Trading Firearms for Drugs: Fast & Furious Explained

Former Mexican President Calderon pleaded at the unveiling of a billboard in Juarez, Mexico visible across the border in El Paso, Texas, “Dear friends of the United States, Mexico needs your help to stop this terrible violence that we’re suffering.” Calderon asserted “the current period of violence in Mexico began in 2004 after the U.S. federal ban on the sale of assault weapons expired.”

Firearms are legally unobtainable in Mexico. An estimated 90% of the firearms used in the lucrative smuggling of weaponry into Mexico originate in the United States. There is a 2,000-mile border where the illegally trafficked guns flow south, it is known as the “iron river.” The drug war in Mexico is fueled by American guns and a multi-billion dollar consumer market for cocaine, heroin, marijuana and meth in the U.S.

The NRA’s successful defeat of an extended national ban on assault weapons has played a significant role in the availability and use of military-style weapons by the drug cartels. Mexican drug traffickers want lethal, reliable, affordable and readily available weapons fit for an army.

The NRA is opposed to reporting requirements for high-volume, federally licensed dealers in the four border-states who make multiple sales of assault weapons and other firearms to a single customer. Form 3310.12 is currently being required for designated dealers in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. But the form doesn’t solve the problem of an individual straw purchaser who purchases guns from multiple dealers or who buys them over the five-business-day limit reporting requirement. It also does not deal with the gun-show loophole where collectors can sell guns without any reporting requirements.


The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) has long been a target of the NRA trying to neuter its gun-crime prevention authority. The U.S. Senate has not confirmed a director of the ATF since 2006. It has operated with a series of acting directors.


“Fast and Furious” actually grew out of a Bush administration program called Project Gun Runner. It was a well-intentioned, but misguided and botched response to the proliferation of illegal guns in Mexico. “Fast and Furious,” critics say, allowed guns to go across the border in the hopes of building cases against more high-ranking criminals in Mexico, but it resulted in making gun control reform an even more heated issue. A recent piece in Fortune magazine reported that the ATF never intentionally allowed guns to illegally move across the border.

Twenty people were recently arrested in Texas, accused of being members of a ring which trafficked weapons to the Zetas drug gang. The detainees are accused of forming part of a “straw-buying” ring that provided at least 33 automatic rifles to the Mexican drug gang late last year. Ten of the 20 accused pleaded not guilty in a San Antonio court. According to the indictment, they claimed on the federal form for gun buyers that the weapons were for their personal use.

The indictment names a Mexican citizen as the ringleader of the group who asked each buyer to purchase automatic weapons, paying them $300 per gun. He allegedly told one of the buyers that he was supplying the guns to the Zetas, reported in the San Antonio Eexpress-News website.

Sadly, despite some attempts by the Obama administration to stem the flow of weapons across the border, there is little political will for real reform to U.S. gun control legislation due to the pervasive fear of the NRA by our legislators.

Toni Wellen is the chair of the Santa Barbara Coalition Against Gun Violence. She lives in Carpinteria.
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