Working the Border

Working the Border: Escalating Mexican drug wars equal baptism by fire for Kenneth Melson '70, the acting chief of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.
The Columns - Working the Border

After announcing the Gun Runner Impact Teams initiative at a press conference in April, Melson (left) sits down with Jeffrey Kaye, producer of PBS’ NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, to discuss his plans as the new acting director of the ATF, a role he had assumed just three weeks prior.
Photo courtesy of the ATF.

In a Las Vegas home in November 2008, three Mexican drug lords disguised as police officers burst through the door, hogtied a woman and her boyfriend, and kidnapped the woman’s 6-year-old son. According to the San Francisco Examiner, the boy’s grandfather allegedly owed the drug cartel several thousand dollars. Three months before, police found five men in a Birmingham, Alabama, apartment with their throats slit. The Huffington Post reported that they had been tortured with electric shocks before being killed in a murderfor- hire orchestrated by a Mexican drug organization over a drug debt of about $400,000. In a drug treatment center in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, a drug smuggler, who was busted with 185 lbs. of marijuana in El Paso, Texas, laughed and told The Washington Post, “It seems like a joke to me when the U.S. government says it’s going to stop drug trafficking. We will find a way.”

According to a Government Accountability Office study released in late June, drug-trafficking-related murders have more than doubled, from 2,700 in 2007 to 6,200. That study and all of these reports in the media give Kenneth Melson a lot to think about as he commutes along I-95 to his new Washington, D.C., office. In April, Melson was appointed acting chief of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF)– the U.S. federal agency charged to fight violent crime.

Some say the fundamental issues of drug violence result from the United States’ insatiable hunger for drugs and the ease with which the drug cartels are able to smuggle guns across the border into Mexico, while others point the finger at Mexico for not pulling out all the stops to exterminate the cartels. “The Mexican drug war problem, in a nutshell, is the flow of contraband going both ways across the Mexican/United States border,” says Melson. “Perhaps we hadn’t been paying enough attention to the guns going south from our country. We are doing that now. We also are focusing more intently on the drugs crossing our border from Mexico.”

For the drug cartels, guns are weapons, sure, but even more so, they are tools for intimidation. Like an army, the more weapons a drug cartel has to use against the police, soldiers, or its rival gangs, the more power it wields. But in Mexico guns are illegal. You can’t buy one. You can’t own one. So it makes sense that Mexican dealers are looking north for their weapons. After all, in the U.S., a citizen with no criminal record can go to a local sporting goods shop, undergo an instant criminal background check, and walk out with a rifle or shotgun. (Semi-automatic guns or “assault” weapons require a seven- to 30-day wait for background checks in some states.) According to ATF data, almost 93 percent of guns recovered in Mexico and submitted to ATF for tracing were trafficked over the border from the United States in fiscal year 2008 alone. That’s more than 7,700 firearms.

In 2006, President Felipe Calderón declared war on the drug cartels, reversing what some have thought was earlier government passivity. According to The Los Angeles Times, he deployed 45,000 troops and 5,000 federal police to 18 states where drug trafficking groups are fighting local authorities and battling for access to the U.S. market. His efforts have succeeded in flushing out some of the drug lords, but ironically, the arrests of these key gang leaders have created a powerful vacuum that other kingpins want to fill. The competition for these powerful perches has, in turn, caused more intense intra-cartel fighting in both Mexico and the United States. And like a cancer, the grisly violence has spread farther and farther inland from both sides of the border.

In an effort to take unified action with Mexico, the ATF has initiated several key strategies, including Project Gunrunner, which was created in 2005 to stem the flow of firearms into Mexico. Only weeks after Melson stepped into his new position, ATF rolled out its Gun Runner Impact Teams (GRITs) to the Houston Field Division. For 120 days, 100 field agents occupied Houston and the Texas/Mexico border area–currently a hotspot for guns–and honed in on straw purchasers, people with clean records who buy guns in the U.S. for those who are prohibited from legally purchasing firearms or who want to conceal their identity by not filling out the required ATF paperwork. Traffickers then take these guns across the border any way they can–by foot, concealed in hidden car compartments, or slipped through by bribery. Though the GRIT teams are still in the process of collecting information for arrests to be made toward the end of this four-month period, ATF agents have already managed to recover hundreds of weapons and thousands of rounds of ammunition before they made the illegal trip into Mexico.

In addition to Project Gunrunner, the ATF has placed more agents in Mexican law enforcement offices and vice-versa. “The placement of personnel in each other’s shops will help with collaboration and communication,” says Melson, who also has worked to expand eTrace technology to Mexico. “When a gun is captured from a crime scene, we can get all the numbers and names off of it. Then, through our Web-based database, we can trace the weapon all the way back to the manufacturer and the first retail purchaser,” explains Melson. Tracing has turned out to be an essential tool for law enforcement. The data offers a source and supply of firearms recovered in crimes. Although tracing is not a panacea, it provides leads, which turn into more leads. With the data gleaned from eTrace, ATF can see trends–from which stores in which cities large numbers of guns are being purchased to what demographics are the primary consumers. Armed with this type of information, ATF agents, for example, could monitor a store in Houston that may be selling guns to a repeat group of customers. Clandestinely surveying the buyers’ and sellers’ patterns–and where the firearms go after purchase– could ultimately lead to arrests.

At least that’s Melson’s hope as he works in his office at the new ATF headquarters, which opened two years ago. The building, designed in the shape of an enormous triangle made mostly of glass and metal, is far from the violent streets of Mexico, but it’s still the ATF, and the roof is constructed from thick double plastic, making the building the first-ever blast-proof structure.

Melson says he knew that he wanted to go into law enforcement even back when he was a little kid. “I’d play Texas Ranger and spend countless hours patrolling our sidewalk,” he says. Now, several decades from those hot afternoons keeping his street safe, Melson is still working to make communities safer. “I guess I’ve always had a respect for authority and an emotional reaction to stories of victimization, racial discrimination, and police corruption.” He adds, “If we can control the number of guns going south, it will be harder for the cartels to use violence as intimidation against the authorities–and anyone else who stands in their way.” Such thoughts give Melson plenty to ponder as the white lines on I-95 whiz by.

Published August 2009