Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Justice Department to Crack Down on Cross-Border Arms Trafficking

In the wake of the blowback from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms’ (ATF) failed “Operation Fast and Furious,” the Obama administration has announced this week that it will now require gun dealers in Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas to notify the bureau when they sell two or more semi-automatic, magazine-loading weapons to an individual in a period of five business days.
According to a statement by Deputy Attorney General James Cole on the Department of Justice website, the move is intended to crack down on the so-called “straw buyer phenomenon,” when individuals with clean backgrounds purchase assault weapons in order to sell them to cartel middlemen along the border.
"This new reporting measure -- tailored to focus only on multiple sales of these types of rifles to the same person within a five-day period -- will improve the ability of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to detect and disrupt the illegal weapons trafficking networks responsible for diverting firearms from lawful commerce to criminals and criminal organizations," Cole said. Additionally, the Department has mandated tougher penalties for straw buyers, and is introducing an electronic system which will both expedite background checks for handgun purchasers and make them easier to trace.
As The Daily Beast and the New York Times note, gun rights advocates are up in arms (pun intended) about the new regulations, which they say amount to a backdoor method of circumventing the Second Amendment without congressional approval. According to Politico’s Josh Gerstein, the National Rifle Association has already vowed to sue the Obama administration the instant the ATF sends its first batch of information requests to gun dealers. However, they may find a difficult case on their hands, as the measures only catalogue purchases, but do not actually prevent them.
As noted in the June 14 brief, three U.S. Senators used ATF data to compile a report last month which found that of the 29,284 firearms recovered by officials in Mexico in 2009 and 2010, 20,504 (70%) came from the United States. This report, combined with Senator Chuck Grassley and Representative Darrell Issa’s ongoing crusade against the Justice Department over “Operation Fast and Furious,” will likely ensure that the role of U.S. weapons in fueling Mexico’s drug war will remain a political football on the Hill for the foreseeable future.  

News Briefs

·         Meanwhile, the L.A. Times reported last week that acting ATF director Kenneth Melson has admitted to congressional investigators that some of the Mexican drug cartel members his agency targeted were paid informants for the FBI and DEA, meaning that some of them could have potentially used tax payer money to purchase weapons illegally and smuggle them across the border for criminal purposes. While Sen. Grassley and Rep. Issa have expressed shock over this revelation, it’s impossible to know how frequently this occurred, as well as how it differs from general “sting operation” tactics carried out by law enforcement.

·         El Universal says Federal Police in Mexico have captured a U.S.-born lieutenant of the Tijuana Cartel named Armando Villareal Heredia, alias ‘El Gordo’. Born in San Diego, Villareal allegedly worked his way up the cartel’s hierarchy to become head of the group’s smuggling route from Sinaloa to Tijuana. As the Associated Press points out, his arrest is the latest blow to the embattled Tijuana cartel, which has suffered a major hit to its command structure in recent years.

·         El Universal also has an interesting piece on the surge in violence in Monterrey, once one Mexico’s most safe cities. As the paper reports, the transformation is the result of fighting between the Zetas and their former bosses the Gulf Cartel. Apparently Mexican security forces have discovered that many cartel foot soldiers carry .762 caliber weapons, which are prohibited by NATO members.

·         The Woodrow Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute has created a new online elections guide, which covers the major candidates, parties and timelines related to the country’s 2012 presidential election.

·         Colombia’s El Tiempo has published an opinion poll for Bogota’s October mayoral elections. According to the results, the three main candidates are all within four points of each other, with Green Party candidate Enrique Peñalosa receiving 22 percent of electoral support, Alternative Democratic Pole candidate Gustavo Petro receiving 20 percent, and independent candidate Gina Parody trailing with 18 percent.

·         Página/12 has published an insightful interview with Colombian conflict analyst and civil society researcher Héctor Mondragón, in which he argues that the armed conflict is “invisible-izing” peaceful social movements in the country, as their work is frequently overshadowed by violent social actors like guerrillas and paramilitaries.

·         After the human rights group Equality Now filed a lawsuit on behalf of four Brazilian girls in the U.S. last month against American Richard Schair for allegedly organizing sex tourism trips to the Brazilian Amazon, Brazil minister for women’s rights calls for investigation into sex tourism. “The country cannot stand idly by before allegations of this sort,” Iriny Lopes told the Associated Press. According to the AP, the case is the first in which the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act was cited by victims in order to seek damages.

·         The Financial Times takes a look at a recent deal by U.S. to repeal a $6 billion annual ethanol tax and remove an ethanol import tariff, which would be good news for Brazil, the world’s second largest producer of ethanol after the U.S.

·         In a sign that the country’s often rickety justice system is tightening measures against impunity, AP reports that a Brazilian prosecutor has filed charges against a former top presidential aide and 36 other people in a 2005 “cash-for-votes scandal” that threatened the government of President Lula da Silva. The case is not expected to affect current President Rousseff’s administration.

·         Public opinion polling orgnization Latinobarometro has found that while 68 percent of Bolivians support democracy (a 23 increase since 2004), only 32 percent believe it is actually "functioning."

·         La Republica informs that President-elect Ollanta Humala’s approval rating is around 57 percent, a mandate which gives him room to focus more on his agenda than on messaging and selling himself to the public.

·         The Miami Herald reports on gay rights in Cuba, profiling a transgender woman who resigned from her position at a government-run sex studies center after alleged intimidation related to her relationship with a gay opposition activist.

·         In a statement released on its website, the international development group Oxfam International has called on Haiti’s new President Michel Martelly to relocate 634,000 Haitians still living in refugee camps, more than a year and a half after the devastating earthquake in the country. However, as AP notes, Martelly currently has other things on his mind, including his struggle to get a prime minister approved by legislators. 

·         Mauricio Cárdenas, director of the Brookings Institute’s Latin America Initiative, argues that reports of the upcoming “Latin American Decade,” are actually fairly well-founded.