Sen. Grassley Distorts State Department Cable To Minimize Danger From Gun Trafficking

June 23, 2011 5:20 pm ET — Chris Brown

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) recently sent a letter impugning the motives and accuracy of a report released by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) that makes the case that a substantial proportion of weapons used by Mexican cartels come from the United States. Unfortunately, Grassley grossly distorts the conclusions from his "source," a leaked State Department cable, to make his case. In a statement summing up his letter, the senator said:

The implication made by the ATF and various press reports is that the firearms come directly from U.S. manufacturers or U.S. Federal Firearms Licensees selling guns to drug trafficking organizations. Not only does this paint a grossly inaccurate picture of the situation, but it appears that the State Department disagrees with this portrayal.

In the letter itself, Grassley implies that the cable shows that guns coming into Mexico from America is largely a myth:

The implication the article makes is that these firearms must come directly from U.S. manufacturers or U.S. Federal Firearms Licensees ("FFLs") selling guns to DTO members who smuggle the guns over the Southwest border. Unfortunately, this information paints a grossly inaccurate picture of the situation. [...]

Additional evidence regarding the source of weapons in Mexico is contained in an unclassified cable from the U.S. Department of State ("DOS") dated July 2, 2010, obtained by my office and attached to this letter. The cable, titled, "Mexico Weapons Trafficking - The Blame Game" seeks to dispel rumors about the source of weapons trafficked to Mexico. The unclassified cable includes sections such as: "Myth: An Iron Highway of Weapons Flows from the U.S.," "Myth: The DTOs Are Mostly Responsible," "Myth: Mexico Aggressively Investigating Weapons Confiscated," "Myth: Mexico Methodically Registers and Tracks Weapons," and "Myth: The GOM Justice System is Tough on Violators of Gun Laws."

In fact, reading the entire cable, (rather than just the headings) it's clear that its author is making the case that the flow of guns to Mexico from America is a huge problem, and the "myths" that it seeks to debunk are related to the difficulties in stopping the southbound flow of weapons into Mexico:

Myth: An Iron Highway of Weapons Flows from the U.S.

(SBU) The Mexican Attorney General's office (PGR) is quick to report that since the start of the Calderon administration in December 2006, Mexico security forces have seized 83,566 weapons. The sheer magnitude of weapons, as well as the general acceptance that most come from U.S sources, suggests that there is an "Iron Highway" of weapons streaming across the border in identifiable patterns that make interdiction easy. Rather, it appears there maybe [sic] thousands of small streams. To date, despite U.S. Customs and Border Protection's (CBP) use of the latest detection equipment and agents trained in a wide range of interdiction techniques, our best efforts have not produced massive seizures of weapons on the U.S. side of the border, although some important seizures have been effected and are being investigated.

Myth: The DTOs [Drug Trafficking Organizations] are Mostly Responsible

(SBU) While DTOs are the largest consumer of illegal fire arms in Mexico, they are not the primary trafficking agents of weapons going south from the United States. ATF officials assess that, instead, straw purchasers buy small quantities of weapons at pawn shops, gun shows, and fully licensed firearm dealers (FFL) in the United States, illegally transport one to five weapons across the border, and sell them independently to the DTOs. They do not work directly for the organized criminal groups.

The cable suggests U.S. sellers are a significant source of firearms in Mexico and that Mexican cartels are responsible for gun trafficking in the sense that they're the buyers. It also identifies the weak laws in the U.S. governing gun trafficking as an issue of paramount concern. According to the cable:

In the United States the average sentence for arms trafficking is only 12 to 30 months for straight weapons trafficking crimes. For U.S. prosecutors, there is a bigger pay off from focusing on other crimes. For traffickers and straw purchasers, the combination of cost and risk still is not too high to bear.

This analysis mirrors testimony from ATF Special Agent Peter Forcelli last week, which Oversight Committee chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) tried to suppress.

There's important information in the cable, but none of it suggests the U.S isn't a substantial source of cartel weapons. Much of it suggests the opposite

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