Los Zetas, drug cartels, and weapons

Los Zetas were formed when an elite unit in the Mexican Army, trained here in the US and elsewhere, went rogue and began providing muscle to the Gulf Cartel. They later broke away and formed their own cartel. Both cartels are known for ultra-violence and have plentiful amounts of high powered weaponry.

So where do they get the weapons? Borderland Beat thinks they’re coming from the US. But that can only account for a small amount of the traffic.

Between the years 2004 and 2008, the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) conducted a detailed tracing process using a significant portion of the 23,000 firearms recovered by Mexican Authorities.

They found that a startling 87% percent of the arms originated in the United States. Moreover, between the years 2006 and 2008, this figure increased to 90%. To break this data down further, 70% of the weapons came from the states of Texas, California, and Arizona: 39%, 20%, and 10% respectively.

A big problem with US gun laws is indeed that in many states, private gun sales between unlicensed owners are not regulated or tracked. Straw buyers could buy guns a few at a time then take them across the border. A organization like the Zetas might have dozens, if not hundreds, of people doing this.

However, many of the guns the Zetas have are not legal for private citizens to own in the US. Further, even with hundreds of straw buyers, getting the guns across the border would be problematic – and there would certainly be quite a few arrests and seizures. But there haven’t been.

Therefore, the weapons, while originating in the US, are getting into Mexico via other countries and channels. That’s where the real straw buyers are. Plus, there’s a huge black and gray market in weapons that ignores laws. So while laws here between private buyers probably need to be tightened up, so does tracking of weapons sold to buyers in other countries. Because I’m guessing US gun companies and the various intermediaries aren’t asking a whole lot of questions.

So, while some weapons may be crossing the borders a few at a time, buying them hundreds at a time through intermediaries elsewhere would be way more efficient. Besides, the cartels also have ground-to-air missiles, helicopters, bazookas, and grenade launchers. Clearly, no one is attempting to smuggle a helicopter across the border.

Drugs-for-guns is a time-honored swap. So, there could be all manner of organized crime providing firearms to the cartels in exchange for drugs.


  1. BLB cites the following list of weapons: “AK-47 assault rifles, AR-15 assault rifles, MP5s submachine guns, 50 mm machine guns, grenade launchers, ground-to-air missiles, dynamite, bazookas, and helicopters…” Only the first two (and helicopters) are legal for U.S. citizens to own, with the exception that if an individual applies to BATF with fingerprints and permission of local law enforcement, pays a $200 fee, undergoes a months-long background check, and forfeits his/her 4th amendment rights, he/she can purchase a [single] machine gun if it was manufactured before 1983. It cannot seriously be argued that individual Americans are the source of automatic weapons, RPGs, missiles, or bazookas.

    BLB then cites (with no source or link) the 87% figure. This appears to be a restatement of the tired and inaccurate Obama administration claim based on the number of firearms submitted by the Mexican government for tracing. (Fox is equally wrong in their 17% claim.)

    The fact is, we know (from the list above) that the cartels have other sources of weapons besides the U.S. We also know that not all guns are submitted to BATF for tracing, and we have no idea what the percentage submitted is. Some independent fact checkers put the percentage of guns originating in the U.S. at 36%, but even they acknowledge that no one really knows.

    I really wonder why a cartel would choose as their point of purchase a $400 semi-automatic AK-47 in a gun store in Texas where they also have to pay a straw buyers and arrange purchase one at a time, when they could buy a $100 full-auto AK-47 in a market in Somalia, for example, available by the truckload for cash.

    OTOH, the photos appear to show dozens of M-16 rifles or their variants. I’m not familiar enough to know if these are military or police issue, but these weapons, while “originating in the U.S.” have been sold to military and police forces all over the world, including to the Mexican authorities.

    In any case, why focus on gun laws in the U.S. when the main issue here is legalization of drugs, and a secondary issue is training by the U.S. military of yet another group of assassins. They, like dozens of other such groups in Latin America, were trained at the School of the Americas (later WHISC and now WHINSEC) at Ft. Benning, GA, which has been responsible for training death squads and perpetrators of human rights abuses in a dozen nations– including the killers of Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador and leaders of the peace movement in Colombia, as well as nuns, union leaders, journalists, and tens of thousands of others.

    Are there problems with illegal gun exports? Probably. But the U.S. is hardly the only source of weapons, just the closest. Much like the war on drugs itself, trying to address the symptoms of the problem without addressing the problem itself is unlikely to succeed.

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