Last month, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told an interviewer that Mexican drug lords are "what we would consider an insurgency." Diplomatically enough, the State Department immediately rescinded her remark. But Mrs. Clinton is right. To wit: So far this year, the cartels' henchmen have assassinated 10 Mexican mayors.
Clearly, the drug lords are subverting the rule of law, obliterating northern Mexico's political infrastructure. And why not? The cartels have bought off the Mexican military, surviving politicians, judges and the police. As we learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, it takes a village to stop an insurgency. Too bad the Mexican people can't own guns.
According to Article 10 of the Mexican Constitution, our neighbors to the south have the same right to bear arms guaranteed by the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution:
"The inhabitants of the United Mexican States have the right to possess arms in their homes for their security and legitimate defense with the exception of those prohibited by federal law and of those reserved for the exclusive use of the Army, Navy, Air Force and National Guard. Federal law shall determine the cases, conditions and place in which the inhabitants may be authorized to bear arms."
There's your trouble. When it comes to personal protection, the Mexican government gets the last word. Or, in this case, the first. And that word is "no."
Long before the Mexican drug cartels cut a distribution deal with their South American confederates, back when Colombian drug lords were busy corrupting their society's democratic system, Mexico's federal government was cracking down on private gun ownership. Its war against civilian firearms began in 1968, after civil unrest spooked the powers that be. The Mexican government closed all privately held firearm stores. From that point on, all firearm sales had to go through the Mexican Defense Ministry. It determined what guns were sold to whom at what price.
As you'd expect, this artificial concentration of supply led to a worsening of endemic corruption. Bottom line: Only the wealthiest Mexicans could legally secure a firearm for personal protection. Sometimes not even they could. The Defense Ministry's sales practices also reflected its self-serving political agenda. It restricted legal access to guns to the point where some Mexican law enforcement agencies were forced to smuggle in weapons from the United States. So were thousands of civilians.
Ironically, given America's history of individual gun rights, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) helped Mexico combat gun-running. It's a partnership that continues to this day, only more so. Congress has just sent the ATF an extra $37.5 million to open seven new southern field offices, charged with stemming the flow of guns to drug cartels south of the border. Question: Are these American-sourced guns going to the cartels or to civilians desperate to protect themselves from the drug lords' reign of terror?
Most of the exports end up in the drug lords' arsenal of anti-democracy. But that doesn't change the fact that America's hugely expensive gun-running interdiction efforts may be evoking the law of unintended consequences - making it easier for the cartels to increase their death grip on the populace of northern Mexico. While America is fighting foreign insurgencies by training and arming our ground-level allies overseas, we're spending hundreds of millions of dollars actively denying our neighbors to the south the weapons they need to defend themselves against terror, torture, corruption and intimidation.
Eradicating the scourge of Mexican drug cartels is not simply a matter of handing Mexican citizens a hundred thousand ArmaLites and a few thousand rounds of ammo each. Even if it were, the Obama administration wouldn't go there. But it is true that America has a long, noble history of helping the defenseless defend themselves. If we could pressure the Mexican Defense Ministry to liberalize its firearm licensing policies, even temporarily, we might be able to tip the balance of power away from the cartels and their unconscionable cruelty, toward democracy and the rule of law.
Meanwhile, we can continue our support for Mexico's efforts to battle the drug cartels and shut down their U.S. distribution channels as best we can. If things get bad enough, we could legalize the drugs in question, pulling the rug out from under the criminals' feet as we did by ending Prohibition.
In any case, Mexico's problem needs a Mexican solution. The same guns that President Felipe Calderon and President Obama vilify for crossing the border could actually be the country's salvation. More guns, less crime? If it works for us, and there are those who argue that point most persuasively, why not for Mexico? Equally important and more personally, if you lived in one of Mexico's northern border towns, wouldn't you want to carry a gun? Exactly.
Robert Farago is editor of thetruthaboutguns.com.
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