Shannon K. O'Neil

Latin America's Moment

O'Neil analyzes developments in Latin America and U.S. relations in the region.

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Why is the United States backing Mexican drug gangs?

by Shannon K. O'Neil
January 13, 2009

I wrote the following piece on the U.S. role in Mexico’s security challenges for

President Calderón is fighting America’s third war, and America’s backing his enemies.

By Shannon O’Neil

When President-elect Barack Obama is sworn in next week, he’ll become the proud owner of several wars. There is the familiar mayhem in Afghanistan and reluctant optimism in Iraq. And then there is America’s forgotten war: the war on drugs. That battle’s newest front is its southern neighbor Mexico, whose president, Felipe Calderón, Obama met on Monday. If Calderón speaks his mind, he could put it simply to Obama: We are fighting your war, and you are supplying our enemies — with demand for their drugs, money for their cartels, and guns for their violence.

Mexico is fighting for its life, and Calderón has ratcheted up the battle since becoming president in 2006. Still, the picture remains grim.

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  • Posted by Jason

    There are nearly 7,000 gun shops along the southern U.S. border, about three for every mile. They sell thousands of hand grenades, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, AK-47s, and “cop killer” guns and bullets that cut through Kevlar body armor.

    Every item you listed is ilegal under U.S. law and is in fact not being sold to anyone by U.S. gun shops.

    I’m sure NO weapons of war come NORTH from America Centrale and points south: Nicaragua, Honduras, Colombia, Venezuela.

  • Posted by R. B. Ramos

    Contrary to what most people in the US believes the war on drugs in Mexico is not a new thing. The Mexican Army has been in this fight for 3 decades with thousands of dead soldiers. It is truth however, that President Calderon has given more support and more freedom to the Army to operate against the Cartels, but this is a necessity rather than a strategy.
    The 400,000 policemen in Mexico are completely useless. After decades of neglect, they are either corrupt or incapable- in terms of training and equipment- to stand up to the Cartels.

    With a record 85 billion dollars in reserves, a 400 million dollars aid from the Merida Initiative is really useless; the problem is not money, the problem is the police and judicial systems are heavily infiltrated. The Army can only detain drug dealers in fraganti -red handed-, and are not allowed- by the constitution- to investigate or follow up, hence the ones detained are later freed by the corrupted system.

    To say that the Cartels out gun the Mexican Army is an exaggeration; it is truth that they have an impressive arsenal for a civilian criminal organization, including grenades, diverse assault rifles, 50mm Barret guns and even maybe Rocket Propelled Grenades -which if they have they have not used yet-, but the Army can handle this, they have done it so far. Every fight or battle, either on the streets or the sierras or mountains of Mexico, invariably ends up with the drug dealers running or dead.

    As for the allegations that the Cartels “frequently steal from the Mexican Army stockpiles”, it’s completely false and lacks any support. The Mexican Army has a limited arsenal and is very closely guarded; the weapons used by the Cartels do not come from there. They don’t come from the gun shops in the border either; the weapons used by the Cartels come from the US Army stockpiles and/or directly from the manufacturers like Armalite, Colt and Bushmaster to name a few.

    Why is the US backing Mexican Cartels?
    Here is why: there are 30 to 40 million consumers of drugs in the USA that demand their daily fix. Billions or drug dollars move freely and are laundered every year in the USA with the complacency of US Government and the public. The American public has been indoctrinated into believing that drug cartels come only from the south; but what about the American cartels that distribute and have the lion’s share of the drug business? Why does the DEA only arrest low level street distributors? – Mexico with very limited resources and a corrupted judicial system arrests many more cartel heads than the US-, Where are all the big fish? Apparently drugs distribute themselves in the USA.

    You can have all the international cooperation and support that you want, but the fundamental problem remains: as long as the American society keeps focused on money instead of family, more and more consumers will join the market, demand will increase and the drug business will thrive.

  • Posted by Jim

    I am a professional firearms instructor. I have been in the firearms industry for 21 years. Today I had the distinct displeasure of reading Shannon O’Neil’s report on “Why is the United States backing Mexican drug gangs?” Ms. O’Neil states she is a Douglas Dillon fellow for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.  The report was posted at as well as other locations. 

    I am shocked and dismayed by Ms. O’Neil’s report.   Never before have I seen such a blatant disregard for academic honesty.  Too many of the allegations in her story are just completely false and blatantly misleading.  

    She states: “There are nearly 7,000 gun shops along the southern U.S. border, about three for every mile. They sell thousands of hand grenades, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, AK-47s, and “cop killer” guns and bullets that cut through Kevlar body armor.”

    As of 2007, according to the Violence Policy Center, there was a little more than 51,000 Federal Firearm License (the license required to sell firearms) holders in the US.  The VPC report shows that are about 2000 FFLs in the entire state of California, 1000 in Az, 550 in New Mexico, and 4000 in the entire state of Texas.  These 4 states have a total of approximately 7500 FFL license holders.  

    The length of the southern border is approximately 1970 miles. In order to get Ms. O’Neil’s result of 7000 gun stores along the southern border at 3 gun stores per mile,  you must assume that EVERY gun store in states of California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas is located within 10 miles of the border.  This is clearly not the case.  Ms. O’Neil is either in dire need of remedial elementary school math, or she is intentionally misleading her readers in to believing something that clearly false.  

    She also claims that these 7,000 gun stores located on the border sell hand and rocket propelled grenades.  This is also false.  There is not one single gun store that legally sells these devices.  Grenades and RPGs, are 100% illegal outside of the military.  If she knows of a store that stocks these items, she should call the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives at once! They would love to shut these stores down and put the owners in jail (if they actually existed! )

    As to the subject of the cop killer bullets and guns, the only place hand gun cop killer bullets exist is in Hollywood movies.  They are a myth which originated with the movie Lethal Weapon 3.  Although, the cartels have been attempting to acquire FN 5.7 pistols since they were introduced in 2000. At that time, there were claims that this hand gun could defeat body armor. The BATFE has since clarified that these claims were false and that the 5.7 is not armor piercing and as a result it is available legally, but it is in very short supply. Even though they do not exist, federal law bans the private ownership of armor piercing handgun bullets.

    RIfles on the other hand are a different story. Almost every rifle made in the last 120 years has been able to penetrate kevlar body armor.  This includes all hunting rifles and other styles.  According to the US National Institute of Justice, in NIJ Standard-0101.06,  kevlar body armor has never been intended to resist bullets fired from rifles.

    She further states, and I quote: “Yet the arms that cartels can and do buy from the open U.S. market — completely illegally — leave Mexico’s police force and even its military outgunned.”  Weapons that would out gun Mexico’s military are not available to anyone on the open market.  Those types of weapons are reserved for governmental entities only and not available in gun stores as she seems to imply.  Not to mention, how can one buy something that is illegal on the “open market”??  Wouldn’t that be the black market?  Simple fact checking with the BATFE or FBI would have disproved these allegations.  

    The nature and number of these errors clearly point to intentional academic dishonesty.  

    If Ms. O’Neil has any integrity, she would retract her story at once until it can be peer reviewed and fact checked.  

  • Posted by Porter M. Corn

    Actually, there is evidence and arrests of people who have purchased weapons for the cartels from gun shops from Houston to Laredo.

    These weapons have been found in Mexico and serial numbers traced back to the sellers.

    There have been arrests and indictments as stated. These are facts.

  • Posted by Mark

    Guns going to Mexico is exactlly why we need to isolate mexico with a secure border, helpt to eliminated drugs, illegal aliens trespassing in to the US and shut down “all the guns going to Mexico”.

    Personally I will not give up my firearms, they are my right o own and my right to defent myself and my property. Since our politicians are to concerned with the next election/ re-election we continue to see more illegal aliens form south of the border committing more and more crimes, often repeat offenders only to be let go and back on the streets. The lazy Americans on welfare should be picking vegetables and working, maybe the hardwork would motiovate them to get an education and make something of themselves instead of a welfare number or a statistic.

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