Pubdate: Sun, 29 Mar 2009
Source: Sunday Times (UK)
Copyright: 2009 Times Newspapers Ltd.
Author: Tony Allen-Mills


Guns Are Pouring South Of The Border While Murder And Kidnap Are Flowing North

BY THE hair-raising standards of torture, murder, kidnapping, 
extortion and other drug-related mayhem that has become tragically 
routine along the US border with Mexico, the inspection of a battered 
red Ford pickup truck travelling south through the Arizona desert 
this month hardly seemed worth recording.

US border patrol agents stopped the vehicle as it headed towards 
Mexico through the Organ Pipe Cactus national park. A search quickly 
uncovered seven assault rifles - two of them Russian-made AK47s - a 
couple of handguns and thousands of rounds of ammunition.

Compared with the recent seizure of 500 rifles and 100 fragmentation 
hand grenades close to the Texas border, it was scarcely a big haul. 
Yet it was the latest evidence that Mexico's drug cartels are 
resorting to sinister techniques that are changing the nature of 
border violence and confronting President Barack Obama with an 
expanding threat on US soil.

US officials call it "ant trafficking". Cartel leaders are bribing or 
coercing armies of US citizens to buy weapons from American gun 
shops. They smuggle the guns into Mexico in a continuous operation 
that steadily builds up arsenals.

"The cartels have fingertips that reach throughout the United 
States," Janet Napolitano, the homeland security secretary, told a 
Senate panel last week. She said that a recent crackdown at US border 
crossings had netted 1,000 guns heading into Mexico. "But we need to 
get beyond getting lucky with [vehicle] inspections," she said.

Anthony Placido, chief of intelligence at the Drug Enforcement 
Administration, told a Senate hearing: "It is an undisputable fact 
that the weapons and firearms used to fuel the drug-related violence 
in Mexico can be traced back to guns procured legally or illegally here."

After decades of failed attempts to block the northward flow of 
cocaine, heroin and other drugs - not to mention continuing efforts 
to keep out illegal immigrants - Washington finds itself struggling 
to contain a reverse flow of guns and money that has produced sharp 
rises in drug-related crime in US cities far from the 2,000 mile-long border.

While California, Arizona and Texas remain the principal sources of 
US firearms that turn up at Mexican bloodbaths, Placido said weapons 
used by drug traffickers had been traced to Denver, Philadelphia and 
Seattle, among other cities.

To the consternation of the authorities in Phoenix, one of America's 
favourite retirement destinations has acquired a different reputation 
- - as the American capital of drug-related kidnappings.

"What I'm seeing is a fundamental shift in the criminal element from 
Mexico migrating up here," said Detective Al Richard of the Phoenix police.

Last year 368 abductions were reported, up from 117 in 2000. Almost 
all involved victims with Mexican connections and while most were 
related to drug violence, others were less easily explained.

When Liliana Beatrice Iboa, 20, and her three-year-old daughter Karen 
were seized in Phoenix last November, their kidnapper initially 
demanded a $100,000 (UKP 70,000) ransom, but then made no further 
contact and released them unharmed.

While there has been little sign of the extreme violence associated 
with Mexican cities such as Ciudad Juarez or Guadalajara - where five 
human heads were found next to a road this month - US officials are 
alarmed by evidence that the narcotraficantes (drug smugglers) are 
becoming increasingly reckless on American soil.

In San Juan, Texas, a hand grenade was thrown into a bar but failed 
to explode. The drug trade has been blamed for several murders in 
Birmingham, Alabama. Many wealthy Americans living in border states 
are having bulletproof glass and armour installed in their cars.

For Obama and Hillary Clinton, his secretary of state, the threat 
that America's southern neighbour may implode into drug-fuelled chaos 
presents both a foreign policy challenge and a domestic dilemma.

US authorities have committed themselves to what Napolitano described 
as "a very robust movement of personnel" to border areas. Obama is 
considering a request from the governor of Texas for 1,000 national 
guardsmen to be placed on border duty. The Pentagon may supply 
pilotless drones for the same kind of man-hunting missions as in Afghanistan.

Yet most Mexicans are tired of being lectured by US officials about 
the evils of corruption and the dangers of a "failed state". 
President Felipe Calderon noted last week that the financial aid 
Mexico needed from Washington "should be equivalent to the flow of 
money that American [drug] consumers give to the criminals" - a 
figure he estimated at between $10 billion and $35 billion.

The toughest problem may prove to be the US weapons that arm the 
cartels. Clinton acknowledged during a two-day visit to Mexico last 
week that "our inability to prevent weapons from being illegally 
smuggled across the border to arm these criminals causes the deaths 
of police officers, soldiers and civilians".

Obama will visit Mexico next month and has signalled his support for 
a ban on assault weapons. But any attempt to tighten gun control laws 
would promptly bring the president into conflict with America's most 
powerful lobby - the National Rifle Association.

Even if Obama were willing to take on the NRA's 4m gun-carrying 
members, the legal difficulties of shutting the weapons pipeline look 
all but insurmountable, as a case spawned by the murder of Juan 
Manuel Pavon recently demonstrated in Phoenix.

Pavon, the Mexican chief of the Sonora state antidrug squad, was 
assassinated by cartel hitmen hours after attending a US seminar on 
weapons smuggling last year. The guns used in the murder were later 
recovered by police and were traced to X-Caliber Guns, an Arizona gun 
shop owned by a dealer named George Iknadosian.

After checking Iknadosian's records, federal agents charged him with 
selling hundreds of AK-47 assault rifles to so-called "ant 
traffickers" whom he allegedly knew to be acting illegally on behalf 
of Mexican cartels.

Several witnesses were due to testify, but the trial had hardly got 
under way when the judge dismissed all charges on technical grounds. 
Iknadosian had pleaded not guilty.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Keith Brilhart