Posts Tagged ‘immigration reform’

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.


  • Share/Bookmark

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.


  • Share/Bookmark

The real threat: Cartels could disrupt economy of entire Western Hemisphere

What’s the worst thing that could happen if drug cartel violence in Mexico is left unchecked? The collapse of the Mexican government? Increased violence in U.S. border towns?

Cameron H. Holmes, staff director of the Southwest Border Anti-Money Laundering Alliance, says cartels have the potential to disrupt the economy of the entire Western Hemisphere. And he thinks our political leaders just don’t get it.

Holmes will retire soon from his post as senior litigation counsel in the Arizona Attorney General’s Office to lead the Alliance, a quasi-governmental agency formed earlier this year to provide assistance to law enforcement along the border in combatting cartel activities and stopping the flow of guns and money into Mexico. The Alliance is funded with the settlement proceeds from a lawsuit against Western Union led by Holmes’ boss Arizona Attorney General (and Democratic gubernatorial candidate) Terry Goddard, which accused the company of facilitating money transfers from the U.S. to Mexican drug cartels. (Read more about the Alliance here and the Western Union settlement here.)

Last month, I interviewed Holmes for a story on gun trafficking that will appear in the October issue of Phoenix Magazine. The conversation was among the most thoughtful I have had about the drug war, how we got to this bloody moment in time and what we should be worried about in the future. Here are highlights from that conversation* – think of it as Mexican Drug War 101, from Holmes’ perspective:

The major change in the drug war in Mexico in the last three years is the result of a change in strategy and methods by the drug cartels, Holmes says. Previously there had been an “uneasy truce”: the cartels paid off Mexican law enforcement to look the other way. But now, the cartels want absolute power. This has manifested itself in attacks on police stations and politicians, car bombs, beheadings and attacks on the general public.

The cartels have diversified their business to gain all manner of control: diverting petroleum, hijacking cargo from trains and trucks, extorting insurance companies. Essentially, they have taken on the characteristics of a classic mafia organization or warlord, not of a traditional drug trafficking organization. Many young men are attracted to the border area to work in the maquiladoras (the factories that have sprung up on the Mexican side of the border in recent years) and immigrate into the U.S. This gives the drug cartels an unlimited supply of young men to recruit as soldiers. In the past, the drug trafficking organizations were familial. Now, they see their men as expendable.

The all-out war we see in Mexico is enabled by this unlimited supply of mercenaries combined with a steady stream of weapons from the U.S. “The only way this war for regional control can continue to function is with a continuous supply of high-powered weapons,” he says. Yet U.S. politicians have done little to really clamp down on gun trafficking to Mexico by passing common sense laws such as restrictions on military grade weapon sales and sales at gun shows, instituting common sense reporting requirements (like of multiple purchases of assault rifles) or lifting gun lobby-pushed restrictions on the ATF that limit the agency’s investigative abilities.

Holmes notes that the Democrats control Congress and the White House, but they haven’t been willing to take on the gun lobby. “They haven’t got the guts, and I don’t think they understand how important it is to the future of our hemisphere,” he says. He calls the inaction on gun trafficking by Congress “disgraceful.” “Here is an opportunity to do something about the weapons fueling the Mexican criminal enterprise and they have done zero. They allowed previous restrictions on assault weapons to expire.”

Holmes says he does not think U.S. residents or political leaders fully grasp the significant threat posed by the increasing power of the Mexican cartels. “They are in a position to blockade trade between the U.S. and Mexico,” which would disrupt the economy of the entire hemisphere, he says. “I don’t think the general public of the U.S. has any idea how threatening the situation is or that Congress adequately appreciates it. I think that time is very short … that we and our contemporaries have to reverse this trend.”

Instead of focusing on gun trafficking, Holmes notes that politicians nationally and in Arizona have instead focused on immigrants and illegal immigration. “It doesn’t make the least bit of difference how many immigrants are in the United States at any given time to make the threat of Mexican criminal enterprises a clear and present danger to the United States’ hemispheric interests,” Holmes says. The cartels “don’t need to cross the border. They could stay in Mexico, throttle U.S.-Mexico trade and our hemispheric economy is dramatically disrupted . . . . What’s going to happen next is the representative government in Mexico is under question about whether it can survive.”

“We are spending our energy worrying about individuals crossing the border. We should be worried if there is going to be a Mexican economy five years from now,” he says. “It is tragic. We’re not doing nearly enough, and we are not succeeding.”

[*Author's Note: Ideally, I would have posted a verbatim transcript of my conversation with Holmes. However, my digital recorder died (and not just the batteries) right before the interview. As I always told my journalism students at Arizona State: this is why you take good notes.]


  • Share/Bookmark

Civil rights & a few sane moments on border security, drug policy

On Tuesday night – the day that the Department of Justice filed suit against the state of Arizona over its controversial new immigration law — I attended a civil rights forum hosted by my friend, U.S. Attorney for Arizona Dennis K. Burke. The forum was held in South Phoenix with leaders of the city’s small African-American community in response to a run-in in March between a black city councilman and a white city cop. But the timing of the event meant that SB1070 was the issue on the minds of the press and many of those in the small audience. After too many platitudes by officials and community leaders there (de rigueur at an event like this), I was pleased that there were a few moments of cogent conversation about border security, SB1070 and drugs.

-A supporter of the new law referenced a recent video released by Gov. Jan Brewer, asking in a formal tone: “Are not our rights violated when we can’t go out now to our deserts because of signs saying drugs and human smuggling corridor?” Burke, a practiced politician and prosecutor who was chief of staff to former AZ Gov. Janet Napolitano, gave one of the most reasoned and balanced responses I’ve heard about the new law and the lawsuit his office helped to craft against his native state. He said he understood the frustration that many people feel over illegal immigration, noting his office’s amped up law enforcement efforts prosecuting immigrants and drug smugglers. But he said while there is frustration about the lack of action by the federal government “a state law can’t be a substitute for frustration” and “frustration doesn’t lead to constitutionality.” Burke acknowledged the criminal ties between organizations that smuggle drugs and humans. And he touched on the angry divisions that have defined this debate in Arizona and unfairly tainted opponents: “There can’t be a line drawn that says if you don’t support this (law) you support illegal immigration.”

-Elderly former City Councilman Calvin Goode criticized Gov. Brewer and others for turning the drug trade into a one-sided problem, brought by Mexicans into our state. “What are we doing in terms of people who abuse drugs in this country? It takes two to tango,” Goode said. Burke agreed: “It can’t be just a law enforcement issue … We have to focus on other prongs, prevention and treatment.

-A young Hispanic couple expressed concerns about racial profiling under SB1070. Victor Valtierra, 22, pointed out the simple economics of supply and demand in both illegal immigration and drug smuggling that too many politicians seem to ignore in the heated debate: “People are demanding drugs. People are demanding people to pay low wages.”

  • Share/Bookmark

Benson cartoon: Brewer, drugs and immigrants

Arizona Republic's Steve Benson takes on Brewer's bogus assertions


  • Share/Bookmark

Secure the border … then what? Immigration reform doesn’t stop drug violence

For weeks I have struggled with what I have perceived as a major disconnect in the political rhetoric surrounding immigration reform. Since the murder of rancher Robert Krentz in Southeastern Arizona this spring, a common logic has emerged: the threat of violence from Mexican drug smuggling means we must secure the border and step up immigration enforcement or pass national immigration reform.  This is a logic that has been spouted, albeit with different policy objectives, from state leaders ranging from Republican Gov. Jan Brewer to Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. But I just don’t get it: How does immigration reform or enforcement of any flavor – amnesty or guest worker programs or mass deportations or increased prosecutions – do anything at all to stop drug violence?

Gov. Jan Brewer

Recently Brewer has offered unfathomable explanations about how the rise in drug cartel violence in Mexico is connected with SB1070, Arizona’s new immigration law that requires police to check someone’s status if they have reasonable suspicion the person is here illegally. Earlier this month, she said the law was needed to stop “the beheadings.” Then last week, she made the bogus claim that most illegal immigrants smuggle drugs.

Authorities suspect Krentz’ murderer may have been a Mexican in the U.S. illegally. But more significantly, they suspect he or she was likely tied to drug traffickers. There are a lot of people — immigrants and citizens alike — who are involved in the drug trade, and some of them are violent. Would a mass round up of illegal Mexican immigrants net some with ties to drug traffickers? Maybe. So would a mass round up of U.S. citizens at a mall.

Brewer’s outrageous assertions should shed light on the intellectual dishonesty that has shrouded this entire discussion in recent months. There is no doubt that our nation needs to fix our broken immigration system and enforce immigration laws. But if the problem you are trying to solve for is drug cartel violence, immigration reform is not the answer.

Drug trafficking exists because of U.S. demand and policies. Prohibition of any kind creates a black market that empowers criminal syndicates to flourish. The insatiable demand in the U.S. for illegal drugs makes that black market very profitable. Even if we were able to completely seal the U.S.-Mexico border (which is financially and practically impossible) we would just move the drug problem somewhere else — like our interdiction efforts against Colombian cartels empowered cartels in Mexico.

The violence in Mexico should be a wake-up call for policy changes in the United States. But let’s have an honest conversation that focuses on the right policies that get at the root causes of the problem.

  • Share/Bookmark