I'm not sure how many people still buy the notion that firearms legally purchased in the USA at Wal Mart or Cabellas are single-handedly responsible for the narco-violence down in Mexico, but a couple of stories that broke this month can effectively bury that tired and dishonest talking point.
Mexican cartels and other criminal groups have been helping themselves to weapons caches left over from the numerous civil wars in Central America in the 1980s as well as military arsenals
throughout the region.
The weapons run the gamut from assault rifles to anti-tank missiles, some of which the U.S. supplied during regional conflicts more than two decades ago. The slippage from military armories occurs regularly.
The feared Mexican organized crime group known as Los Zetas has stolen weapons from military depots in Guatemala three times in recent years, Guatemalan Deputy Security Minister Mario Castaneda told an anti-narcotics conference in early April in Cancun, Mexico.
In February, U.S. prosecutors unsealed a five-count indictment against a retired army captain from El Salvador for allegedly selling or offering C-4 plastic explosives, assault rifles, grenades and blasting caps to undercover agents.
U.S. diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks and passed to McClatchy Newspapers show that American envoys have repeatedly voiced concern over lax controls on military weapons depots in Guatemala and Honduras.
One cable from June 2009 carries a simple message line: "Rogue elements of Guatemalan military selling weapons to narcos."
The cable was sent after a narcotics raid on a warehouse south of Guatemala City on April 24, 2009, when agents clashed with "a number of heavily armed Zetas," leaving five agents dead. Inside the warehouse, the unit found 11 machine guns, a light antitank weapon, 563 rocket-propelled grenades, 32 hand grenades, eight landmines and abundant ammunition in crates with the seal of a Guatemalan military industrial facility.
U.S. defense analysts determined "with a high degree of confidence that many of these weapons and munitions came from Guatemalan military stocks," the cable said.
"The involvement of Guatemalan military officers in the sale of weapons to narco-traffickers raises serious concerns about the Guatemalan military's ability to secure its arms and ammunition," it added.
Moreover, it puts police tasked with confronting the cartels at a sharp disadvantage, the cable said, because they "now have to go up against weapons from Guatemala's own military."
Further piquing U.S. officials, Washington furnished some of the munitions.
That turned out to be the case in Honduras, where U.S.-supplied grenades and light anti-tank weapons turned up as far away as Ciudad Juarez, the narco-infested Mexican city on the border with Texas, and on Colombia's San Andres Island, an entry point for weapons going to drug-trafficking guerrillas
According to State Department documents, Mexico accounted for $177 million in sales of American-made weapons in 2009- exceeding Iraq or Afghanistan. Many of these sales were tracked by the state department as 'Direct Commercial sales' to the Mexican government.
To make things even more interesting, narco-watchdog blog Borderland Beat points out that the sale, storage and transportation of legally purchased firearms in Mexico is monopolized by the SEDENA
- Mexico's Secretariat for National Defense. Yet despite this apparent monopoly, a substantial number of M-16 style rifles ordered from America in transactions brokered by Mexico's SEDENA and supposedly destined for state and municipal police agencies in Mexico simply 'disappear' only to turn up later at crime scenes in Mexico.
This, of course, is in addition to the privately purchased firearms on the US side of the border that the ATF had intentionally allowed to be illegally exported
to Mexico by smugglers and straw purchasers. As far back as 2009, equipment from US Government inventory ranging from MRE's and night vision equipment to automatic rifles and jet engine parts
were reported missing and turned up in places as far afield as Ciudad Juarez, Colombia and Iran.
Always looking for additional sources of revenue, Mexico's cartels have reportedly set their sights on that nations vast mineral deposits
and the domestic and foreign mining companies tasked with unearthing those deposits.
As international metals prices surge, gunmen are attacking workers to steal valuable ores and equipment at often remote mining sites that have fallen under the gaze of drug gangs extending their reach into new criminal rackets.
Canadian miner Torex Gold Resources Inc halted drilling at its exploration property in the western state of Guerrero last month after assailants stole trucks. Mexican authorities blamed a drug cartel for illegally extracting iron ore at another site and exporting it to China.
Mexico is the 2nd largest producer of silver in the world and also has substantial deposits of gold, copper, iron ore, zinc and lead. Entering Friday morning, silver was trading at over $48 an ounce while gold was trading at record highs of $1534 an ounce.
Aside from Torex [TSX: TXG]
, International mining companies like New Gold [TSX: NGD]
or Ternium [NYSE: TX]
have operations in troubled areas like Michoacan, Guerrero or Durango.
Steel producers say they lost $240 million to thefts in 2010 and have seen the pace of robberies double so far this year, according to a Mexican industry association.
"They are robbing from companies' (iron ore) deposits or they are taking over the deposits completely," said Raul Gutierrez, head of the national steel chamber. "It makes it impossible to work there."
The wave of thefts has spilled out of an escalating drug war in Mexico, which pits an increasingly stretched military against brutal gangs warring over smuggling routes to the United States and other lucrative illicit businesses.
Deteriorating security is a mounting concern for investors, industry surveys show.
The lawlessness led to a slip in Mexico's ranking in the Fraser Institute's annual study of the top global mining destinations. Some 39 percent of companies surveyed this year counted violence as a "strong deterrent" for investment, versus 33 percent in Colombia, where a U.S.-backed offensive has in recent years quelled a cocaine-funded guerrilla conflict.
Iron ore mines in Mexico's western state of Michoacan have been besieged by the powerful La Familia (The Family) drug cartel that operates in large swathes of the state, extorting businesses and illegally mining material for export.
A captured money launderer belonging to La Familia confessed to exporting 1.1 million tones of iron ore last year to China through three established companies in Mexico, netting $42 million, according to the attorney general's office.
Companies are being forced to hire more guards or change the way they transport goods, with some shipping valuable metals by air instead of on dangerous highways.
"We spent 20 percent more on security last year," said Armando Ortega, vice president for Latin America at New Gold Inc, which owns the Cerro San Pedro gold mine in San Luis Potosi state. "There are miners that have suffered robberies of gold-silver dore bars or concentrates. The high prices make gold an attractive target for organized crime.
I was made tangentially aware of the various cartels interest in mining last year after investigators said a deadly car bombing in Juarez used the water gel based explosive Tovex
, a popular replacement for dynamite with mining companies.
I've also been entertaining another theory regarding the cartels and mining. Aside from their lucrative drug smuggling and human trafficking activities, groups like La Familia Michoacana also reportedly engage in the extortion of already-existing businesses in territory they control, so who's to say this wouldn't include extortion against the various mining companies for continuing to operate in what the cartels consider 'their' territory?
Also, even though they would be making money hand over fist from both their criminal pursuits and their newfound interest in metallurgy, I'm wondering if stock manipulation of the various publicly-traded mining companies could be another source of revenue for them.
Think about it- how difficult would it be for the cartels to round up some hired guns to attack the miners, destroy equipment, rob the mines of concentrated ore, bullion or dore bars or cut off power and water to some of the more isolated facilities? And basically keep it up until the feasibility of operating that mine is in doubt? Even if they fail in closing down the mines outright, the cost of stepped up security precautions would eat into that company's profit margin pretty quickly, and by extension, their share price (at least if they're heavily invested in Mexico).
Shares of Torex slid in March when the company announced that it was temporarily suspending operations
after company employees were attacked and company vehicles were robbed in Morelos. Since then, shares of the company on the Toronto Stock Exchange have levelled off as Torex resumed operations amid stepped-up security.
Exit question (however hypothetical): Who's to say that somebody with inside knowledge of the activities directed against the mining companies wasn't buying up shares when they were plummeting in value and will sell them once production resumes and the share prices bounce back?
: Police in the border town of Brownsville are trying to determine who set up an IED along a stretch of US Highway 77
over the weekend. A passing motorist noticed the device and called police on Sunday afternoon. Authorities shut down the southbound lane of the highway for just under two hours while searching the area for any additional devices and disarmed the device using a remote controlled robot.
: A small aircraft believed to be smuggling narcotics crashed into Heron Lake, NM
on Sunday morning. Aside from the pilot, there was no indication of whether or not there was anybody else on board due to the plane sinking to depths greater than 100 feet. However, within hours of police and searchers arriving, small packages of cocaine started to make their way to the surface.
The lake is located in a state park in Rio Arriba County, NM which abuts the Colorado state line.
: An Arizona gun dealer reportedly approached the ATF with concerns that firearms from his store were being funneled to criminals through straw purchasers. A Congressional investigation into the ATF's ill-advised 'Operation Fast & Furious' shows that agents encouraged him to continue the sales
, despite the red flags raised.
The investigation into a federal operation that allowed Mexican drug cartels to acquire U.S. weapons escalated Thursday with new revelations that an Arizona gun dealer repeatedly expressed fears that his guns were falling into the "hands of the bad guys" but was encouraged by federal agents to continue the sales.
A series of emails released by congressional investigators showed that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives encouraged the gun dealer against his better judgment to sell high-powered weapons to buyers he believed were agents for the drug cartels.
Employees of the dealer videotaped gun buyers — suspected "straw purchasers" who could legally buy the guns, though cartel members could not — exchanging money with other individuals on the dealer's premises.
In an eerie case of premonition, the gun dealer expressed fears that the guns he was selling could be used against U.S. border agents.
"I wanted to make sure that none of the firearms that were sold per our conversation with you and various ATF agents could or would ever end up south of the border or in the hands of the bad guys," the dealer, who has not been named, wrote in June 2010 to David Voth, the lead ATF case agent in Phoenix. "I want to help ATF with its investigation but not at the risk of agents' safety, because I have some very close friends that are U.S. Border Patrol agents in southern AZ."
Three guns sold to suspects who were part of Project Gunrunner have since turned up at the scenes of the deaths of two U.S. agents — in the Mexican state of San Luis Potosi and near the Mexican border in Arizona.
"Not only were the ATF agents who later blew the whistle [on the investigation] predicting that this operation would end in tragedy, so were the gun dealers — even as ATF urged them to make the sales," Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a letter with the new emails to Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr.
The Justice Department in its only official response to the congressional inquiry denied that the ATF "sanctioned" or "otherwise knowingly allowed" the sale of assault weapons to straw purchasers, who then transported them to Mexico.
The new emails suggest that the Arizona gun dealer was seeking assurances from the ATF and the U.S. attorney's office that the company would not be held responsible if someone got hurt with guns that ended up in the hands of gunrunners.
Voth, the ATF agent, wrote to the dealer: "I understand that the frequency with which some individuals under investigation by our office have been purchasing firearms from your business has caused concerns for you. … However, if it helps put you at ease we (ATF) are continually monitoring these suspects using a variety of investigative techniques which I cannot go into [in] detail."
News reports in June 2010 that guns purchased in the U.S. were being found at Mexican crime scenes prompted the dealer to again express concerns.
"I shared my concerns with you guys that I wanted to make sure that none of the firearms that were sold per our conversation with you and various ATF agents could or would ever end up south of the border or in the hands of the bad guys," the dealer wrote, adding that the reports are "disturbing."
On "one or two" occasions when the dealer's employees videotaped a suspected straw purchaser exchanging money with another person, the ATF urged that the sale go forward, but the employees refused, Grassley said in his letter.
"In light of this new evidence, the Justice Department's claim that the ATF never knowingly sanctioned or allowed the sale of assault weapons to straw purchasers is simply not credible," Grassley wrote.
Congressman Darrel Issa (R- CA49), House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Chairman has threatened ATF and Justice Department officials with contempt proceedings
for not replying to subpoenas issued at the end of March.
ELSEWHERE IN ARIZONA
: An Arizona Sheriff has alleged this month that the US Border Patrol is acting under a 'No Apprehension'
policy in the Tuscon sector.
Cochise County Sherriff Larry Dever said that he had received hundreds of supportive e-mails from active and retired former Border Patrol agents confirming the policy, apparently implemented at times to keep apprehension number artificially low. Homeland Security secretary Janet Naploitano had recently cited lower border apprehension as proof the border was more secure under her watch.
“This is nothing new, during my career with the border patrol, this was done regularly,” said another email to Dever reviewed by FoxNews.com.
“By assigning agents to different tasks, locations, etc., the apprehensions can be increased or decreased dramatically,” wrote Dan McCaskill Jr., a retired Border Patrol agent who worked in the Anti-Smuggling Unit.
McCaskill went on to describe how, he said, apprehension numbers were regularly
manipulated to achieve various budget, equipment or manpower goals.
A second Arizona Sheriff, Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeau, had also testified before a
Senate Homeland Security Committee in support of Dever's claims.
The Tucson local of the National Border Patrol Council union also came out in support of Dever, and posted this message on their website after the FoxNews.com report.
“Sheriff Dever is right. We have seen so many slick shenanigans pulled in regards to 'got-aways' and entry numbers that at times it seems David Copperfield is running the Border Patrol. Creating the illusion that all is well and you can start having family picnics in the areas where we work has been going on far too long. Has there been improvement in some areas? Absolutely. Is the border anywhere near 'under control'? Absolutely not. Do some in management play games with numbers and cater to the wishes of politicians like Janet Napolitano and David Aguilar? Resoundingly, yes. Time for the foolish political games to stop.”
Instead of apprehending illegal border crossers, agents are reportedly advised from on high to 'TBS' (or 'Turn Back South') any illegal border crossers they detect, despite the same people attempting to cross as soon as 10 minutes later.
: A report from Australia's leading criminal intelligence body issued earlier this month has indicated that Mexican cartels are gaining a foothold Down Under.
The Australian Crime Commission report
suggested that the Mexican cartels could account for as much as 50% of the cocaine imported to Australia and expressed concerns that the drug traffickers could resort to the same violent and brutal tactics used in Mexico to try and expand their influence.
Bordered by nothing but coastline and with cocaine fetching a higher price than in the USA (US$ 200 an ounce vs as little as US$30 an ounce in the USA), Australia is considered a lucrative growing market by the cartels. To that end, some organizations like the Sinaloa cartel have partnered with Australian branches of the 'Ndrangheta
(Calabrian mafia) in Sydney and Melbourne to aid in smuggling, distribution and sales.
: Police in Guatemala this week have arrested a suspected drug trafficker nicknamed 'The Patriarch'
with suspected ties to the Sinaloa cartel.
71 year old Waldemar Lorenzana was arrested by local police and DEA agents outside of Guatemala City, although his three sons- all thought to be active in drug trafficking- are said to be still at large.
Lorenzana had been sought by the DEA since 2009 and a $500,000 reward was offered for information leading to his capture. The State Department is likely to request 'The Patriarch's' extradition to the USA.
Mexican cartels have stepped up recent efforts to set up shop in Central America where law enforcement is even less reliable. Los Zetas has reportedly successfully recruited members of the Kabiles special operations forces from Guatemala's military.
: Forensic experts and Mexican soldiers are sifting through mass graves
in northern Mexico, a month after armed men set up roadblocks and boarded buses
travelling along National Highway 101 along the Gulf coast of Tamaulipas for the last several months, pulling off mostly young men. The abductions and carnage had left the normally busy highway in the norteastern corner of Mexico virtually deserted
during the week before Easter when many American living across the border in Texas would be vacationing or visiting relatives.
So far, authorities have pulled 177 bodies out from mass graves outside of San Fernando- not far from where 72 migrants were massacred at a isolated ranch last summer. More disturbingly, hardly any of the bodies examined have shown indications that the victims were shot. Instead, Mexican investigators say it appears as though most of the victims were killed by blunt-force trauma
and a sledgehammer was found at the crime scene.
The territory in which the slayings took place is being fought over by the Zetas and one theory is that the one of the cartels abducted bus passengers and attempted to press them into service as drug mules of sicarros (low-level gunmen), murdering those who refused.
Mexico's Navy issued a statement saying they had captured the suspected mastermind of the massacres of the immigrants in San Fernando
as well as the more recent abductions from intercity buses earlier this month.
Omar Martin Estradad flanked by Mexican Marines- Marco Ugarte/AP Photo
34 year old Martin Omar Estrada Luna is thought to be the head of a northern Mexico branch of Los Zetas. Luna, aka 'El Kilo' grew up on the American side of the border in the Yakima Valley region of Washington state. Authorities in Tieton, WA remember Luna as a dropout who racked up a juevenile record
before moving on adult felony charges of burglary and drug dealing. Luna was reportedly last deported in 2009, but those who knew him from his time in Tieton question whether or not he was competent enough to have risen through the hierarchy of one of the world's most notorious and ruthless criminal organizations so quickly.
Other members of a San Fernando based Zetas cell were detained by Mexican Marines and paraded before the media last weekend as well. In addition, at least 17 members of San Fernando's municipal police department
were detained and charged by Mexico's federal attourney general's office for charges of protecting Luna and other Zetas, covering up the kindappings and in some instances directly participating in the murders.
ELSEWHERE IN TAMAULIPAS
: Mexican soldiers reportedly acting on a tip freed at least 52 migrants from Central America who were being held captive
in the border city of Reynosa. The cartels and other Mexican gangs will sometimes adbuct migrants heading to the USA transiting through Mexico and demand ransom from their families in America or the country of origin.
-A convoy of gunmen in SUVs went on a rampage last week in the border town or Miguel Aleman
, opening fire on the Tamaulipas State Police and local transit police headquarters and torching them before being driven out of the town in a running firefight with the Mexican Army. One civilian and an unpecified number of gunmen were killed in the attack according to local police.
According to the 8th Military Zone in Reynosa, the Zetas also attacked a military patrol along the Riberena highway prior to the attack in Miguel Aleman which prompted the mobilization of army troops toward the area.
Also prior to the arrival of the military, when Zetas arrived in town, they began shooting at the law enforcement headquarters and shot at the buildings and patrol cars as well as causing other damage, the Mexican law enforcement official stated.
The group then went around town shooting at and setting fire to a number of high-profile buildings along the city’s main avenue, including the Ford and Nissan dealerships, an Auto Zone store, a Stripes convenience store, a large furniture store and a used car lot.
During the rampage, one employee of the local Coca-Cola Co. bottling plant was killed as he drove to work. His name was not released pending notification of next of kin, the law enforcement official said. When military forces arrived toward the end of the rampage, a shootout ensued that left several gunmen dead on the street.
On Thursday, the Mexican Army was involved in a 3-way shootout
when a patrol was resonding to sounds of gunfire from a shootout between gunmen from the Zetas and Gulf cartel. The shootout, involving Gulf and Zetas enforcers wearing body armour and travelling in a SUV, began in the early morning hours of the middle of the farming town of Arbacuz with six dead gunmen and an unknown number in custody.
: In the northwestern corner of Mexico, Federal police and soldiers are exhuming another series of mass graves
in the capital city of Durango (which happens to be named Durango). 87 bodies were pulled from a grave under a repair shop while 17 other decomposing bodies were found at a nearby hacienda.
: Four women and a teenage girl were found stripped, bound and with their throats slit
in the popular resort city of Acapulco. Two of the bodies were discovered in a beauty salon located adjacent to an area known for drug dealing and prostitution while another body was discovered in a parked car and the 4th body was dumped in a street behind a church.
Investigators have not ruled out a possible connection with organized crime and prostitution in the murders. Some brothels or massage parlors in that part of the country sometimes operate under the guise of beauty salons.
[hat tip- Friends of Ours; Borderland Beat]