Guns & Drugs

By Katherine McIntire Peters

December 1, 2009

Agencies for the first time are pursuing a coordinated strategy to stop arms trafficking to Mexico.

U.S. officials estimate that more than 90 percent of the cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines that enter the United States are funneled through Mexico across the Southwest border.

A less frequently cited figure is equally alarming to anyone living south of the border: Ninety percent of the weapons seized from the drug cartels by Mexican authorities are traced to the United States. While the cartels are moving drugs north, arms traffickers are moving guns south. It's a symbiotic relationship that threatens security in both countries.

As drug-related violence has soared in Mexico, where President Felipe Calderón's government has cracked down on the cartels, the relationship between guns and drugs is getting a lot more attention in Washington. Administration officials have emphasized the importance of stopping the outbound flow of guns and cash to Mexican drug trafficking organizations. "Clearly the money and weapons are just as important to the cartels, if not more important, than the drugs," says Gil Kerlikowske, the White House director of national drug control policy. "Of course, the purpose of the whole enterprise for the cartels is to garner profits and power; drugs are just a means to those ends."

Mexican officials estimate more than 11,000 murders within the past three and a half years in northern Mexico, where the cartels are battling each other and the law for control of lucrative smuggling routes. Republican Rep. Brian Bilbray, whose Southern California district borders Mexico, told his colleagues on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in July: "The death rate among law enforcement just south of our border was far beyond anything we have seen anywhere else in the world, and we just sort of ignored it because it wasn't on the radar screen for the media."

But the issue has been on the radar screen of federal agencies for some time. The Justice Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Homeland Security Department's Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency have primary responsibility for combating illicit arms sales and trafficking, and both agencies have programs aimed at stopping weapons smuggling to Mexico. But the two agencies have a checkered history when it comes to working together.

A Government Accountability Office report released in June paints a picture of dysfunctional organizations that sometimes operate more like Keystone Kops than skilled law enforcement. In one case GAO cited, ICE agents conducted surveillance on an individual at a gun show who turned out to be an undercover ATF agent working an investigation. In another incident, ATF agents set up a controlled delivery in a sting operation but neglected to tell ICE officials, jeopardizing lives and risking that the weapons would fall into the wrong hands. GAO found that officials at both agencies sometimes refused to share key documents or information on investigations in retaliation for perceived slights.

To be sure, ICE and ATF face a number of challenges outside their control. U.S. firearms laws restrict the kind of data that can be collected on gun sales, making weapons traces complicated, and sometimes impossible. Moreover, efforts to work with Mexican authorities are hampered by corruption and a lack of skilled personnel and resources devoted to arms trafficking there. But those factors make it all the more critical that U.S. agencies learn to work together more effectively.

There's reason to think that will happen, according to leaders at ICE and ATF. As auditors were finalizing GAO's report, the two agencies were negotiating the details of a memorandum of understanding that spells out how they will cooperate on investigations going forward. At the same time, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, with input from Justice and Homeland Security, updated the National Southwest Border Counter- narcotics Strategy. The document in-cludes a section on combating illicit arms trafficking to Mexico, an issue that has never before been addressed as part of a comprehensive governmentwide strategy.

"For the first time, we view drugs coming north and guns and bulk cash going south as two ends of a single problem," Alan Bersin, assistant secretary for international affairs at Homeland Security, told members of the House Oversight Committee in July.

'A Work in Progress'

Kenneth Melson, a former Justice Department executive responsible for overseeing all 94 U.S. attorneys offices and now acting director of ATF, says the memorandum of understanding he signed with John Morton, assistant secretary of Homeland Security for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, was a benchmark for the two agencies. The agreement aims to optimize each agency's strengths and resources, clarifies the notification process they are expected to follow on international trafficking investigations, and guides coordination when interests overlap.

"It sent a strong message from John and myself to the troops that we are going to cooperate and work as a team if we had not been doing that before," says Melson. "The important part of the MOU is not that it cured a problem but allowed us to focus on what we're both trying to do."

Morton agrees: "Just [signing the MOU] was a big step forward. It's obviously a work in progress, but it's really a strong effort to look at how we cooperate and work together in Mexico."

The agencies have clear but overlapping roles on the border. ATF, which investigates criminal and regulatory violations of federal gun laws under the 1968 Gun Control Act, is responsible for combating the illegal sale of weapons within the United States and to other countries. It's the only federal agency able to trace U.S.- and foreign-manufactured firearms, regardless of where they are seized, through its electronic database known as eTrace. In 2005, ATF officials recognized a need to develop better tools for tracking illicit weapons smuggled into Mexico and initiated Project Gun- runner, in which ATF officials train their Mexican counterparts in investigative techniques for tracing weapons to their source. That in turn provides intelligence and investigative leads for identifying and prosecuting individuals involved in firearms trafficking.

ICE, which enforces U.S. export laws, combats smuggling of money, people, drugs and firearms-all of which can be intertwined in the same investigations. In 2008, ICE initiated Operation Armas Cruzadas, a bilateral law enforcement and intelligence sharing program to reduce arms trafficking to Mexico. In March, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the department would enhance operations to interdict the flow of weapons and money south to the cartels. As a result, ICE added more than 100 agents to the various multiagency Border Enforcement Security Task Forces it leads along the Southwest border.

The two agencies bring different resources to the problem. ICE, with about 2,000 agents assigned to its Southwest border offices, has about four times the personnel ATF has on the border. But ATF has the expertise and database to trace weapons, along with the authority to enforce U.S. firearms laws.

Earlier this year, in the spirit of interagency cooperation, Morton invited Melson to accompany him on a trip to Mexico, where he introduced the ATF chief to ICE's Mexican counterparts. "We have reshaped and refocused our offices [in Mexico]. One of the key reasons for doing that was let's not have competing independent efforts and start working together. Obviously that's a work in progress," Morton says.

Border Surge

This summer, as a spate of drug-related violence just south of the border captured international media attention, ATF sent 100 experienced special agents, industry investigators and intelligence specialists nationwide to the Southwest border for 120 days. They worked cases mainly in the vicinity of Houston-about 40 percent of guns seized in Mexico are found to have originated in Texas. For four months, veteran agents and investigators combed through more than 1,000 criminal leads. Their efforts resulted in the seizure of more than 680 guns, Melson says, many of which were bound for Mexico.

The personnel surge did more in three months than had been accomplished in almost three years in some places along the border, he says. Agents and investigators developed information that is helping them unravel firearms trafficking schemes and routes, and they opened 276 criminal cases as a result. In addition, they inspected 1,100 federal firearms licenses, some of which had never been checked before, yielding yet more investigative leads.

While the surge was temporary, Melson hopes the results will be sustainable. Using $10 million in economic stimulus funds authorized under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and $5.9 million in its 2009 budget, ATF will hire 22 investigators and support staff, along with another 20 agents, most of whom are to be located in four new border offices in California, New Mexico and Texas. ATF also will for the first time put personnel in the U.S. consulates in Tijuana and Juarez in Mexico. The biggest challenge is the scale of arms trafficking activity, according to Melson. "We have to convert from the old boots-on-the-ground, chase-the-bad-guys-down approach to an intelligence-led strategy," he says, noting that ATF must draw on the contributions of other agencies as well, including ICE and Customs and Border Protection, the Homeland Security bureau responsible for operating ports of entry and patrolling the border between those posts.

"We're working very closely with CBP and ICE to make sure we work together here," Melson says. Still, he warns, as agencies become more effective, the cartels and their arms suppliers will adapt.

"The more pressure we put on the Southwest border in regard to these gun trafficking organizations the more they're going to be going to the interior of the country. That's why we try to stress this is not just a Southwest border regional problem. It is a national problem that reaches from Washington state to Florida," he says.

"The Southwest border is the vortex of this activity. It's the last stand before the guns go across the border and it's our first line of defense for drugs entering the U.S.," Melson says.

Measuring Success

In early November, officials from ATF, CBP and ICE met in San Diego to discuss new approaches to targeting cross-border crime and weapons trafficking. The two-day summit, involving agency leaders and line agents, came just weeks after top officials at Homeland Security and Justice signed a letter of intent with senior Mexican officials to develop a coordinated, intelligence-driven response to the problem.

"The idea was rather than having the muckety-mucks at the top sit around and talk about this in the abstract, let's call in our leadership in the field along the border and ask them how we can go about doing our work in a more collaborative and cooperative fashion," says Morton.

Personnel from the three agencies' Southwest regional offices met to discuss and develop joint initiatives to break the cartels. They also took stock of what they've accomplished thus far. In a joint statement released by the agencies in early November, they said ATF seizures of illegal firearms along the border from July through September increased more than 65 percent compared with the three previous months. ICE and CBP officers recovered nearly 600 illegal weapons from April through September, more than a 50 percent increase over the same period in 2008.

As is always the case with illicit trade, it's hard to know how meaningful the numbers really are. Are agents interdicting more drugs and weapons because they're getting better, or because there's more to interdict? As with drug shipments to the United States, arms shipments to Mexico are an unknown quantity.

In its analysis of eTrace data, GAO found that from 2004 to 2008, more than 90 percent of firearms seized in Mexico and submitted to ATF for analysis were traced to the United States.

Melson cautions against putting too much stock in numbers. "You really ought to focus on the fact that whatever the percentage is, there are way too many guns. And they are a violation of Mexico's laws and U.S. laws in many cases."

So how will U.S. agencies measure the success of the new strategy? "That's a really good question," Morton says. "The traditional answer would be we're going to track what we're doing, call you back in six months and say we've arrested X number of people, initiated X number of prosecutions, seized X number of drugs. That will continue to be part of the answer, but I don't want it to be the whole answer."

Morton believes federal agencies also will need to be able to point to meaningful relationships, based on trust and effective coordination, with officials in Mexico. "I want to have a much fuller response that is more than just bean counting," he says.

By Katherine McIntire Peters

December 1, 2009