Copyrighted image courtesy Tobias Kraft

ABC’s reality show “Homeland Security USA” would have you believe that no one of suspicion will make it into the United States from Mexico without being captured by the Department of Homeland Security. What if the greatest threat to national security isn’t people trying illicitly to bring goods into the United States but criminals who take them out of the country?

That question was the subject of a hearing convened March 12 by the House Homeland Security Committee.

Experts testified that violent clashes between drug cartels currently underway in northern Mexico will increasingly bleed into the United States if the near-anarchy isn’t brought under control. Newly appointed Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, a Democratic former governor of Arizona, has made it a top priority to stem the growing potential for a spillover of violence, calling for “utmost attention” from U.S. officials. Mexican President Felipe Calderón has deployed thousands of armed forces in an attempt to quash a surge in brutality that resulted in 6,200 murders across the country last year, 1,600 alone in Ciudad Juarez, which shares the border with El Paso.

The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives estimates that as many as 90 percent of the firearms fueling bloodshed south of the border aren’t obtained in Mexico, where gun laws are far more restrictive than those in the United States. They’re coming from firearms retailers in New Mexico, Texas, Arizona and California, exploited by warring narco-traffickers who use straw buyers with clean records to buy the weapons here. The Houston Chronicle, citing investigations by the ATF, revealed in late November that the southern Texas metropolis has become a top source for firearms slipping into Mexico.

“All the weapons the drug syndicates are using in Mexico come across the border from the United States,” Mexico’s ambassador to the U.S., Arturo Sarukhan, told the Chronicle.

Authorities linked an M-16 assault rifle purchased at a Houston sporting goods store to the murder of four police officers in Acapulco. Another rifle allegedly purchased at a Houston gun store was connected to the killing of a man kidnapped in Mexico during a soccer game, according to the newspaper.

A cell of weapons smugglers bought as many as 45 assault rifles from just one gun shop, and Mexican officials believe the vast majority of thousands of weapons so far seized or found at crime scenes on the southern side of the border originated in the United States. An ATF office in Houston has beefed up its attention to the area, but officials told the Chronicle that legal interpretations of Second Amendment freedoms bar the federal government from keeping a detailed database of weapons and ammo buyers, which hamstrings investigations into the source of the gun flows.

Kumar Kibble, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement deputy director, described for the committee last week the case of Ernesto Tornel Olvera-Garza who allegedly began sneaking hunting rifles into Mexico during the summer of 2005. ICE agents concluded that he used straw buyers with no criminal record to fraudulently buy as many as 50 weapons on the U.S. side of the border that were later smuggled southbound, one of which appears to have been involved in the killing of two Mexican soldiers, according to Kibble’s testimony.

The Department of Homeland Security last year officially launched Operation Armas Cruzadas, a joint campaign with the government of Mexico, to fight gun smuggling networks, and Kibble told the committee that the effort has netted more than 100,000 rounds of ammunition and hundreds of weapons. “The challenge in countering the smuggling activity is compounded by the reliance on the technique called ‘ant trafficking,’ where small weapons are smuggled through multiple ports-of-entry, on a continued basis,” Kibble said at the hearing

Despite ICE’s new operation, the chaos seems only to be growing worse. The Los Angeles Times reported March 15 on a harrowing new development that’s making the bid by Mexican and U.S. authorities to stop drug trafficking truly resemble a war: military-grade weapons being used by cartels to attack one another and police. The list includes armor-piercing ammunition, antitank rockets and grenade launchers.

Many of the weapons are shipped over ocean channels from Central America, according to the Times, but some remain from the anti-revolutionary campaigns the United States once helped fight in that region. Others come from illegal global arms networks, redirected from once-legitimate sources with the help of corrupt government officials onto the black market after being manufactured in South Korea, Israel, Spain—and the United States.

The Mexican government claims to have seized more than 2,200 grenades over the last two years. In one case, a U.S.-based company with a manufacturing facility in Mexico was robbed of bomb-making equipment.

According to the Times story:

The fear of guerrilla warfare was compounded in February when 270 pounds of dynamite and several hundred electric detonators were stolen from a U.S. firm in the state of Durango. On Valentine’s Day, about 20 masked gunmen, led by a heavyset man wearing gold rings and chains, stormed the warehouse of a subsidiary of Austin Powder Co., an industrial explosives manufacturer, according to official accounts. They overpowered guards and emptied the warehouse. … In addition to grenades, high-powered guns such as the .50-caliber Barrett sniper rifle have become a weapon of choice in narcotics traffickers’ arsenals, [ATF Spokesman Thomas G.] Mangan said. Unlike grenades and antitank weapons, the .50-caliber guns can be obtained by ordinary citizens in the U.S. and smuggled easily into Mexico, like the tons of assault rifles and automatic pistols.

The possibility that Mexico might actually become a “failed state” due to the intensity of the drug war is being considered openly by U.S. military intelligence and members of Congress, a serious matter given that Mexico is a major economic trading partner of the United States.

The Homeland Security Committee’s vice chair, Democratic Rep. Loretta Sanchez of California, said during the March 12 hearing: “We must not overhype the dangers in border cities, such as El Paso, which has seen declining crime rates. However, we know that cartel members are present in some 230 U.S. cities, often times masquerading as local gang members who engage in drug-related kidnappings and home invasions.

“In addition, it should be noted that over 200 U.S. citizens have been killed in this drug war, either because they were involved in the cartels or were innocent bystanders. With those concerns in mind, it is essential that the Department of Homeland Security, along with other relevant departments, continue to pursue a contingency plan to address ‘spillover’ violence along our border.”

NOTE: The Center for Investigative Reporting spent the last several weeks offering alternative news on the Department of Homeland Security that typically didn’t make it onto ABC’s reality show “Homeland Security USA.” After seven episodes, it appears that the show has been taken off the air without completing the season, perhaps due to poor ratings. It’s not clear yet if the remaining episodes will run later, but our reporting on the department will certainly continue.

G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED, Wired.com, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.