Corruption on both sides of the border surely exists. However, on the Mexican side there is no comparison really. In the last five months, 35 agents with the Mexican federal prosecutor’s office were arrested for corruption. According to Mexican Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora, each was being paid between $150,000 and $450,000 monthly by the cartels. In late October, two high-ranking officials with Mexico’s Office on Organized Crime, part of the attorney general’s office, were arrested for supplying a Sinaloa-based cartel with information on possible drug seizures. Each was being paid $400,000 per month. An Interpol agent working with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration at the American embassy in Mexico City, caught supplying the same cartel with inside information last month, was thought to have been earning $30,000 monthly.
The current rash of violence in Mexico, as well as the violence that erupted in Nuevo Laredo a couple of years ago, can be traced to Calderon’s policy of going after cartel leaders. His belief was that the cartels would be destroyed with their capos gone. So he sent 32,000 federal soldiers out across Mexico with orders to bring the peace by eliminating cartel bosses. Dozens were captured or killed, including many who have since been extradited to the U.S. for prosecution. But the push also had two negative side effects: First, the cartels were able to corrupt large segments of those military forces sent out against them, and secondly, the removal of the bosses created a power vacuum that’s led to the current violence among those seeking to become the new cartel leaders.
In many ways, it’s a repeat of what happened in Colombia in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the Medellin and Cali cartel leaders were eliminated. Violence in that country escalated to brutal heights. But interestingly, the victor in those internecine wars turned out not to be any of the Colombian cartel lieutenants, but the drug bosses in Mexico, who moved up from being middle men to running the cartels themselves.
The campaigns then didn’t stop corruption or even slow it down, and the same has been true of Calderon’s efforts thus far. Municipal police, including gun battles between them and federal officers, carried much of the violence in Nuevo Laredo out. Eventually more than half of Nuevo Laredo’s 700-man police force was fired for corruption. In June 2007, Calderon purged 284 federal police commanders from all 31 Mexican states and the Mexico City federal district. All that did, one DEA source said, was to raise the cost of monthly payments to corrupt federal agents and prosecutors.
The Texas-Mexico frontier has always been a smuggler’s paradise, and through the decades, the trade — in whatever goods were in demand at the moment — has gone both ways. These days, although the drugs traveling north grab most of the headlines, there’s an equally deadly trade, in weapons, going into Mexico, since that country has no arms manufacturing industry. According to U.S. officials, nearly all of Mexico’s drug-war violence is done with U.S.-manufactured weapons. The worst-offending states are Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico, all of which permit almost anyone to purchase and own as many pistols, machine pistols, rifles, and assault rifles as they want, with no waiting time and no record of the sale going beyond the gun dealers’ files.
U.S. drug agents estimate that, every day, $10 million worth of drugs crosses over the Laredo bridges — not to mention the rest of the 2,000-mile long U.S.–Mexico border — and heads up I-35. It’s enough to pay for a lot of corruption and a lot of weaponry. Unfortunately for their victims, the drug lords don’t have to go far to do their gun shopping.
Without going into great detail, in Texas the only background check is the so-called instant background check. Anyone who sells a gun in this country — with a major and troublesome exception — must notify NICS. The buyer is required to fill out a form, and the dealer then calls an 800 number, enters the buyer’s information, and either gets an OK or a “red light. If it’s the latter, the information will get transferred to the FBI, and the FBI will make a decision whether the transaction can go through or not. Information on green-lighted purchasers is purged within 24 hours. Red-lighted forms are kept until the FBI determines the cause of the warning flag. Not much oversight.
Mexican authorities have repeatedly called on the U.S. to pass laws to stop or slow the estimated 2,000-weapon-a-day pace of gun sales into Mexico. But gun restrictions are extremely unpopular in Texas and other border states, an easy way for any politician to get un-elected.
The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms says that Texas is probably the biggest supplier of guns that make their way into Mexico. That’s both because of that long border they share and the number of gun dealers in the state. The BATF’s job is to handle the investigation of illegal gun and arms sales, as well as to trace guns that have been used in criminal activity.
The majority of the weapons being used by the cartels these days are U.S. military weapons and explosives,” he said. “They’ve got M-16s, hand grenades, grenade launchers. Even in Texas you can’t buy those. Those are U.S. military weapons. Last year an 18-wheeler full of M-16s was stopped headed to Matamoros, a border town controlled by the Gulf Cartel. Our U.S. military is either supplying the Mexican military with that weaponry, and corrupt elements in the Mexican military are selling it to the cartels, or someone in the U.S. military is supplying them. Either way, those are U.S. military guns being used in very violent cartel rivalries.
Whatever version of corruption or bad policy is responsible for massive amounts of American military weapons ending up in the hands of the cartel, there is little mystery about the more routine forms of drug-money corruption being practiced, another longstanding border tradition. In October, FBI agents arrested a South Texas sheriff and charged him with “conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine and marijuana” among several other offenses. Starr County Sheriff Reymundo Guerra, who faces life imprisonment, follows in the footsteps of his predecessor, Sheriff Eugenio Falcon, who pleaded guilty to non-drug-related conspiracy charges in 1998. Among many other law enforcement officers caught dealing with the cartels, in 2005 former Cameron County Sheriff Conrado Cantu was sentenced to 24 years in prison for running a criminal enterprise out of his office.
The corruption extends as far as the drug supply lines them selves extend. In September, 175 people thought to have ties to the Gulf Cartel were arrested in several U.S. states, including 22 in north Texas. The raids netted $1 million in cash, 400 pounds of methamphetamine, and 300 kilograms of cocaine — and drew the anger of drug bosses.
The Gulf Cartel isn’t exactly subtle in its recruitment of the military and others to its ranks. The Gulf Cartel has been plastering signs all over Reynosa and at times in Nuevo Laredo and elsewhere, asking soldiers and police officers to desert their posts and join the Zetas. One sign posted recently in Tampico asked soldiers and ex-soldiers to “Join the ranks of the Gulf Cartel. We offer benefits, life insurance, a house for your family and children. Stop living in the slums and riding the bus. A new car or truck, your choice.”
In Juarez, the war between cartels is still going full bore. There has also been a campaign by the drug cartels asking the gangs in the US to attack the local police. So far, that has not happened.
End of part 2