There is simply no denying that the import-export strategy adopted by Mexico’s uber violent drug cartels (and supported by gangs and assorted criminals in the U.S.) is a recession proof business model: Drugs flow north – guns flow south.
The vast fortunes generated by drug sales have created an alternate reality in Mexico, where a war is being fought against the naked greed of drug trafficking organizations (DTOs). The human cost is staggering: according to an LA Times report 34,000 people have died in the five years since military operations began targeting DTOs.
That statistic fails to account for the bloodthirsty nature of cartel rivalry. After viewing many law enforcement-sensitive images of these atrocities, I am not alone in questioning our status as a civilized society. Yet somehow the scale of this ferocious battle, being waged along and across our southern border, has been lost in political intrigue.
It is only natural that our government has been sucked into this abyss, created by our craving for illegal narcotics. Most visible of our federal law enforcement efforts is the now infamous Operation Fast and Furious conducted by the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives.
BATFE, or ATF, as most people refer to this small federal agency, is currently in the crosshairs of Congress, the media and the American public. Make no mistake – the collective concerns are legitimate. The operation allowed criminals to ferry approximately 2,500 firearms into Mexico, including one linked to the fatal shooting of U.S. Border agent, Brian Terry.
Gun buy transactions are tricky operations. Basic safety and liability concerns usually mandate that the suspect(s) has no opportunity to walk away with a firearm. However, when we look at the way in which drug cartels and DTO’s operate, it makes you wonder whether the ATF finally decided to toss out the old playbook for the simple reason that it didn’t work.
This is not a defense of “gun-walking” per se, but it is an admission that the shape of our domestic law enforcement models do not fit the mold in the Mexican drug war. The better comparison might be the early days in the war in Afghanistan. At the time our special forces soldiers and CIA operatives were battling Taliban militias armed with American made missiles and firearms. That detail provided similar fodder for politicians and the media, however, the fact that it was a military operation, in what soon became a war zone, minimized the scandal.
Despite the obvious similarities to the Afghan war, the ATF scandal continues. The partisan wagons have circled and columnists from The Washington Post have weighed in on both sides. Michael Gerson (Trib 6/26) is incensed that U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has refused to hand over every document related to the operation. In doing so Gerson largely ignores President Obama’s assertion of executive privilege over the matter. Writing for the left, Eugene Robinson (Trib 6/22) reminds us that ATF first initiated gun-walking operations in 2006 under President Bush. Robinson defends Holder whom, he states, is merely acting under the limitations of the President’s direction.
If the opinions of these well respected Beltway journalists matter, it is only in the context of political background noise leading up to the presidential election. A more useful discussion might evolve from asking why ATF agents chose to deviate from standard practice by allowing weapons to cross the border. The answer would be uncomfortable.
Statistics on the number of guns crossing the border into Mexico are difficult to pinpoint (for starters, the two governments differ on tracing methods). No matter the exact figure, the cartels have armed themselves with American weapons in numbers exponentially greater than the 2,500 associated with Operation Fast and Furious.
Documentaries, such as the recent “Arming the Cartels” special, have demonstrated how easily individuals, even felons, can purchase high-powered firearms from private sellers at loosely organized gun shows. All it takes is a wink, a nod and cash. Stopping the uncontrolled sale of weapons would be a much better use for ATF, if only the NRA lobby would allow the agency to do its job.
Regardless of the content in the political squabble, Operation Fast and Furious was a bad idea. Partisan outrage on the issue is little more than a scramble for political capital. The important lesson to learn from this mistake is the fact that a government agency, in the face of overwhelming violence, made a conscious decision to take desperate action.
It failed. What are we going to do now?