MEXICO CITY — While a gunrunning sting known as Fast and Furious is drawing criticism in Congress for losing track of weapons that were smuggled into Mexico, Mexicans say the controversy only confirms their conviction that the U.S. gun industry profits off of bloodshed south of the border.
As new details of the U.S. undercover operation emerged last week in congressional hearings in Washington, a broad array of Mexicans said the scandal simply underscores the ease with which brutal crime gangs obtain large quantities of assault weapons from U.S. gun shops near the border.
Fast and Furious — the code name given by the Justice Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to its gun-smuggling investigation — allowed an estimated 2,000 weapons to enter Mexico unobstructed. That, however, accounts for only one-tenth of the weapons found at Mexican crime scenes in recent years that originated in the United States, according to available statistics.
The bureau's acting director, Kenneth Melson, wrote in a recent letter to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., that of the 29,284 weapons recovered in Mexico in 2009 and 2010 and submitted for tracing, 20,504, or 70 percent, came from the United States.
"All of the available evidence shows that the weapons come from the U.S.," said Sergio Aguayo, an academic and newspaper columnist.
Mexicans have been closely following revelations about Fast and Furious. A congressional report made public last week said that on at least 48 occasions, Mexican investigators found Fast and Furious weapons at crime scenes. At hearings last week, it was revealed that one U.S. buyer obtained more than 700 firearms for the Sinaloa Cartel, believed to be Mexico's most powerful crime group.
The revelations have evinced an I-told-you-so attitude here about the role U.S.-based weapons play in Mexico's drug violence, and reinforced long-held Mexican beliefs that the gun trade retains a powerful sway over U.S. political life. Mexican commentators see the Fast and Furious political brouhaha — with no similar discussion of how to stop the flow of powerful weapons to the cartels — as a sign of that.
"It kind of reinforces the perception that U.S. policy in general is to support arms dealers around the world," said Ana Maria Salazar, a former Pentagon official who now is a security consultant in the Mexican capital.
Salazar said Mexicans see a double standard in Fast and Furious, in which U.S. agents allowed weapons to "walk" across the border in their quest to take down a major weapons trafficking ring even as it became apparent the guns were turning up at crimes.
"Would the United States have done this type of operation, for example, in Afghanistan knowing that there was a likelihood those guns would kill American soldiers? They would've never done it," she said.
Aguayo went further, saying the operation revealed "underlying racism."
"U.S. society and the U.S. government don't care about Mexican lives," he said. "I have studied U.S. foreign policy. One American life is worth more than 50,000 Mexican lives. This case is another ingredient in a cultural attitude of contempt toward Mexicans."
Pinning down the extent of illegal weapons trafficking from the United States to Mexico is a controversial endeavor. Advocates of tougher restrictions on U.S. gun sales say Mexican criminal gangs shop for most of their weapons in the United States. U.S. gun advocates say that's untrue.
New evidence continues to arise, however, that Mexican crime groups, whose battles over drug routes and other criminal activities have claimed 40,000 lives since 2006, shop north of the Rio Grande for their firepower. Their favored firearms are variants of the AK-47 and AR-15 assault weapons, legally available at U.S. gun shops near the border.
In a video released earlier this month, a Mexican army defector who allegedly rose to become No. 3 in the brutal and powerful syndicate known as Los Zetas was asked by a police interrogator where Los Zetas obtain their weapons.
"From the United States," Jesus Rejon Aguilar, who was arrested by Mexican authorities on July 4, told his off-camera questioner. "All weapons come from the U.S."
Arturo Zamora Jimenez, a legislator from the once-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, made it clear in a telephone interview that he understands that many Americans firmly believe that their guns can protect against tyranny, and that they have the right to own and purchase them under the 2nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
But he said lax U.S. gun laws are priming violence in Mexico.
"We know that the manufacture and sale of guns is a major economic activity for the people of the United States," he said. "But when these guns are used by rival organized crime groups abroad, the situation really changes because they are used in crimes that affect the lives and property of many people."
How much the Mexican government knew about the Fast and Furious operation remains unclear. Alejandro Poire, the top security spokesman for Mexican President Felipe Calderon, insisted last week that his government was not aware of the operation.
"If we had known about it, it would have been stopped," Poire told reporters.
But the federal Attorney General's office acknowledged that it had been informed of aspects of Fast and Furious.
"This gives you an idea of the lack of coordination within the Mexican government as well," said Javier Oliva, a national security expert at the National Autonomous University.
Opposition legislators are pressing for a further accounting of how much Calderon's government knew.
"It is lamentable that with the weapons brought into the country through this operation, there are thousands of dead Mexicans and the federal government can't give an explanation of its responsibility," said Dolores Padierna Luna, the secretary general of the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party. MORE FROM MCCLATCHY Crime reporter believed probing boss's slaying killed in Mexico As ranks of Mexico's missing swell, families clamor for help Who's arming Mexican cartels? Maybe your neighbor Check out this McClatchy blog: Mexico Unmasked