enforcement focus to border violence, issuing a directive to that effect in January. U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents have conducted several recent high-profile raids confiscating millions of dollars in drug cash.
Congress this month allocated $300 million to help Mexico deal with the problem as part of an ongoing initiative that provides training, equipment, intelligence and other aid to Mexican law enforcement as part of the 2007 Merida Initiative signed by Calderon and former President George W. Bush.
U.S. and Mexican officials are also in discussions about how to beef up the minimal random screenings of travelers headed from the U.S. to Mexico.
Sanchez said when she has crossed the border going south, 'What happens is that they do what we call a random check: Your car comes across, you roll down your window, you push a little button. If it gets a red light, you get taken over into secondary for a further screening. If it gets a green light, you keep going.'
She said there is no profiling of vehicles or even cross checks of licenses in a data base.
'When we are crossing back into the U.S., our officers already have the license of your car. They know who should be driving it. They've got a rap sheet on you if that's the case. They are trained in looking at your responses, the weight of the car – is it too heavy for the number of people who should be in there? … This type of check is not done by the Mexican government at this point, to my knowledge.'