The Justice Department recently trumpeted a Federal court’s sentencing of two brothers who once operated Hesles Gun & Knife Shop in Eagle Pass, Texas. The brothers’ actions – attempting to smuggle 6,000 rounds of ammo and hundreds of accessories for AR-15 assault rifles into Mexico – hardly threatened national security. (Indeed, since AR-15s were the weapon of choice in recent attacks on a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado and a grade school in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, successful exports of such weapons might be seen as enhancing national security.)
But our government’s thwarting of the Hesles’ ambitions does make a pretty good story. For it appears that ATF agents, while watching the Gun & Knife Shop, saw boxes being loaded from one vehicle to another and driven toward the Mexican border. When the driver realized he has being followed, he ditched the contraband and fled. But $100,000-worth of weaponry was nonetheless traced to the Hesles brothers and good police work led to justice being done, in the form of 4-year prison terms for each man.
So kudos are indeed in order for a stolid stake-out, leading to an effective car chase, leading to a dumpster near a border and ultimately to handcuffs. Entirely lacking from the government’s account, however, was the context for this apparent success story. And the context tells a different story altogether.
For starters, Eagle Pass is a town of 26,000, perched on the US bank of the Rio Grande; but it is just an international bridge away from Piedras Negras in the Mexican state of Coahuila – the ancestral home of Los Zetas, arguably Mexico’s most violent drug and crime cartel. To be sure, cosmopolitan San Antonio – only 140 miles inland – probably exerts a gravitational pull toward post-frontier America; but Eagle Pass is twice as close (as the Rio flows) to Nuevo Laredo, the Mexican border town where Los Zeta’s super-boss was captured just last year.
Now, the members of Los Zetas – many of them graduates of Mexico’s anti-cartel special forces – are much worse bad guys than the Hesles brothers, responsible as they are for innumerable murders and appallingly gruesome atrocities. But here’s the thing: Los Zetas’ weapon of choice in the Mexican drug wars is also the AR-15; and the Hesles’ intended buyer of AR-15 accessories was – you guessed it – Los Zetas.
So far, so good, of course: Score one for the good guys in limiting Los Zetas’ lethal arsenal. But as nice as it may be that one sizable shipment of AR-15 gizmos did not reach Mexico, the fact remains that – despite Mexican laws which prohibit civilian ownership of all assault weapons – Mexico is awash in AR-15s and the like. And according to The Way of the Gun: Estimating Firearms Traffic Across the U.S.-Mexico Border by Topher McDougal and colleagues at the University of San Diego, there is every indication that the vast majority of those weapons come from the US.
How, then, are AR-15s getting from the US to Mexico? Relatively few, it appears, travel the route that our side interdicted when arresting the Hesles. Two others loom larger.
Route 1: Most Mexico-bound AR-15s are apparently bought legally at gun shops and shows in the US (not just in Texas) and ferried across Mexican border crossings in towns like Eagle Pass and cities like Laredo. The reward for trying is high, because guns bought in the US can sell in Mexico for five-plus times their US price; and the risk of getting caught is low: Indeed, McDougal estimates that Mexican and U.S. authorities seize only about 15 percent of the illicit firearms entering Mexico.
As recounted by the National Catholic Reporter, the low risk of is hardly surprising. “For scattered along the U.S. side of the 2,000-mile border are 6,700 licensed gun shops, convenient, if unwitting, supply points for illicit firearms that are loaded into trucks that daily trundle” over bridges like the one in Eagle Pass to Piedras Negras. And according to Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America, US border officials rarely scrutinize southbound vehicles (we are, of course, much more concerned with northbound drugs and children) while Mexican authorities check less than 20 percent of the time. “The U.S. authorities simply don’t have the capacity, [Isacson] said, adding, ‘Can you imagine the backup of traffic into El Paso if they checked every car crossing the bridge into Juárez each morning?’”
But this is appalling: Imagine Americans’ outrage if the reverse were true – if, for example, we were trying to keep tommy guns out of Al Capone’s hands and Mexico was waving them through via Eagle Pass! Reportedly, and not surprisingly, Mexican citizens are in fact appalled.
Route 2: As also noted by the National Catholic Reporter:
Mexican law requires all arms imports [including AR-15s licensed for export from the US by DDTC] to be vetted by the Ministry of Defense prior to being dispersed to their final destination – the military, government law enforcement agencies, or private security companies. But [as investigative journalist Bill Conroy says] Mexico’s military and law enforcement “are wracked with corruption and closely tied to organized crime – in fact, are part of it in many cases. So weapons diversion is another issue.”
The issue of diversion was the subject of a “sensitive” cable uncovered by Wikileaks, dated June 4, 2009. In it, the State Department asks Mexico how an AR-15, intended for the police or military, ended up in a criminal stash in a region wracked by violence. “Please account for the current location of the 1,030 AR-15 type rifles,” reads the cable. There is no response from Mexico on record.
The fact that such a cable was sent suggests that DDTC’s “Blue Lantern” program for investigating diversionary risks may have targeted Mexican authorities at least once. But DDTC’s 2012 report on Blue Lantern activities disclosed that the agency revoked only 5 export authorizations worldwide as a result of Blue Lantern checks conducted after authorizations were approved by DDTC – which makes it unlikely that Mexico receives the Blue Lantern attention it deserves.
Bottom line, of course, the NRA will never permit the restrictions on US sales of AR-15s that might stanch the supply of such weapons from within the US; and the US Congress, which can’t even appropriate funds to address the flood of children crossing the Rio Grande, is unlikely to fund border checks or Blue Lantern follow-ups sufficient to address the AR-15 problem.
But export control is a two-way street. We cannot expect other countries to respect our trade concerns if we constantly poor-mouth our ability to respect theirs.