Chip Roy, the Austin Republican who was elected last November to replace San Antonian Lamar Smith in Congress, published an editorial in Saturday’s San Antonio Express-News in which he painted a vivid picture of the involvement of the Reynosa faction of the Gulf Cartel in controlling the trafficking of immigrants across the Mexican border.

Chip Roy attends a U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) campaign stop Tuesday afternoon at La Hacienda Scenic Loop.
Chip Roy

He notes that “the cartel has more men, more guns and more resources than law enforcement.” 

Citing an estimate that the cartels are bagging $2 billion from trafficking, he writes, “When migrants can’t pay the cartels their full fee for smuggling them across the border, they are beaten (Border Patrol played a video for me of this), or they are held as indentured servants, as was the case with two teenage boys I spoke with in January, feet from the Rio Grande. It happens every single day.”

“Men, women and children are being subjugated and abused,” he adds. “Roughly one-third of women attempting the journey across the border are sexually abused.”

Then he identifies the culprits: “While cartels are running the show, my Democratic colleagues have chosen to not target cartels, but to malign law enforcement. They’ve likened ICE and Border Patrol agents to the Gestapo and argued our agents are running ‘concentration camps.’ Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Some Democrats have said such things. And Democrats, with few exceptions, have been considerably more articulate in describing the Trump Administration’s treatment of immigrants than in detailing realistic plans for how they would deal with the problem. 

If Democrats and Republicans could agree on one thing, it would seem to be that the cartels are evil, ruthless, murderous gangs and should be targeted. There is one way that they could be targeted from this side of the border, but it isn’t happening, at least with any vigor.

At the same time as Roy’s piece was published, Rolling Stone Magazine posted a long, devastating piece that describes Texas as the largest exporter of guns to the Mexican cartels. The piece tells the story of Mike Fox, a retired cop living in suburban Austin whose life was a ball of misery. 

He and his wife, both well into their 60s, had taken custody of their twin 2-year-old grandchildren when they found out their daughter was a heroin addict. Their son had also been an addict and committed suicide. Fox himself had been diagnosed with malignant melanoma and they were running out of savings. 

Fox was a licensed gun dealer who also held a federal license to manufacture guns and to own machine guns. The article tells the gruesome story of how Fox ends up building quantities of a fearsome weapon called a “minigun” and selling it to a man who he should have known was smuggling them to Mexico. The gun is misnamed. It is a machine gun on steroids, a weapon of war typically mounted on helicopters that, according to the article “can saturate an enemy position with bullets in a matter of seconds, or mow down a squad of soldiers with a single push of the trigger.”

What happens to Fox is of interest, and I’ll get to it below. But it is the broader context provided by the article that is most useful in assessing Roy’s argument that we should be targeting the cartels. Here are some highlights from the article:

  • Until 2004, when the administration of President George W. Bush allowed a ban on assault weapons passed in the Clinton years to expire, Mexico had “one of the lowest rates of gun ownership in the world.” Since then the per capita rate of gun ownership in Mexico has risen ten-fold, with military grade weapons coming from Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. Mostly Texas.
  • The murder rate has risen accordingly after reaching a historic low in 2004. “The deadliest year in Mexico’s recorded history was 2018, with 33,000 killings, almost all of them perpetrated by government security forces armed by U.S. weapons manufacturers, or by cartels armed by American gun smugglers.” The life expectancy in Mexico has fallen for the first time in more than a century.
  • “American border guards do try to stop guns from entering Mexico, but U.S. Customs and Border Protection is primarily focused on stopping drugs moving north and with seizing drug money, which the agency gets to keep.” U.S. Customs and Border Protection releases annual statistics on drugs and money seized, but not on guns. The author obtained the numbers through a Freedom of Information Act request. “American border guards seized a paltry 102 of the estimated quarter-million illegal guns that passed their checkpoints in 2018. The most confiscated in recent years was 242, in 2017. In 2016, the number was 86. In 2015, it was a mere 50.”
  • No U.S. law comprehensively prohibits gun trafficking. Authorities have to rely on related charges, such as paperwork infractions, with light sentences. The agency charged with monitoring gun sales, Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, is under-resourced and operating with an acting director.
  • Anti-trafficking bills have been repeatedly introduced, mainly by Democrats, but get nowhere. Rep. Norma Torres of California is sponsoring a bill now that would require multiple sales of assault rifles to be reported to ATF. Even if it passed the House it would die in the Senate. If it didn’t, President Donald Trump would not need to be reminded in his frequent conversations with the NRA chief Wayne LaPierre that the NRA funneled an impressive $30 million into his 2016 presidential campaign. 
  • The FBI has a huge DNA database, but the NRA won passage of a law in 1986 that bars the ATF from maintaining an electronic file of gun sales, making the tracing of weapons exceedingly laborious. In 2017 the Trump administration cancelled an Obama-era initiative that discouraged banks from taking large cash deposits from gun dealers.

You get the point. Guns are a major U.S. import to Mexico and neither the powerful NRA or its gun industry funders see a need to hamper it. Chip Roy has some legitimate complaints about his Democratic colleagues, but they would be taken more seriously if his Republican colleagues and the president weren’t the vassals of the gun lobby. 

Finally, I promised to tell you what happened to Mr. Fox. The judge told him that because he was a former policeman and should have known better, he couldn’t be let off easy. He wasn’t convicted of any gun offenses but pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud the government by the way he laundered his hundreds of thousands of dollars of income. His sentence: Three years at the minimum-security federal prison in Beaumont. An Arizona supplier who provided parts for the guns with the serial numbers erased pleaded guilty to conspiracy to unlawfully transfer machine guns. He received probation and a $50,000 fine.

Both men retained their federal licenses as gun dealers.

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Rick Casey

Rick Casey's career spans four decades of award-winning reporting on San Antonio. He previously worked as a metro columnist for the former San Antonio Light and, later, the San Antonio Express-News.