The Fast and the Ridiculous

The conspiracy theories over the controversial ATF gun-tracking program are flying, and not just in GOP chambers. In Mexico, it's taken as fact that the United States is backing the drug cartels.

The majority members of the U.S. House Oversight Committee have been granted their fondest wish -- their investigation into Operation Fast and Furious has caused the biggest proto-scandal in Washington, thanks to Attorney General Eric Holder's refusal to hand over documents and a House panel's vote last week to recommend the chamber cite him with contempt. No longer the private obsession of the right-wing media, Fast and Furious is on front pages and leading news broadcasts around the United States.

At issue now are two questions. First, what was the exact intent and oversight of the operation, run out of the Phoenix office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF)? The agency says it was meant to track illicit guns going over the border into Mexico, as part of an effort to build cases against major smugglers. Where cross-border gunrunning is concerned, ATF is usually confined to interdicting low-level purchasers, thanks to crippling investigative limits put on it by Congress.

Fast and Furious evolved out of a larger initiative, Project Gunrunner, an ambitious plan to extend the ATF's investigative reach into Mexico and put the agency on more equal footing with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which leads the war on drugs and has informants embedded deep in the cartels. The controversial tactic of allowing guns to "walk" in order to see where they go, the central issue in the investigation, began late in George W. Bush's administration and was carried over into President Barack Obama's term. Between 2009 and 2011, the ATF lost track of thousands of guns, according to certain agents. Some reached criminal gangs in Mexico (which was the point), including two that were found at the scene of a 2010 shootout where Brian Terry, a U.S. Border Patrol agent, was killed. Others have appeared at crime scenes around Mexico.

The second question, which has pushed the ATF into the background, is what the attorney general is refusing to show the House Oversight Committee. While Holder has turned over 7,600 documents, as he never fails to remind the committee, he won't release memos and emails that committee members believe detail Justice Department debates about how to handle the Fast and Furious fallout. Committee Chairman Darrell Issa and other congressional Republicans make it no secret that they think Holder is running a coverup. They were more coy about suspicions that Obama is privy to it, but his decision last week to exert executive privilege on Holder's behalf has put an end to that.

Longtime critics of the ATF, from a libertarian banker I recently dined with to National Rifle Association director Wayne LaPierre, claim to believe the corruption runs much deeper. They say Fast and Furious proves the agency has been funneling guns to Mexican criminal organizations. Why the ATF would be doing this -- and making official policy of it -- is never part of the argument. Nonetheless, it's a short leap from that rock over the stream of reason and onto the one where Obama is actively working with Mexican cartels -- a belief that many Americans hold (just Google it).

While that sounds preposterous to most of us, including (one assumes) to most critics of the president, there is a place where the levelheaded believe what the anti-government fringe in the United States believes, and where Fast and Furious is a constant topic of conversation -- Mexico. Issa's investigation is a mainstay of news coverage there. Go on the comment boards of Mexican newspapers such as La Prensa or magazines such as Proceso, and you'll find that readers mention Fast and Furious, in conspiratorial tones, at every chance.

This spring, I was in Culiacán, home to the Sinaloa cartel and some of the worst recent violence in Mexico. Beginning in 2007, just as Project Gunrunner was getting started, the cartel's leader, Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán Loera, was challenged for supremacy by a gang from the east, Los Zetas, and by the Beltrán-Leyvas, a quartet of murderous brothers who had once worked for Chapo. Gun battles broke out in the plazas and streets of Culiacán on a daily basis. Heads rolled, literally, a lot of them.

When I was there, the situation had stabilized somewhat -- the Beltrán-Leyvas had been mostly defeated, and the Zetas had been pushed to Sinaloa's smaller cities -- but it was still, by any sane standards, insane. On my second night in town, 12 bodies belonging to an amateurish crew of pistoleros were found around town. Later, a police captain and his brother were gunned down a few blocks from the central square.

I spent a week with the editors of Ríodoce, a Culiacán weekly that may be the best newspaper in Mexico right now. Certainly, it's among the bravest. While most news organizations have backed away from covering drug-trafficking and government corruption because so many journalists have been killed, Ríodoce goes after those stories with relish. It has made a favorite subject of Chapo. It would prefer to focus on politicians on the take, editor Ismael Bojórquez told me, but readers get disappointed when they don't see everyone's favorite bandito on the cover.

Bojórquez is as sapient as they come, and no conspiracy-theorizing pundit. His sources in government and the criminal underworld are extensive. He is also very prudent, a necessity when as many people want you dead as want him dead. Yet he takes it as a given that the ATF intentionally supplies the Sinaloa cartel with guns. U.S. agencies have long been in bed with the Sinaloans, he explained to me, and this scheme to move massive numbers of weapons into the country is more of the same. He noted that it coincides directly with the cartel wars of the late 2000s. Project Gunrunner and later Fast and Furious were, Bojórquez is sure, a way for America to arm Chapo, with whom it's in business. To him, this connection is as clear as day.

Bojórquez is not alone -- most Mexican journalists I speak with, and many average Mexicans, take Washington's collusion with the Sinaloa cartel for granted.

This interpretation of events owes partly to Chapo's reputation. A folk hero of mythic proportions, the man's very name has incantatory powers in Mexico. When it's uttered around Culiacán, it's usually in a whisper. Or people refer merely to "Him." Everyone knows who is meant. Mexicans tend to have very little faith in their government's abilities, aside from its ability to be corrupted -- and Chapo's competence in this regard is so obvious as to not need mentioning. Many Mexicans assume he essentially runs the country, and it's easy to see why. Since President Felipe Calderón took office in 2007, a steady procession of high-raking government, military, and police officials has been revealed to be working for Chapo or his deputy, Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada.

The interpretation owes partly to a contempt for and fear of American power and arrogance that go back to the 19th century. An editorial in La Prensa last year cast Fast and Furious as the latest attempt at Manifest Destiny. The reasoning may have been off, but the sentiment was understandable: Americans do, after all, smoke, snort, swallow, and shoot up the great majority of drugs produced or moved through Mexico, and Americans export almost all the guns used in the murders there, with or without the help of the ATF.

Then there's the long collusion between the U.S. government and drug-trafficking organizations, as Mexican students of history are quick to point out. Aside from the CIA's machinations in neighboring Central America, they refer to the U.S. Army's reliance on Sinaloan poppy-growers during World War II to keep up morphine supplies. More recently, the New York Times detailed the DEA's program for laundering and moving money for Mexican traffickers in order to trace where it goes (like Fast and Furious, but with bills, not guns). In a case going on in Chicago, El Mayo's son, Jesús Zambada Niebla, who was extradited to the United States in 2010, has claimed that he is immune to prosecution because he was working with the DEA. Court documents show that he did in fact take a meeting with agents, who claim no agreement was reached. The documents also show that, for years, the DEA has relied on a Mexican lawyer high up in Chapo's organization for information. Last year, the Mexican Senate called on former Attorney General Eduardo Medina-Mora -- who was seen as ineffective and was replaced after losing the confidence of U.S. officials, the Los Angeles Times reported -- to answer questions about what he knew of Fast and Furious. (Despite  briefing notes subpoeaned by Issa that suggest Bush-era U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey kept his Mexican counterpart abreast of ATF operations, Medina-Mora has repeatedly denied knowing about the operation.)*

Revelations like these, combined with the failure of the Mexican government to capture Chapo and El Mayo, lead people like Bojórquez to the same conclusion: The Sinaloa cartel cut a deal with Calderón when he came into office, whereby it would help Mexico City go after other cartels, such as the Zetas, in exchange for some amount of immunity. Calderón could only have done this, the argument goes, with high-level approval from Washington -- and Fast and Furious, a way to help Chapo, is evidence of that devil's bargain. (When one points out that many members of the Sinaloa cartel, including some alleged favorites of Chapo, have been captured recently, a common answer is that Chapo simply gave them up like pawns. His mastery knows no limits.)

The holes in this line of reasoning are numerous, but there's history behind it. As former DEA chief Robert Bonner wrote in Foreign Affairs recently, this resembles the approach his agency took against Colombia's Medellín cartel in the 1990s. And Bonner recommends it for Mexico.

Whatever the ATF's arrangements, one thing that is clear is that it handled Fast and Furious incompetently. And as anyone who has reported from Mexico knows, the line between incompetence and corruption is often too thin to discern. Indeed, when it comes to death -- by Mexico's own conservative tally, there have been close to 50,000 killings related to criminal organizations and drug-trafficking since Calderón took office -- the line is tragically irrelevant.

It's not only the Mexican media that is convinced of the ATF's corruption. The country's Senate has agreed to back the extradition of U.S. officials involved in Fast and Furious (a symbolic gesture, but telling), and lawyers are preparing class action lawsuits against the United States on behalf of the families of people killed with guns smuggled south across the border.

In the meantime, U.S. Rep. Issa has become something of a hero in Mexico, though the irony of this is lost on most Mexicans -- he was a supporter of California's Proposition 187, which attempted to deny noncitizens basic government services. Since the 1990s, Issa has opposed comprehensive immigration reform and joined the Immigration Reform Caucus, a hard-line enforcement group founded by nativist barnstormer Tom Tancredo. And -- Holder might mention this the next time he goes before the chairman -- Issa was once arrested for illegal gun possession.

It seems unlikely that Issa will get the documents he wants from the Justice Department before the November elections, even with his impressive network of leakers. If he does get them and they suggest an effort on Holder's part to obstruct the investigation, the consequences for Obama could be serious (though not Watergate-serious, no matter how desperately conservative commentators push that analogy). Confirmation of Zambada-Niebla's claims could be nettlesome, too, were anybody paying attention to that case and cared to make hay of it.

Mexico's upcoming July 1 presidential election offers an ironic comparison. Voters there are all but certain to elect Enrique Peña Nieto, the candidate of PRI, the political party that ran the country for most of the 20th century and whose coziness with criminal organizations is proverbial. Many Mexicans want PRI back in power not despite that reputation, but because of it. They are sick of the violence that has come with Calderón's efforts against the cartels and want peace, and if that means negotiating with the cartels, Sinaloa included, and allowing them to smuggle drugs to the United States, they say, so be it -- as long as the killing abates.

*Correction: The article misstated former Mexican Attorney General Eduardo Medina-Mora's position on his knowledge of the Fast and Furious operation. He has repeatedly denied knowledge or either formal or informal approval of Fast and Furious.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images


Tale of the Dragon Lady

The long, sordid history behind China's blame-the-woman syndrome.

The press has called her China's Jackie Kennedy, Lady Macbeth, and the Empress. There's been no trial, except by the blogosphere; no real evidence, beyond rumor and innuendo. Yet Gu Kailai, the wife of fallen Politburo member Bo Xilai has effectively been tried, convicted, and executed both on China's Internet and in the foreign media for the death of British businessman Neil Heywood.

It's an irresistible story: Gu Kailai, the wife of senior Communist Party figure and high-profile Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai, is said to have arranged the murder and cremation without autopsy of the family confidant and her rumored lover Heywood in a Chongqing hotel in November 2011. After Bo's former police chief, Wang Lijun, fled to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu, torpedoing Bo's career, Gu's involvement began to seep out, and in April, China's official news agency, Xinhua, confirmed that Gu was being investigated for Heywood's murder. On June 22, the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun, citing "Communist Party sources," claimed that Gu has confessed to murdering Heywood.

Sadly, "dragon ladies" are an all-too-familiar trope in Chinese history: A successful man achieves power, wealth, and the love of many before being brought low by an excessive ambition encouraged by his wife, a beautiful woman obsessed with money and power. There has been a consistent demonization of women in traditional Chinese history. Blamed for the collapse of the three earliest dynasties, women were regularly described as tyrants and nymphomaniacs who destroy thrones and cause war. Even today, the Communist Party prefers the narrative of a dragon lady to the reality of a massive internal rupture in the halls of government.

We could go back a long way -- history tends to in China -- and recall Empress Wu Zetian, who ruled between 665 and 725 A.D. The Confucian historians who disliked her reforms portrayed her as sexually rapacious, a devourer of young men and corrupter of Buddhist monks. The most famous dragon lady, however, is the Dowager Empress Cixi, an outsider who rose in the late 19th century through sexual exploits from an emperor's concubine to the one person running -- and, many would argue, ruining -- the Qing dynasty. Although there's no more actual evidence of Cixi's homicidal tendencies than there is of Gu's, that hasn't stopped historical soap operas on Chinese television from claiming that Cixi murdered the Guangxu Emperor to preserve her legacy after her death.

Most dragon ladies are married to a man but wedded to the throne. Soong Mei-ling, the wife of Chiang Kai-shek, China's ruler before Mao Zedong, was allegedly politically conniving, all-corrupting, sexually promiscuous, and self-enriching. After World War II, it became clear that the Chiang family had pocketed hundreds of millions of dollars of American aid intended for the war. She reputedly bedded 1940 U.S. Republican presidential nominee Wendell Willkie as part of her plan to see him become president so she "could rule the East and he the West" -- though no evidence of this exists. The communist-driven historical narrative, which formerly cast Chiang as a traitor, now views him as a "misguided patriot." Today, Madame Chiang is seen as a style icon -- her cheongsams with thigh-high slits are still popular -- and a consummate manipulator. Indeed, to follow the new, approved narrative of Chiang as a misguided one is to be encouraged to believe that Madame did a large amount of the misguiding.

Jiang Qing, or Madame Mao, was as ruthless as her husband. A former movie star who became Mao's fourth wife (ousting wives is a trait Madame Chiang and Madame Mao share with Gu, herself a second wife accused of ousting the first), Jiang dictated China's cultural policy during the Cultural Revolution, personally driving dozens if not hundreds of artists to suicide. Imprisoned after her husband's death, Jiang defended herself by saying, "I was the Chairman's dog. Whoever he asked me to bite, I bit." The notion of a player behind the throne -- coming with smiles to do the dirty work of the male leader -- plays into the dragon-lady trope in both East and West, whether it's Fu Manchu's beautiful but murderous daughter Fah Lo See in the 1932 Yellow Peril B-movie The Mask of Fu Manchu, or, as we are led to believe, Madame Gu ridding her husband of Heywood, an annoying foreign irritant.

Sex sells in China, too; despite official primness, there's a public taste for prurience. Tales of conniving and murderous mistresses are constant tabloid fodder -- as are the poor family men led astray by nasty ladies of the night. It's more maddening in China because of the lip service paid to women's liberation: China had a first wave of feminism in 1949 with Mao claiming that "women hold up half the sky" and the banning of foot binding and concubinage, but he never eradicated China's deep-seated misogyny. Job ads for women still stipulate that candidates should be a certain height, with the requisite measurements and looks; workplace sexual harassment and domestic violence are commonplace, and successful women are still treated with suspicion.

Because of their husbands' influence, the wives of China's senior leaders remain off limits in mainland Chinese media. Articles don't cover President Jiang Zemin's rumored mistress, a patriotic songstress, or Prime Minister Wen Jiabao wife's alleged involvement in the diamond market. Perhaps because of this media blackout, the celebrity-style gossip that surrounds the powerful wives of Western world leaders -- Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama, and even Cherie Blair -- continues to fascinate Chinese tabloid readers.

But Chinese women who have achieved power on their own accord invariably have "masculine" attributes attached to them. Women, so the thinking goes, can only be successful through their sexuality, or through their manliness. Minister Wu Yi, who handled China's WTO accession negotiations in the late 1990s, was pitched by both the Western and Chinese media as the tougher of the two sides -- China's no-nonsense, tough-as-nails "Iron Lady" against the more feminine scarf-wearing U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky. Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying, one of China's most successful female diplomats, is seen as a bruiser who berated Pyongyang over its rogue nukes, slapped down Canberra over Australian iron ore prices, and put the Brits in their place over London's criticisms of human rights during the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

When the Bo scandal broke, enemies needed to be found fast -- Bo was a senior party member and thus could not be portrayed as a complete traitor. A sinister manipulator had to be found, and Gu fit the historical narrative perfectly. Ultimately, dragon ladies are sideshows, part of the sleight of hand to deflect from the real action. Demonizing Cixi allowed the state to avoid picking at the rot that ran through the Qing court; focusing on Madame Chiang's legs and looted wealth distracted from the failures of the war against Japan; the obsession with Madame Mao's power plays misdirected the blame due her husband, the real architect of the chaos.

The Gu Kailai soap opera distracts as well. Did she have an affair with a suspicious foreigner? Did she amass a fortune through fear, intimidation, and political connections? Is she a murderess? Was she ultimately the power behind the throne in Chongqing and not her husband? Who knows -- the gossip is deafening; the evidence scant.

What's for sure is that while too many of us have been obsessing over whether Dragon Lady Madame Gu killed Heywood using cyanide or not, we should be paying more attention to the Communist Party's unprecedented internal fight. History is written by the victors, and in China's case, that's a group of buttoned-up old men both scornful to and deathly afraid of their women.

LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images