In November, along the border with Texas, Mexican authorities arrested drug cartel leader Jaime "el Hummer" Gonzalez Duran — one of the founders of "Los Zetas," a paramilitary organization of former Mexican soldiers who decided there was more money to be made in selling drugs than in serving in the Mexican military.
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As El Hummer was being transported to the airport in an armed vehicle, his fellow cartel members launched a brazen attack against the federales.
They were armed to the teeth. Their arsenal ranged from semi-automatic rifles to rocket-propelled grenades. When the smoke finally cleared and the government had prevailed, Mexican federal agents captured 540 assault rifles, more than 500,000 rounds of ammunition, 150 grenades, 14 cartridges of dynamite, 98 fragmentation grenades, 67 bulletproof vests, seven Barrett .50-caliber sniper rifles and a Light Anti Tank (LAW) rocket.
This is modern Mexico, where the leaders of the powerful drug cartels are armed to the teeth with sophisticated weapons, many of which are smuggled over the border from the United States. It is with this array of superior weapons that drug cartels are threatening the very stability of their own country. And it's why America's outgoing CIA Director, Michael Hayden, says violence in Mexico will pose the second greatest threat to U.S. security next year, right after Al Qaeda.
"Americans are understandably focused on the flow of drugs and migrants into the U.S. from Mexico," says Andreas Peter, author of "Border Games: Policing the U.S.-Mexico Divide."
"But too often glossed over in the border security debate is the flow of weapons across the border into Mexico," he told Foxnews.com in a statement via the Internet.
The cartels are obtaining arms from America by using "straw man" buyers, who legally purchase weapons at gun shops and gun shows in the U.S. The weapons cross into Mexico, where border security is much weaker heading south of the border than it is going north.
Authorities don't know how many firearms are sneaked across the border, but the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) says more than 7,700 guns sold in America were traced to Mexico last year, up from 3,300 the year before and about 2,100 in 2006. Mexican authorities say 90 percent of smuggled weapons come from the United States.
In Northern Mexico, high-powered American weapons have enabled drug cartels to control whole territories. There is the Colt AR-15, the civilian version of the military M-16. And there is the "cuernos de chivo" — Spanish for goat horns . . . the 30-shot curved banana clip of the AK-47.
The AK-47, long the symbol of guerrilla revolution, is not the most accurate or technical assault rifle, but it gets the job done. It is the workhorse of drug cartels, and ammunition can come from a variety of world sources, including the United States.
And then there are the sniper rifles.
"The .50-caliber was interesting because we haven't seen that type of arm used in Mexico yet," said Scott Stewart, a former U.S. Army intelligence officer and an analyst for Stratfor, a geopolitical security firm. The .50-caliber long-range sniper rifle is incredibly accurate and dangerous; a trained operator could kill a human being with a round from well over a mile away.
For criminal cartels like Los Zetas, greater firepower means greater influence in not only the drug trade; it has enabled them to infiltrate and threaten the entire power structure of Mexico. In December, the Mexican attorney general announced the arrest of Maj. Arturo Gonzalez Rodriguez for allegedly assisting Mexican drug trafficking organizations — allegedly for $100,000 a month.
The connection between the drug cartels and the Mexican army has given cartel leaders access to military grade weapons like the high powered Five-Seven semi-automatic pistols.
A favorite with the cartels, the Five-Seven has the advantage of being light: under 2 pounds, with a 20-round clip filled with bullets the cartels call "matapolicias' — "cop killers."
"The 5.7 x 28, armor piercing (AP) rounds are not available for sale to the general public and are probably coming from the Mexican military," said Stewart who has analyzed U.S.-Mexican border security issues for half a decade.
The drug-related murder rate in Mexico doubled in 2008 from just one year before, and as the violence escalates, the power of the drug cartels has destabilized Mexican authority to the point of threatening national security.
Last week Gen. Ángeles Dahuajare announced that more than 17,000 soldiers had deserted in 2008.
"The Mexican Army is becoming a revolving door for the enforcement arm of the drug cartels; they simply pay better," Stewart said.
"If they don't get the weapons from the U.S., they'll get it from somewhere else: Brazil, Guatemala, Argentina or even former satellite state 'gray markets,'" he said.
Despite the efforts of his comrades in crime, El Hummer wound up in jail — and Mexican authorities paraded him before the media to reassure the public that they are still in control.
But that was largely for show. As long as weapons flow into Mexico, the drug cartels will be able to develop an arsenal. "Control" will be unstable, at best.