The violent deaths of Brian Terry and Juan Francisco Sicilia, separated by the span of just a few months and by the increasingly bloody U.S.-Mexico border, have sparked separate but overdue examinations of the so-called War on Drugs, and how the U.S. government is ultimately exacerbating the problem.
On the night of Dec. 14, 2010, Agent Brian Terry was in the Arizona desert as part of the highly trained and specially armed BORTAC unit, described as the elite paramilitary force within the U.S. Border Patrol. The group engaged in a firefight, and Terry was killed. While this death might have become just another violent act associated with drug trafficking along the border, one detail has propelled it into a high-stakes confrontation between the Obama administration and the U.S. Congress: Weapons found at the scene, AK-47s, were sold into likely Mexican criminal hands under the auspices of a covert operation of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).
Dubbed “Operation Fast and Furious,” the secret program aimed to trace arms sold in the U.S. to so-called straw buyers, people who buy arms on behalf of others. The ATF’s operation allowed gun shops to sell bulk weapons to straw buyers who the ATF suspected were buying on behalf of Mexican drug cartels. Instead of arresting the straw buyer, considered a relatively low-level criminal by the ATF, tracing the guns as they made their way into Mexico might allow the ATF to arrest more senior members of the criminal cartels. At least, that was the plan.
According to reporting by the Center for Public Integrity, 1,765 guns were knowingly sold as part of “Fast and Furious.” Another 300 or so were sold before the operation started. Of these more than 2,000 guns, fewer than 800 have been recovered. Two of the guns recovered were found at the site of Terry’s death, in a region known as Peck Canyon, on the U.S. side of the border between Nogales, Mexico, and Tucson, Ariz.
Special Agent John Dodson of the ATF was among many field agents who advised superiors that the covert operation was unwise. Their concerns were not acted on, and the operation continued. After Terry’s murder, Dodson blew the whistle, first to the Justice Department, then to Republican Sen. Charles Grassley. Grassley has questioned Attorney General Eric Holder, and the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, chaired by Republican Darrell Issa, is now engaged in hearings on the case.
South of the border, Sicilia and six other young men were brutally murdered in March, just seven more innocent victims in the raging violence in Mexico that has claimed more than 35,000 victims since December 2006, when President Felipe Calderon began his crackdown on the drug cartels. Sicilia’s father is Javier Sicilia, a renowned poet and intellectual in Mexico. Soon after his son’s murder, Sicilia wrote his final poem, dedicated to his son. He is now committed to the nonviolent struggle against the bloodshed in his country. He led a protest march in May from his hometown of Cuernavaca to Mexico City’s famous Zocalo, the central plaza, where 200,000 people rallied. Last weekend, he led another march, all the way to the border, and then into El Paso, Texas.
Sicilia is against the cartels, for sure. But he holds Calderon, and the United States, culpable as well. He is calling for an end to “the Merida Initiative,” in which the U.S. provides arms and training for the Mexican military to fight the cartels. Sicilia also is calling for the legalization of drugs, a call in which he is joined, surprisingly, by the conservative former president of Mexico, Vicente Fox, and increasingly by Calderon himself.
Calderon is traveling in the U.S. this week, and has spoken out about the U.S. arms industry that is profiting from the sales of weapons that end up in Mexico. He also has criticized the repeal of the U.S. assault-weapons ban, which has led to a massive increase in gun violence in Mexico.
A new report released by three Democratic U.S. senators finds some 70 percent of guns seized in Mexico from 2009 to 2010 came from the United States. Of the nearly 30,000 guns seized in Mexico during that period, more than 20,000 came from the U.S.
If anything should be fast and furious in the United States, it should be the push for sane and sensible gun control and drug policies. Perhaps then, Javier Sicilia will start writing poetry again.
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.