You Don’t Need to Go to Mexico to Write about the Drug War

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Photo courtesy of the DEA

Mexican journalists have complained for some time that their U.S. counterparts are not doing enough to report on drugs, weapons and money in the United States that is fueling the devastating cartel violence in Mexico. I think they’re right.  And as I’ve written in previous blogs, I think the news media in the United States needs to do more to provide context and analysis as to why the violence is occurring. ( I include myself in this motley mix). The violence and corruption is not solely Mexico’s problem. The so called “Drug War” is a global market phenomenon of buyers and sellers. The United States happens to be the biggest buyer of narcotics and seller of weapons. While our neighbor to the south – with a nearly 50 percent poverty rate – is more than willing to provide the drugs.

This month, two large mainstream news organizations published articles on the U.S. gun industry and U.S. efforts to cripple Mexican cartels. They spent a considerable amount of time and money digging deeper into the Drug War story to provide U.S. readers some insight into what fuels the violence. I take this as a positive sign that more news organizations are embarking on investigative reporting about drug trafficking and finally getting beyond the more simplistic body count stories.

Very few in depth stories are written about the multi-billion dollar illegal drug industry in the United States. As one Latin American journalist joked recently “Do the drugs just magically disappear when they cross the border like a David Copperfield trick?” On December 1, the Associated Press published an investigative story on U.S. efforts to deal the Sinaloa Cartel a “crushing blow.” But what the AP investigation found was that many of the people arrested who supposedly worked for the cartel in the United States “…are low-level American street dealers and “mules” who help smuggle the drugs. But most have never heard of the Mexican organized crime gangs they’re supposed to represent, let alone have conducted business directly with the cartel. Such workers are easily replaced with only an inconvenience to the organization.”

The AP reported that the sweeping DEA investigation called Operation Xcellerator, which produced the largest-ever federal crackdown of 761 people arrested and 23 tons of narcotics seized did little to slow down the drug trade.

Despite the government crackdowns the Mexican drug trade continues to make huge profits, according to the AP.  “In 2007, the Justice Department estimated that the Mexican drug trade generated as much as $24.9 billion. By 2009, it was $39 billion. This year, the government declined to make a projection, saying only that drugs brought in “tens of billions of dollars.””

Many people point to the link between guns bought in the United States and the violence in Mexico where gun sales are prohibited. But is it true?

On December 15, the Washington Post published an investigative story about the more than 60,000 U.S. guns recovered in Mexico in the past four years. They traced those guns back to several dealers in the United States.

It used to be relatively easy to find gun trace information, but in 2003, at the NRA’s behest, Congress made the information confidential.

The Washington Post spent a year tracking down the information and pinpointing the top U.S. gun dealers who were linked to the guns recovered in Mexico.

What they found was that eight of the top 12 dealers are in Texas, three are in Arizona, and one is in California. In Texas, four of the top 12 retailers are in Rio Grande Valley, which is not surprising considering its close proximity to Mexico.

Number five on the list was the Academy Sports and Outdoor, which is a chain based in Houston. Academy has 128 stores throughout the South, including eight along the Texas-Mexico border. According to the Post “With the violence increasing and more guns being traced to Academy’s outlets, about a year ago the chain removed all tactical weapons, such as AK-47s and AR-15s, from the shelves of its border stores.”

Now there’s some good corporate policy making. “We voluntarily and proactively took several actions that would ensure our firearms sales don’t contribute to border violence,” spokeswoman Elise Hasbrook said. “Academy also limits sales of such weapons, favored by drug cartels, to one per customer, counts its weapons twice a day and audits the inventory weekly,” she said.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that anyone can buy an AK-47 or AR-15 at an Academy store if he or she so desires. Nor should I be surprised that it’s perfectly legal to buy multiple assault rifles at the same time. That’s going to be some deer hunt.

It’s stories like these that illustrate just how symbiotic our relationship is with Mexico. When someone dies in Juarez the gun is traced to Houston. When a junkie scores in Los Angeles a dealer in Tijuana provides the heroin. Hopefully in 2011, we’ll see more mainstream media outlets digging deeper to tell the whole story.

Melissa del Bosque joined The Texas Observer staff in 2008. She specializes in reporting on immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border. Her work has been published in national and international publications including TIME magazine and the Mexico City-based Nexos magazine. She has a master’s in public health from Texas A&M University and a master’s in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin.