Obama, American guns and Mexican mayhem

During a visit to Mexico a year ago, President Barack Obama promised he would urge the US Senate to ratify an international treaty designed to curb the flow of weapons to Latin American drug cartels. It remains just that –a promise. Prospects for ratification are virtually zero.

Top officials in the Obama administration have called the cartels, and the extreme violence tearing apart Mexican cities on the US border, threats to US national security. Joining 30 other countries in the Western Hemisphere in an anti-arms smuggling accord would therefore seem a perfectly sane and logical thing to do. But logic often ends where American gun ownership begins.

The treaty in question is called the Inter-American Convention Against Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Ammunition, Explosives and Other Related Materials. Known as CIFTA for its Spanish acronym, it was adopted by the Organization of American States in 1997. All but four of its 35 members have ratified it. Bill Clinton signed the convention but did not get the Senate to bless it.

The treaty has run into fierce opposition from groups representing America’s huge army of gun owners, many of whom see CIFTA as a plot against their right, enshrined in the second amendment of the US constitution, to own and bear arms. Reflecting such fears, an essay on the website of the National Rifle Association (NRA), the most powerful of the gun lobbies, terms the treaty “a blueprint for dismantling the second amendment” and part of an Obama strategy “to create the foundation for repressive and extreme gun control”.

Faced with such opposition, American lawmakers are no more inclined to tangle with the NRA and other gun lobbies now than they have been in the 12 preceding years; which really boils down to gun owners and their impact on the ballot box having more weight than national security concerns.

Dead: 22 000
There is no provision in the convention that would allow restrictions on legal gun sales in the United States. It stipulates information-sharing among the signatories that would make it easier to track guns used by criminals back to their last legal sale. That might end a protracted dispute over the origin and the number of weapons in the hands of the Mexican drug cartels whose wars against each other and against the state have killed more than 22 000 people since late 2006.

Nobody knows how many guns are smuggled across the border, how many come from the more than 9 000 licensed arms dealers in the four US states bordering Mexico, or from gun shows and private sales. A widely-used assertion that 90% of the guns used by Mexican organised crime come from the US does not stand up to scrutiny but there’s no doubt there’s a steady stream of weapons across the border.

There is, however, some good news on American efforts to throttle the flow of arms to violence-wracked Mexico: stepped up controls of south-bound traffic have resulted in a 25,6% increase in the seizure of weapons in 2009 compared with 2008, according to statistics from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The bad news: that translates into 1 428 firearms, an average of four a day.

Contrast that with the millions of people and cars that cross into Mexico every day – 82 000 at one border point alone (San Ysidro, between San Diego and Tijuana) — and it’s easy to see why there’s a rule of thumb along the border that for every one confiscated weapon, seven to nine make it through. Add to that weapons smuggled from Central America, still awash with arms from its civil wars in the 1980s, and it’s obvious why the cartels have so much firepower.

And why it is unlikely that force alone can end the bloodshed or wipe out the criminal Mexican organizations — think of them as armed corporations fighting for market share and access — whose members are doing business in more than 230 American cities, according to the DHS.

Vacuum created?

A study published in the last week of April by the Vancouver-based International Centre for Science in Drug Policy — an international network of scientists, academics and public health practitioners — reviewed English-language scientific literature dating back more than 20 years to track the impact of drug law enforcement on drug market violence.

Among its findings: “Most…studies found that increasing drug law enforcement intensity resulted in increased rates of drug market violence.” And: ” Research…has shown that by removing key players from the lucrative illegal drug market, drug law enforcement may have the perverse effect of creating significant financial incentives for other individuals to fill this vacuum by entering the market.”

That happened, for example, in Colombia in the 1990s when the combined efforts of the Colombian and US governments succeeded in dismantling the powerful Cali and Medellin cartels. They were replaced by smaller groups. Drug production and exports continued.

The study made no mention of Ciudad Juarez, just across the Rio Grande River from the Texan city of El Paso, which could serve as exhibit A to back up the contention that violence begets violence begets violence.

When Mexico’s president, Felipe Calderon, ordered 2 500 troops and federal agents into border city Ciudad Juarez in 2006 to tamp down drug violence, the monthly murder rate ran at an average of 66. By 2009, the military presence had reached 7 500 and the monthly death toll ran at an average of more than 200.

How much difference American participation in an international arms trafficking treaty might have made we will never know, thanks to the gun lobbies and legislators cowed by them.

PW Botha wagged his finger and banned us in 1988 but we stood firm. We built a reputation for fearless journalism, then, and now. Through these last 35 years, the Mail & Guardian has always been on the right side of history.

These days, we are on the trail of the merry band of corporates and politicians robbing South Africa of its own potential.

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