Posts Tagged ‘drug cartels’

Goddard comes out against medical marijuana, his base & the facts

Arizona’s Attorney General and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry Goddard should know better.

Terry Goddard. (Photo from his campaign site.)

When Arizona’s Governor-by-default Jan Brewer announced her opposition to Proposition 203 to legalize medical marijuana on Wednesday, she had little to lose in the way of votes or credibility. There is strong opposition to medical marijuana among conservatives. And since this is the governor who made up tall tales about headless bodies in the desert and rampant drug smuggling by Mexican immigrants, no one is really looking to her as a beacon of truth on the subject. So when she warned in her press conference that medical marijuana dispensaries could overwhelm communities– even though the proposition caps the number of dispensaries at 124 statewide — no one was surprised.

But Goddard is a smart guy who has built his campaign on being, well, smarter and more honest about the issues than Brewer. So that’s why Goddard’s factually-problematic statement this week opposing Proposition 203 — likely posted in haste to pull the issue off the table when Brewer announced her press conference — caught so many people by surprise. Among them, Democratic political operative-turned-medical marijuana champion Andrew Myers, who is running the Yes on Proposition 203 campaign: “What I thought was really disappointing was that his criticism wasn’t even rooted in fact,” Myers says. It was so “remarkably off base”  it sounded like something coming out of Brewer’s camp.

The measure clearly requires dispensaries to grow their own marijuana and charges state officials with the responsibility to inspect them to make sure they are doing so. But Goddard joined the chorus of misinformation on the measure, contending that somehow it would enrich drug cartels:

“I have spent more than seven years as Arizona’s top law enforcement official cracking down on drug trafficking, unrelentingly working to keep Arizona children safe from the dangers of drug abuse.  I cannot in good conscience advocate for a Proposition that encourages importing drugs into our country or that might result in drugs getting into the hands of our children.”

No one seems to know where Goddard got this. Sick people in Arizona who smoke marijuana already get their pot from drug cartels, and Proposition 203 would give them a legal alternative if they qualify. His statement came on the tail of published opposition by the state’s county attorneys and sheriffs — but even they didn’t make this ludicrous argument. And his campaign refuses to explain it. My emails and phone calls seeking an explanation — giving the benefit of the doubt that maybe the attorney general had found a loophole in the measure that I don’t see — have met with no response, even though I have a professional relationship with Goddard and several campaign leaders going back many years.

Not only is Goddard’s opposition not rooted in fact — it doesn’t seem to be true to his own beliefs. As Attorney General, Goddard has said in the past that legalization of marijuana is something that should be discussed. His statement opposing the measure garnered an incredulous response from one of his own employees on Facebook. In a post, since removed, the long-time Goddard loyalist blasted his boss for backing away from his beliefs. “I have never seen him, ever, do something politically expedient in the 5 years I have worked for him — until now,” the employee wrote.

And as for political calculation, where were Goddard’s strategists on this one? As the underdog in the race, Goddard needs to both distinguish himself from Brewer and motivate as many left-leaning (and independent and undecided) folks to the polls as possible if he wants to overcome the odds and defeat Brewer. By jumping on the opposition bandwagon this late in the campaign with a half-hearted explanation (a short statement compared to Brewer’s bells-and-whistles press conference), he didn’t win the issue or take points from Brewer: The Arizona Republic, for example, blogged about Brewer’s press conference but only mentioned Goddard’s opposition in passing in the final sentence.

Proposition 203 is polling far better than Goddard’s campaign. It is especially popular among Democrats and Libertarian-minded Independents: Myers says internal numbers (albeit from last year) found Proposition 203 to poll favorably among 75 percent of Democrats and 78 percent of Independents. Plus, polling in California has indicated that the marijuana vote there for Proposition 19 could be a big help to Democratic candidates.

Myers says he has received several calls from disillusioned Democrats, some of whom have said this cost Goddard their votes. I saw similar proclamations on Facebook. Myers’ campaign has asked Goddard for a retraction — reminiscent of Goddard’s own demands to Brewer to admit she was wrong about beheadings in Arizona. So far, no response. The worst possibility for Goddard is that medical marijuana supporters will answer the ballot question for governor the same way.


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This Week in Drugs (Oct. 22, 2010)

By David Robles

Authorities in Tijuana seized 105 tons of marijuana after a clash with suspected drug runners on Monday in what President Felipe Calderon says was the country’s largest marijuana seizure ever. Police seized more than 15,000 packages of marijuana and detained 11 people following the armed encounter that left a government agent and a suspected drug runner injured. (See Mexican officials incinerate the pot in this clip from MSNBC.)

During a recent panel presentation at the University of Texas at Austin, The Los Angeles Times‘ Mexico City bureau chief, Tracy Wilkinson, said reporting on the cartel violence in Mexico is no different than covering a war. Wilson explained that the foreign press struggles with three main obstacles when reporting on the drug war: getting sources  to talk, avoiding being made a pawn by one side or the other, and whether and how to use the “grisly images” and “horrific details,” according to the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas blog.

In the Mexican state of Chihuahua, a 20-year-old criminology student, Marisol Valles Garcia, was named the chief of police for the city of Praxedis Guadalupe Guerrero on Monday. No one else would accept the position of chief of police in the city where the former mayor and members of the local police force have been killed and at least eight people were murdered in the last week, MSNBC reported. Garcia said that her job would not be to fight the drug trafficking, which falls to the federal government, but instead will focus on preventative programs for schools and neighborhoods to make an impact on the community.

Mexican Ambassador to the United States, Arturo Sarukhan, told the Dallas News that he believes his country needs to take a new stance on U.S. migration and border enforcement. Sarukhan says Mexico needs to boost economic growth and job creation “to anchor those women and men with well-paying jobs in Mexico” and “ensure that every single Mexican that crosses the border into the United States does so with papers, through a designated port of entry, and legally.” These are two key courses of action that he says Mexico has been unwilling to do in the past.

A new poll shows California’s Proposition 19 to legalize medical marijuana for recreational use by adults might fail. The Los Angeles Times/USC poll found voters opposing it 51 percent to 39 percent. Meanwhile, The Press-Enterprise sought to clear up confusion about the measure with a question-and-answer story here.

All 30 of Arizona’s elected county sheriffs and county attorneys have come out against the state’s medical marijuana measure, Proposition 203, as have the two leading candidates for governor. Republican Jan Brewer and Democrat Terry Goddard both announced their opposition to the measure this week. Meanwhile, officials at the Arizona Department of Health Services are beginning to contemplate new regulations, since they would have 120 days following the certification of the election to put regulations in place.


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This Week in Drugs (Oct. 15, 2010)

The federal government will enforce federal marijuana laws in California even if voters there legalize marijuana for recreational use by approving Proposition 19 on Nov. 2, the Associated Press reports. In a letter to former Drug Enforcement Administration chiefs on Wednesday, Attorney General Eric Holder wrote: ”We will vigorously enforce the CSA against those individuals and organizations that possess, manufacture or distribute marijuana for recreational use, even if such activities are permitted under state law.” Holder said approval of the measure would undermine efforts to keep California communities safe from drug traffickers.

The campaign to legalize marijuana for medicinal use in Arizona, Proposition 203, put up campaign signs this week and released a new television ad. (Watch it here.) The act, if passed, will allow patients with debilitating conditions such as cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C and Alzheimer’s disease to use marijuana with a doctor’s recommendation. If the measure passes, Arizona will be the 15th state in the nation with legal medical pot. And passage looks likely: a recent Rocky Mountain Poll found 54 percent of registered voters in favor of the law, with 32 percent opposing.

A memo from within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security warned that Mexican cartels planned to send armed hit-men into Arizona to assassinate bandits stealing marijuana near Casa Grande, The Arizona Republic reported Friday. The memo, which a spokesman for DHS said has since “proved to be inaccurate,” said members of the hit squad planned to establish positions in Vekol Valley, then send in men wearing backpacks pretending to haul loads of marijuana through the desert to trick armed thieves, called bajadores, into attacking them.

Meanwhile, the conflict between border security and environmental conservation along the border is heating up. Utah Rep. Rob Bishop released a draft report this week documenting conflicts arising from the U.S. Border Patrol’s efforts to secure the U.S.-Mexico border on land protected by the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and the Fish and Wildlife Service. The Government Accountability Office report shows that only four of the 26 Border Patrol stations along the border have encountered problems patrolling protected lands. Bishop and other Republicans are pushing a measure to do away with wilderness and endangered species protection at the border.

According to a post on the U.S. Department of State Official Blog, the agency has developed a secure tipline for residents of Juarez, Mexico, to report cartel crime. According to a recent survey by Mexico’s Institute for Studies on Insecurity, 78 percent of crimes go unreported in Mexico and only two percent actually result in convictions. The state department hopes that with the anonymous hotline those in Juarez who witness a crime will feel safe enough to contact the authorities and help combat the city’s rampant drug war violence.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon is also turning to technology to fight drug cartels. According to The Latin American Herald Tribune, Calderon plans to launch three satellites to be used for national security and expanding telecommunications capabilities. The satellites, expected to cost about $1.5 billion, will be finished by the end of Calderon’s administration in 2012. His announcement comes as some 2,000 delegates from 122 countries convene at 18th Plenipotentiary Conference of the International Telecommunication Union in Guadalajara.

Tijuana has seen a sharp rise in its murder rate following Calderon’s claim last week that the city is an example of success in the drug war. Since last Sunday, there have been 16 killings. Three headless bodies were also found along with a head, which did not belong to any of the bodies.

Mexican criminal enterprising are becoming increasingly involved in sex trafficking, reports the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. With profits from human trafficking estimated at as high as $6.6 billion, the organization says “conservative estimates conclude that over 100,000 women, a number predicted to increase by the end of 2010, are trafficked out of Latin America annually for the purpose of prostitution.” With other varieties of drug war violence dominating the headlines, the group said human trafficking from Latin America too often is overlooked or mislabeled as illegal immigration when, in reality, thousands of women and children are forced into sexual slavery on both sides of the border.

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SNL: Drugs & pirates? How about beaches & piñatas!

Saturday Night Live did a hilarious bit on Weekend Update about Mexican tourism amid drug cartel violence. It features a “Mexican tourism official” (Fred Armisen) who suddenly loses his ability to speak English any time Seth Meyers mentions drug cartels or pirates.

In case you missed it:

Tourism has taken a hit, especially in border towns, and anecdotal evidence shows many pockets of Mexico are suffering. But The Los Angeles Times reported this week that overall data on foreign visitors shows that tourism has rebounded since last year. The Times said this may mean that international tourists’ fear over violence has ebbed, at least in beach resorts. While that would be good for Mexico’s economy, I worry that if Americans begin to think of the Mexican violence as simply the status quo it could hurt the sense of urgency to address the underlying causes, including the insatiable appetite for drugs in the U.S. and the prohibition we impose globally that creates the violent black market.

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This week in drugs (Oct. 8, 2010)

The U.S. is hypocritical about drug policy? Say it ain’t so! In a recent interview with the Associated Press in which he touted the successes of the drug war in reducing violence in Tijuana, Mexican President Felipe Calderon blasted the U.S. for pushing his country to escalate the drug war while not doing enough to combat drug use by U.S. citizens. He called government surveys showing that consumption of drugs in the U.S. is up “truly disappointing” and said California’s upcoming vote to legalize marijuana is part of a “terrible inconsistency” in U.S. drug policy:

“They have exerted pressure and demanded for decades that Mexico and other countries control, reduce and fight drug trafficking, and there is no discernible effort to reduce the consumption of drugs in the United States,” Calderon said.

While Calderon criticized Prop. 19, a major U.S. Latino political group endorsed it this week. According to The Sacramento Bee, LULAC’s California director, Argentina Dávila-Luévano said prohibition is not working for Latinos or U.S. society:

“Far too many of our brothers and sisters are getting caught in the cross-fire of gang wars here in California and the cartel wars south of our border. It’s time to end prohibition, put violent, organized criminals out of business and bring marijuana under the control of the law.”

Accusations of abuse and injustice by Mexican law enforcement officers continue. Reuters reported this week that poor residents of Ciudad Juarez complain that they are being unfairly targeted and unjustly arrested by corrupt police who use them as scapegoats while allowing powerful drug lords to operate freely. To combat police corruption, Calderon is pushing to do away with municipal police forces.

Meanwhile, both tourism and the economy in Mexico seem to be doing well. The Los Angeles Times reports that foreign visitors to Mexico jumped nearly 20 percent this summer over last year. And, according to CNN, the Mexican stock market is up 6.7 percent year-to-date, compared to just a 5 percent gain in the Dow Jones industrial average.

The search resumed this morning for the body of a man presumed dead after his wife said he was shot in the head by cartel-connected pirates while jet skiing on a lake on the Texas-Mexico border. U.S. officials, including Texas Gov. Rick Perry, have criticized Mexican officials for not doing enough to find the man’s body, the AP reports.

In Arizona, a forensic test appears to give credence to the story of a Pinal County Deputy who claims he was wounded in a shoot-out with drug cartels. The Arizona Republic reports that tests by the Arizona Department of Public Safety did not find any gun powder on his shirt, which would have supposedly been present if he had shot himself. Some experts and critics had speculated that Deputy Louie Puroll made up the story to bolster public support for Arizona’s controversial immigration law, SB1070. At a press conference this week, Puroll lashed out at critics and said: “I can’t imagine why anybody would shoot themselves.” The fact that people did believe it possible that he would shoot himself is important. It says far more about the level of rancor and insanity in the border security debate than it does about this individual deputy.

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Amanda Crawford on gun trafficking for AZFamily 3TV

Amanda J. Crawford and U.S. Attorney Dennis K. Burke discuss gun trafficking from Arizona to Mexican drug cartels in connection with Crawford’s feature in the October issue of Phoenix Magazine. Read “The Iron River” here.

Please note that there was an error edited into the story: When I am talking about being able to buy assault rifles without a background check, I am specifically talking about gun shows. Gun shows exploit an exception in federal law that allow individual sellers to make private sales without any paperwork required. The TV piece doesn’t make that distinction. Read my Phoenix Magazine on-line exclusive on the gun shows, “Get Your Guns.”

I also blogged about what I learned from working on these stories. Read “Crawford On Guns.”

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This Week in Drugs (Oct. 1, 2010)

by David E. Robles

California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a measure today that makes possession or marijuana the equivalent of a traffic ticket. The governor’s unexpected decision comes a month before voters will decide on Proposition 19 to legalize recreational marijuana use for adults. The law, which decriminalizes marijuana, reduces possession of an ounce or less of marijuana from a misdemeanor crime to an infraction. The measure eliminates the need for police to book people caught with marijuana and for courts to hold trials, according to the San Fransisco Chronicle.

Texas officials renewed warnings about attacks by pirates in the border-straddling Falcon Lake after a Colorado man was gunned down in Mexican waters on Thursday while riding his jet ski. His wife, who escaped the ambush by gunmen on boats, said her was shot in the back of the head after the photographed a church on the Mexican side of the lake. The man is missing and presumed dead. According to the Associated Press, there have been five incidences with pirates on the lake this year. State Rep. Aaron Pena, as well as Texas Gov. Rick Perry, said they have little doubt that the pirates are associated with Mexican cartels.

Mexican authorities arrested suspected drug lord Soto “El Tigre” Reyes on Sunday near Guadalajara. Reyes allegedly smuggled a ton of drugs into the United States monthly. The BBC said police believe he replaced Ignacio Coronel, a top member of the Sinaloa cartel, after Coronel was killed by Mexican soldiers in July.

Authorities in Ohio have discovered huge “megafarms” of pot, four of which have been tied to Mexican criminal enterprises in the past three years. Cincinnati News 5 reported the arrest of 11 men on Sept. 21. The men face charges of conspiracy to cultivate more than 100 marijuana plants. Police say they are collecting evidence from the sites but that DNA evidence is difficult to match as many of the suspects are not American citizens.

According to an article in USA Today, U.S. officials admit that vehicle searches along the border have been frustratingly ineffective in slowing the flow of guns to Mexican criminal enterprises. After Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced an increased vehicle search program beginning in March 2009, U.S. Customs and Border Protection went five straight months without recovering a single weapon in El Paso. Experts estimate 2,000 arms per day are smuggled across the border into Mexico. (Read more: Amanda Crawford writing for Phoenix Magazine and blog posts on gun laws and a recent gun trafficking sweep in Phoenix.)

An Economist Blog post reported that the murder rate in Mexico stabilized from June to August and decreased in September. Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s spokesman on security, Alejandro Poiré, said, “in certain areas like Baja California and other places where the violence is concentrated, [there has been] a diminishing of the violence rates.”


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Dear drug warriors: Does marijuana support cartels & terrorism or not? You can’t have it both ways.

Dear drug warriors:

I am confused. For years, you have told me and other Americans that buying marijuana was really bad because it financed nasty people and caused violence around the world. After 9/11 you scared the heck out of us with those commercials explaining how our dope financed terrorists. I mean, there was even that creepy little girl whose ghost blames a middle-aged woman for financing “the bomb” that killed her. Wow. Terrifying.

Then in 2008, the Office of National Drug Control Policy released a report that blamed marijuana — not harder drugs– for providing the bulk of funding for Mexican drug cartels. Many Americans, puffing on their joints, blamed the coke heads, crack whores, heroin addicts and meth freaks. But, no! You said marijuana provided more than 60 percent of Mexican drug cartel profits. This was just as the violence in Mexico crescendoed. Mass graves. Dead kids. Cities on the border turned into war zones. Because of pot!

So a whole bunch of people around the country, especially those forward-thinking California types, took your words to heart. They started thinking about the failure of the drug war. (Nearly 17 million people admitted to recently smoking pot last year — that’s an awful lot of Americans financing terrorists and drug cartels.) And they started talking about stopping the flow of the profits to the bad guys by making marijuana legal.

Think about it, they said: if marijuana were legal, it would stop all those millions of dollars that flow to cartels and terrorists. Instead, we may be able to tax sales and give money to schools. After more than 40 years of absolute failure in stopping drug use — even with escalating scare tactics — these people proposed another way to stop the bad guys. Californians will go to the polls in a month to decide whether this is a good idea.

That’s when you suddenly changed your tune. Earlier this month, the national drug-warrior-in-chief Gil Kerlikowske (the head of ONDCP) said marijuana provides only a “small part of the revenue” of Mexican drug cartels. Just ignore all those numbers we put out before, he said.

But I guess he forgot to send the memo to the rest of the drug warriors telling them that the “marijuana finances bad guys” spin was no longer being used. Doing some research this week I ran across this quote in a New York Times article from earlier this year about the HUGE role marijuana plays in financing Mexican cartels, from none other than the woman working the front line for the DEA:

“The cartels use the profit from marijuana to purchase cocaine in Colombia and Peru and the ingredients for meth and heroin from other regions,” said Elizabeth W. Kempshall, special agent in charge of the Arizona office of the Drug Enforcement Administration. “So marijuana is the catalyst for the rest of the drug trade.”

See why I’m confused? You can’t seem to give me a straight answer. If marijuana finances the bad guys, then ending prohibition should help to stop them. If it doesn’t finance the bad guys, then you have been willfully lying to the American people for years. You can’t have it both ways.

Look, I know you don’t want kids to do drugs. I don’t have kids, but having whacked out little munchkins roaming around my neighborhood, crashing into my sports car with their big wheels doesn’t appeal to me either. (I mean, I occasionally flip past one of the psychedelic little cartoons they watch nowadays, and I don’t think kids need any help being weird.)

But the functioning of a democracy depends on the people being able to make educated decisions about public policy. When the people exercise direct democracy, like they are doing in California with Proposition 19, they need their experts (that’s you) to tell them the truth.

Anxiously waiting for your reply,


P.S. Same goes for medical marijuana. You would have far more legitimacy telling us that marijuana has no medical benefits if you stopped blocking the tests to show whether or not there are medical benefits. Just sayin’.

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This week in drugs (Sept. 24, 2010)

A stunning investigation by the Phoenix New Times this week sheds doubt on the story of a Pinal County, Ariz., deputy who claimed he was injured in a desert shoot-out this spring with drug smugglers armed with AK-47s. The incident came during the heated debate over Arizona’s tough new immigration law, SB1070, and it helped propel outspoken Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu to national limelight in support of the measure and in blasting the Obama administration over border security. A panel of pathologists and other experts poked major holes in the deputy’s story. (The New Times also quotes an investigator who points out that it never made much sense for this incident — purportedly a shoot-out with criminals — to be used to ratchet up the immigration debate.)

Meanwhile, another Arizona politician’s distortions about drug cartel crime could lead to Zombie marches in Phoenix. A couple Facebook groups have popped up recently connected to Gov. Jan Brewer’s bogus claims that the Arizona desert has been beset by headless bodies. Headless Halloween in AZ – Just say “NO” to Jan Brewer pledges to stage “headless” events throughout Phoenix to oppose Brewer’s campaign for governor.

Facebook is still not playing ball with the national marijuana legalization campaign Just Say Now.  The group this week launched its on-line store, where it will raise money for and awareness of the campaign with hemp T-shirts, pro-legalization buttons, etc. The all-powerful social media site, which already had rejected the group’s campaign ads because they included the image of a pot leaf, won’t let them advertise the store either. The campaign says it created ads with the “obviously offensive plant leaf” blurred out, but they were still rejected.

A new poll out this week has California’s Proposition 19 to legalize, regulate and tax marijuana favored to win. Public Policy Polling found the measure was favored by voters 47 percent to 38 percent, with a remarkable 14 percent of voters undecided. In an analysis on their blog, the pollsters noted that the measure polls along less partisan lines than other issues in the election. While it did better among Democrats (56 percent in favor; 28 percent opposed), it still had sizable support among Republicans (30 percent in favor; 57 percent opposed). “That’s a lot more division within the ranks of both parties than we’re seeing on a lot of stuff,” the pollsters wrote. They also noted that enthusiasm for the measure among voters under the age of 45 could help drive turnout for Democratic candidates. If gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown  and Senate candidate Barbara Boxer win “they may have the marijuana initiative to thank for driving turnout from folks who would otherwise have been drop off voters in a midterm,” the pollsters wrote. (More on this poll and past polls on the initiative from The Atlantic.)

The Obama administration both opposes legalization of marijuana and has “a dubious view of medical marijuana,” a drug policy adviser told those gathered at a drug court conference in Montana this week. According to the Billings Gazette, Kevin Sabet, special adviser for policy at the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, said legalizing marijuana will lead to more use, more arrests for drug-related behavior and won’t deal a heavy enough blow to drug gangs. He added that the Obama administration favors an approach to marijuana and the drug war that combines treatment with law enforcement.

In Mexico, where the fall out from the drug war is most acute, the murder this week of the mayor of the small Mexican town of Doctor Gonzalez has raised the death toll to 10 Mexican mayors assassinated in the past year.

Journalists, who have been a significant target of cartel violence, are trying to figure out what to do. After last Thursday’s murder of a 21-year-old photojournalist, the newspaper El Diario de Juarez ran two front-page editorials (seen here) directed to the drug gangs of the city. According to the BBC, the newspaper asked the cartels: “We ask you to explain what you want from us, what we should try to publish or not publish, so we know what to expect.” With more than 30 journalists dead in Mexico since 2006, El Diario says there is no story worth dying for anymore.

Last Saturday in Ciudad Juarez, police discovered the body of the photographer’s alleged murderer, himself executed and beheaded in a white Nissan Altima. The man’s head was left on the roof of the car with a copy of El Diario de Juarez on the dashboard. The body was found inside the car. According to Borderland Beat, Mexican police say the message left at the gruesome scene identifies the body as the photographer’s killer.

Borderland Beat also reports that similarly displayed bodies were found yesterday in Acapulco. The bodies of the men were found seated in the back seat with their heads on the roof of the car. A message left behind said, “This happened to us for transporting guns.” One of the men was a native of Texas.

And the flow of drugs across the border continues, as do efforts to stop it. Customs and Border Protection reported seizing more than 3,000 pounds of marijuana this week in the Tucson sector alone along with millions of dollars worth of heroin, cocaine and meth being smuggled elsewhere. Check it out.


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Crawford on Guns: Gun laws and trafficking to cartels

Amanda Crawford with an AR-15 type assault rifle at a Phoenix pawn shop. (Photo by Laura Segall.)

Nearly 30,000 people have been killed in drug war violence in Mexico in the last four years, sometimes within yards of the U.S. border.

This isn’t some remote war in a foreign land. It isn’t the product of cultural clashes, or a political uprising, or a corrupt government. This is a war of our doing: Mexico’s drug cartels are fueled by the consumption of illicit drugs on the U.S. black market. The Mexican government’s crackdown is funded, in part, by U.S. drug war money, with law enforcement officers trained and assisted by the U.S. government. And the drug cartels are armed with guns purchased on the U.S. consumer market.

For the October issue of Phoenix Magazine I looked at the significant role Phoenix is playing as a “gun locker” for the drug cartels. (Because of the relative lack of state restrictions, Arizona and Texas are now the primary suppliers of U.S. guns to Mexico.) The story is now available on news stands. You can read the feature story,“The Iron River” here.

I also went “undercover” at the Phoenix gun show, where I could have bought a dozen AR-15 semi-automatic assault rifles with no background check or any paperwork whatsoever. Read the on-line exclusive “Get Your Guns” here. (In case you missed it, I also blogged about the gun show in July.)

Some things I learned that you might find surprising:

  • The federal government does not keep records or maintain a database of gun purchases. While the federal government requires licensed gun dealers to conduct an instant background check to look for felonies, they are barred by law from retaining that information.
  • If authorities find a gun at a crime scene in the U.S. or Mexico, they have to go the whole way back to the manufacturer and trace the gun through the distribution chain to the store where it was sold as new. Since many manufacturers are foreign, this process can take days or even weeks. If the gun was resold by the original owner, the trail often goes cold here. That’s why pawn shops are major sources of crime guns: it is really hard to trace them.
  • If authorities want to know what guns someone purchased, they have to go store to store looking through paper files that are organized chronologically by date of purchase. In the case I wrote about, the ATF went store to store with a photograph of the suspected trafficker, hoping to find workers who would remember when he bought a gun.
  • There is no background check or paperwork required for the purchase of ammunition in Arizona. You must be at least 18 years old and a legal resident, but they aren’t required to check — and they don’t. Think about this: You can go into a gun store and buy thousands of rounds of ammunition, including 100-round drum magazines for assault rifles, and there is no paper trail. But if you purchase cold or allergy medicines in Arizona, they scan your driver’s license and that information is stored in an electronic database.
  • If you buy two handguns at the same store in a five-day period, federal law requires the gun dealer to report the sale to the ATF. But you can buy as many assault rifles or other long guns as you want and there is no report. Authorities say it is not uncommon for someone to walk into a gun shop in Phoenix and buy 10 AK-47 type rifles at one time. Many gun dealers agree this is illogical. Several law enforcement officials told me that extending the multiple sales report to rifles would be the single biggest thing we could do to slow gun trafficking to Mexico. In the case I wrote about the guy got caught because he messed up and bought more than one hand gun.
  • Gun shows in Arizona and many other states exploit an exception in federal law that allows guns to be sold in private sales without a background check or any paperwork required. I could have loaded my little car with assault rifles at the gun show without any paper trail whatsoever. (Check out the links for the gun show stories above for more details.)
  • There is no “gun trafficking” crime per se. Under federal law, people are charged with lying on the federal background check form. Even if the guns can be traced to deaths in Mexico this charge usually carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison — lower than the sentences for drug smuggling.
  • The federal government has an amazing amount of data on gun crimes and trafficking, and you can’t see it. Fearing law suits against gun manufacturers, the gun lobby won a special exception that blocks the ATF from sharing this information with you or your elected representatives.

Look, I’m not a foe of the 2nd amendment. I’ve been around guns plenty. I’ve fired guns, and I’m not a bad shot. My ex-husband practically had an arsenal under our bed, and I was O.K. with that. (And gun advocates note: I haven’t even talked about the assault weapons ban. I understand it doesn’t make a lot of sense to ban guns based on how bad-ass they look.)

But the situation in Mexico has become dire. I have grown increasingly frustrated with conservatives howling about violent drug cartels at the border and then talking about immigration enforcement and SB1070 as the solution. Even if every Mexican immigrant were a drug mule (And just to be clear, Gov. Brewer: they are not) it is the demand for drugs and the easy supply of weapons that is perpetuating the violence. Do we really only care about the violence in Mexico if it spills across some arbitrary line in the desert? (If you believe Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu, his deputies are already being outgunned on U.S. soil by the cartels.)

The reality is that talking about gun laws is just about as taboo as talking about drug prohibition. When I started asking about the inconsistencies in federal law and special exceptions to public records won by the gun lobby, a high-ranking ATF official pulled me aside to caution me: The NRA will come after you, he said. I put in repeated requests for comment to the office of Gov. Jan Brewer, an NRA darling. She talks an awful lot about the threat drug cartels pose to Arizona, but she has been M.I.A. on the issue of gun trafficking. (Gov. Brewer and Mr. Senseman: I’m still waiting for a call back.)

The reality is that we need to be talking about this. Right now. In Arizona and across the nation. We need to be having intellectually honest conversations about the drug war, including marijuana prohibition and overly harsh incarceration policies that are filling our prisons and bankrupting our states. And we need to be talking about guns.

I will explore some of these issues more in future posts and articles. And I’ll be on AZ Family Channel 3 TV next week. In the meantime, check out the story David Robles wrote for this site about a recent ATF gun trafficking sweep in Phoenix last week here.


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