Sylvia Longmire first caught my attention when I saw her speak as part of an expert panel on global arms trafficking that Google sponsored some months back. After hearing what she had to say on the subject, I thought to myself, “here is someone who really knows what she’s talking about.”
So, I did what any good gun journalist would do, I reached out to her agent to see if Ms. Longmire would be willing to explore this topic with Guns.com. I’m pleased to report that she happily agreed to an interview.
But before we get to the Q&A with Ms. Longmire, you probably want to know who she is and why her analysis of the drug war in Mexico matters. Well, first and foremost, she’s a veteran, specifically a retired Air Force captain and former Special Agent with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations. So, at least in my book, that’s cause enough to lend her your ear.
Beyond that, and as her professional bio points out, she worked as a “senior intelligence analyst for the California state fusion center and the California Emergency Management Agency’s Situational Awareness Unit, focusing almost exclusively on Mexican drug trafficking organizations and southwest border violence issues. For the last six years, she has regularly lectured on terrorism in Latin America at the Air Force Special Operations School’s Dynamics of International Terrorism course.”
Ms. Longmire is also the author of the book “Cartel: The Coming Invasion of Mexico’s Drug Wars” (Palgrave Macmillan), a regular contributor to the Homeland Security Today magazine and website, and the purveyor of her own blog, Mexico’s Drug War, which gives readers an ongoing analysis of southwest border violence.
SH Blannelberry: Why is the U.S. such a fertile environment for illicit drugs? Related to that question, why is there such a huge demand for illicit drugs in the U.S.?
Sylvia Longmire: I’ve always said that drug use and demand in the US is a cultural issue; although we could even call it a human issue, as there’s drug use and demand across the globe. We’re an instant gratification society, and have always turned to mind-altering substances for pleasure, relief, or escape. It was almost exclusively alcohol until roughly the turn of the 20th century; only then did we start seeing recreation use of marijuana, although morphine and heroin abuse was hot on its heels after World War I. Many Americans just seem to find it easier to turn to alcohol or illegal drugs to enhance their weekend fun or drown in their sorrows instead of seeking a healthier alternative for achieving a “high” or working through a hard time in life.
SHB: There’s a correlation between Calderon’s War on Drugs (which began in 2006) and the escalation of drug violence in Mexico, but is this more than just a correlation, is there causation as well? If so, to what extent is the War on Drugs responsible for the violence in Mexico?
SL: Most media outlets and a lot of books by knowledgeable people point to Calderón’s inauguration as the start of the modern-day drug war because it’s a convenient point. In truth, we did see an escalation in violence in some parts of Mexico at that time, but I think it’s only a small part of the cause, which is much more complex. One part was the end of one-party rule in Mexico in 2000, which ushered in true democracy and ushered out the arrangement between the Institutional Revolutionary Party (the PRI) and the cartels, in which the PRI agreed to look the other way and accept kickbacks and the cartels agreed to play nicely (for the most part). So that kicked off in 2000, and Los Zetas started introducing more violent tactics, like dismemberments, beheadings, and public corpse displays, into the drug war during the battle for Nuevo Laredo in 2003-2004. Calderón came into office in December 2006 and started to deploy the military and hit the cartels hard. But Ciudad Juárez started to get really violent after Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán of the Sinaloa Federation and Vicente Carrillo Fuentes of the Juárez cartel had a falling out. I think the spike in violence in Juárez has as much or more to do with that split than government enforcement efforts. Plus, there are plenty of places in Mexico that are calm where cartels have a presence. The reason there’s no bloodshed is because no one is fighting for control of territory in those places.
SHB: In your book you articulate the mendacity of hope and the futility of change when it comes to the dire situation. That is, it appears apart from drastic measures – such as decriminalizing drugs – there’s not a whole lot we (the U.S.) can do policy-wise to quell the violence in Mexico – correct?
SL: There’s really not because I don’t think either the Obama Administration or Calderón’s government have the political will to make any drastic changes that could have a real positive impact. And not everything is up to them; the US Congress will never pass a federal drug legalization initiative, and Mexico’s congress will always be hesitant to pass anti money laundering measures that are too strong because the Mexican economy greatly benefits from the illicit economy.
SHB: If not, what can the U.S. do to help Mexico? What can Mexico do to help Mexico? And, do you believe that decriminalizing illicit drugs (or legalizing them) would help to solve the problem?
The only practical strategy is to focus 100% of counter drug efforts on eliminating Los Zetas – the #1 source of violence, and particularly violence against innocents, in Mexico. Let El Chapo run the drug trade because (a) you know it’ll never go away as long as drugs are illegal, and (b) he’s a rational thinker, shrewd businessman, and plays by old-school mafia rules. As for what the US can do to help Mexico, we can’t do much until Mexico asks for that help. It’s easy to say, “Oh, send in SEAL Team 6 to get rid of the drug lords” and everything will be better. But the US government hasn’t even acknowledged that the drug war in Mexico poses a national security threat to this country. How could President Obama justify placing US military members in harm’s way in Mexico – even if Calderón or Peña Nieto ask for it – when our federal government doesn’t believe cartels even pose a threat to us? Our hands are pretty much tied right now. As for decriminalization, that won’t do anything at all because drug production and distribution will still be a black market operation. You’d have to fully legalize from the ground up all production, distribution and use of marijuana, methamphetamine, heroin, and cocaine to see any major difference in violence levels. Of course, it’s a huge debate whether or not that’s the smartest thing to do.
SHB: What regulations or laws would actually help to stem the tide of guns flowing south of the border? (is the multiple purchases mandate for the four border states effective at thwarting straw purchasers?)
SL: I don’t know how effective the multiple-gun reporting rule is in slowing down the flow of guns because that’s only one small step in a long list of things that needs to happen for a straw buyer to see any jail time. I do think it raises a red flag more frequently; before the rule was applied to long guns, it was purely up to the gun seller to notify the ATF of any suspicious purchases, like someone wanting to buy a dozen AR-15s for the third time in three months. The requirement takes the burden of scrutinizing the customer off of the gun seller and places it on US law enforcement. But even if more straw purchases are brought to the attention of the ATF this way, they still have to convince their local US Attorney’s Office to prosecute. If they don’t feel the ATF has sufficient evidence to arrest a buyer for straw purchasing, regardless of the reporting requirement, the ATF by law has to allow the purchase to transpire. In sum, I like the mechanism to bring more scrutiny to potentially suspicious purchases, but I’m not sure it’s helping bring more cases to the prosecution stage.
SHB: Hypothetically speaking, even if the U.S. were to completely stop all the guns being trafficked into Mexico, would it have any effect on the demand for them? In other words, doesn’t it stand to reason that well-heeled cartels would find suppliers elsewhere?
SL: No, not at all. If somehow we either stopped all guns from going south or banned all private gun ownership, the cartels will just look elsewhere for their firearms. They’ll have to pay more and wait longer to get them, and the selection might not be as good. But there are plenty of illegal arms brokers in this world who would gladly step in to fill the void. AK-47s sell for only $200 on the street in Africa, and I’m waiting for the cartels to find a cost-effective way to get a few thousand shipped across the Atlantic.
SHB: What are your thoughts on Operation Fast and Furious?
SL: I think that the extreme politics surrounding F&F are preventing an even-handed and unbiased explanation of what really happened during the time the operation was active. We know that suspected straw purchases were allowed to transpire in the Phoenix area, and that roughly 2,000 of those guns ended up in Mexico. What never seems to make it into the news – or the ire of some forum and blog posts – is the fact that those transactions that occurred during F&F were all perfectly legal under Arizona law. The US Attorney’s Office in Phoenix refused to prosecute any of those suspected straw buyers because they felt the ATF did not have enough evidence. So the ATF told sellers to allow the transactions to happen because, by law, the ATF can’t arrest straw buyers without the US Attorney’s green light or they can be sued. The ATF didn’t have much of a choice, by law, but to allow those gun sales to occur – including the transaction of the guns found at the USBP Agent Terry murder scene – until they had accumulated enough evidence to (in the US Attorney’s opinion) successfully prosecute.
There were also several personal grudges between the whistleblowers and the ATF supervisors in that office, and some of those whistleblowers had anything but squeaky clean records. Again, that never makes it into most media reports. All this being said, many grievous mistakes were made by the ATF. Had the supervisors documented in more detail and to a greater extent the frustration they were experiencing with the US Attorney at their unwillingness to prosecute, it might have saved some headaches; just a standard “CYA” practice. Why AG Eric Holder and the US Dept of Justice haven’t been more public and forthcoming about the issues I mentioned above is beyond me; I’m sure politics plays no small role, and I don’t know what history there might be between Holder and the US Attorney’s office in Phoenix. Former ATF SAIC Bill Newell went about handling the fallout terribly, rushing to cobble together prosecutable cases to justify the operation and speaking poorly when interviewed. I’m also anxiously awaiting the reason why the DOJ has been so stubborn on withholding so many documents from an admittedly overeager Congressional committee with an axe to grind. In sum, I think F&F was a desperate attempt by the ATF to catch the “big fish” cartel traffickers, but I also believe there was no intent to let the guns “walk” if an arrest and successful prosecution had been possible. The ATF was forced by the US Attorney and Arizona gun laws to allow F&F transactions to occur because they were perfectly legal, and there was no way to prove the buyers intended to send those guns to Mexico. Remember – and this is key – it’s not what you think, or what you know; it’s what you can PROVE. Nowhere in the documents I’ve read is there any indication that the ATF intended to track or somehow follow these guns, outside of standard surveillance conducted on suspects as part of an investigation. Why would they if the US Attorney had no interest in prosecuting someone? Meanwhile, while all this bickering is going on between the US DOJ, the Issa Committee, the ATF, and the NRA, guns are still flowing into Mexico; gun seizures and apprehensions in the Phoenix district have dropped by 90% since the inquiry started, and no new/better strategy has been formed by anyone to investigate these gun crimes more effectively.
SHB: While I agree that what undergirds the criminal justice system is what prosecutors can prove in a court of law, it still seems to me that the ATF acted – in the very least – irresponsibly.
I would point to the F&F suspect known as Target 1, who had purchased close to 1,000 firearms while under the surveillance of ATF officials. He was not arrested, despite the fact that several of the weapons he purchased were being recovered at crime scenes in Mexico.
In a March 2010 letter, Issa wrote the following, “The fact that ATF knew that Target 1 had acquired 852 firearms and had the present intent to move them to Mexico should have prompted (Justice) Department officials to act.”
“Target 1’s activities should have provoked an immediate response by the (Justice Department) Criminal Division to shut him and his network down,” Issa continued.
Maybe they didn’t have enough proof to convict, but they had enough probable cause to intervene and make life difficult for this particular individual.
Former ATF Director Melson admitted as much in July, 2011, when he told Congressional investigators that it was “apparent to me that [ATF agents] were suggesting that there was probable cause to believe that this information-that these straw purchasers were taking guns across the border.”
So, I suppose my point here is this, the ATF should have stepped in at an earlier point. Not because it was the best thing for a prosecutor’s case (which arguably it wasn’t), but because it was the right thing to do. And I think that’s what many of the whistleblowers were arguing, i.e. part of crime fighting is taking a proactive approach, stopping crime before it happens, not waiting until all the “i’s” are dotted and “t’s” are crossed on a prosecutor’s file (particularly with respect to weapons trafficking, were the stakes are incredibly high).
SL: I have to agree with you in that I’m equally frustrated at what looks like an open-and-shut case and ATF inaction. Why didn’t they intervene?
While I don’t have the answer to that question, I can only look to Arizona law. Were the purchases made by Target 1 legal? In the eyes of the law, yes. Were those guns somehow transported illegally from Phoenix to Mexico, and were they used to commit crimes? Yes. But did the ATF have any evidence to demonstrate Target 1 illegally transferred those weapons to another individual? Or evidence that Target 1 himself couriered those guns into Mexico? Maybe, but somehow I think they might not have. They should have, if they were conducting a thorough investigation–obtained from surveillance, sources, etc. But if not, what could the ATF do legally to intervene? They can’t arrest the guy without “permission” from the US Attorney. They could have instructed the gun seller not to sell him any more guns. Target 1 would have gone to another gun shop, and we’d hope the ATF has some mechanism in place to warn all gun shops in the area about a suspicious buyer, like a BOLO. But do they? I really don’t know.
I do believe that the ATF demonstrated incompetence and irresponsibility in several aspects of F&F. However, I still don’t have enough in front of me to fully convince me they intentionally let these guns go when they could have made arrests and successfully prosecuted these buyers on the spot.
TO BE CONTINUED… (we’ve agreed to touch base again, in the future, on F&F)
I’d really like to thank Ms. Longmire for taking the time out of her busy schedule to talk with Guns.com. In addition to being highly intelligent, she was also super friendly (which is not always the case with interview subjects). And I do wholeheartedly recommend her book, which you can buy here on Amazon. It’s strikes an ideal balance between being a compelling narrative and an informative exposé.
Lastly, if you’re interested, here’s a relatively recent interview she did with Stipko: