Mexico, Drug Trade, and Illicit Arms

25 Jan

The Mexican government has recently released updated drug war death toll figures, reporting 47,515 deaths in drug-related violence since 2006 when President Calderon began a military assault on drug cartels. The so-called ‘war on drugs’ has ravaged the security sector and continues to present a dangerous challenge to the US as drug cartels battle over control of the lucrative US consumption market. The factors associated with this struggle are plenty and can be evaluated both in isolation as well as collectively– the role of poverty, unemployment, and lack of opportunity surely contribute to the allure of drug trafficking. Such societal stresses have perpetuated the illicit business and enticed the hopeless and struggling into a black market that, although highly risky, dangerous, and gruesome, can offer high financial returns.

The endemic contributors to drug trafficking aside, the role of illicit arms and its relationship with drug trafficking may not necessarily be causal, but illicit weapons surely perpetuate and enable the drug-related violence that has become a blight on the world community. In a year when the UN General Assembly will negotiate an Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) to regulate the international trade in conventional weapons, it is important to focus on why it is international standards for export and import matter. The consequences of unregulated trade, which lead to societies awash in illegal weapons used for criminality, violence, and intimidation, are dire. Nowhere is this more evident than in Mexico. As noted by Daniel Avila Camacho in a report for the UN Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR), drugs and arms often account for the largest sections of the black market and often use the same transport roots. Possession of arms by drug traffickers is more than a common practice and has become a sort of requirement for protection and security reasons when moving about areas of operation. Possession of arms is often involved from primary production by drug growers to the couriers accompanied by armed bodyguards. The financial symbiosis is also evident– drug trafficking often generates vast proceeds creating a financial base for criminal and terrorist groups to conduct illegal traffic in arms and vice versa creating a synergistic relationship between the two activities.

The sincere hope of many working for a ‘robust ATT’ is that the treaty will not only regulate the legal trade in arms between governments, but will also prevent and contribute to the eradication of illicit trade in arms (hopefully to include small arms and light weapons [SALWs], which is the type of weapon generally referred to here as related to drug and gang violence). The example of drug-related violence brings to light the critical importance of adopting a strong humanitarian perspective in an ATT so that it is more than a commerce agreement between states. The conflation of the business of arms trade (which does have a legal market in government-to-government transfers of military equipment and arms) and human rights concerns comes via the issue of diversion — the movement of weapons from the legal to the illicit market for purposes of criminality, insurgency, to violate the human rights of civilian populations, or to line the pockets of corrupt government officials.  It is diversion that must be ‘flagged,’ addressed, and eliminated through the framework of a strong and legally-binding ATT that takes care to disallow loopholes and bypassing of its provisions by criminal networks and corrupt individuals.

States continue to reinforce the right to acquire arms for self defense as part of their innate state sovereignty. These references to Article 51 of the UN Charter will not cease and neither will trade in arms between states. Manufacturing and trade in arms is a business that accounts for billions of dollars of revenue for states. An ATT will have no power over this legal trade insofar as creating a mechanism that would limit legal trade between states, something that has been expressly warned against during the ATT preparatory discussions. States are careful not to encroach on this right. Nonetheless, a central goal of an ATT, along with the UN Programme of Action on the illicit trade in small arms (PoA), must be to address the human suffering related to the illegal trade in arms by preventing illegal diversion such that there are less weapons in the hands of drug traffickers.

–Katherine Prizeman

 

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