President Barack Obama’s planned trip to Brazil, Chile and El Salvador later this month will be an opportunity for the United States to improve relations with Latin America, in the aftermath of some of the bad decisions the U.S. government has made recently — especially sending of guns south of its borders.

While carrying out this initiative, dubbed “Operation Fast and Furious,” federal agents allowed more than 1,700 illegal firearms to pass into Mexico from the U.S., and without notifying President Felipe Calderon’s administration. The operation commenced in late 2009.

According to John Dodson, a Phoenix-based agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the plan was to funnel the firearms into Mexico so that agents in the U.S. could track their movements, in hopes that the guns would lead authorities to criminal gangs and drug traffickers. The problem, Dodson told me in an interview, was that the arms were not specially marked or microchipped, so keeping track of them proved to be extremely difficult. These guns — many of which were particularly destructive types of semiautomatic handguns and rifles — may have already been used to kill innocent people in Mexico. It’s impossible to know if, and how many, of these guns are being used to commit crimes.

But while the bureau is now reviewing its gun-tracking strategies, “controlled delivery” of firearms into Mexico has not ceased. “None of these people have said this activity is going to stop,” Dodson said. “No one has said we’ve suspended the policy pending these reviews.”

Dodson decided to come forward about Operation Fast and Furious following the shooting death in Arizona of Brian Terry, a Border Patrol agent, on Dec. 14, 2010. Officials believe that gunmen in the Arizona desert targeted a four-member Border Patrol team that included Terry. The team was trying to apprehend a group of bandits that preyed on undocumented immigrants crossing the border through the desert.

Two of the weapons that Dodson allowed to pass into Mexico under Operation Fast and Furious were found near the crime scene. Dodson said he felt some responsibility for Terry’s death, which prompted his decision to speak out against the gun-running operation.

That’s understandable, but what about the Mexicans who have likely lost their lives at the hands of criminals using the same cache of guns? Who is going to speak for them? Many people have been put in danger because of this covert American activity, while Mexico’s government appears to have been kept in the dark.

So, as President Obama prepares for his trip to Latin America, it is a good time for Americans to learn a valuable lesson: the United States should never carry out an initiative like Operation Fast and Furious on foreign soil. Ever.

The nation should instead be using its wide influence to promote openness and cooperation with other nations, especially in Latin America.

It’s quite clear that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the popular revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya are at the top of the Obama administration’s agenda. Nevertheless, Obama has been paying close attention to recent developments affecting the nations he will visit in South and Central America, and his visit can benefit all involved. Also, Obama is fairly popular in the region. His predecessor, President George W. Bush, on the other hand, was not after the unjustified and unnecessary invasion of Iraq.

Obama doesn’t have to do a great deal to maintain his popularity. With this tour he is making it clear that these nations are all important partners of the United States. After all, Brazil is South America’s economic engine. Chile aspires to become the continent’s first developed country. And El Salvador is showing the world that a leftist government can maintain a stable relationship with Washington.

“Ideologies are no longer important,” Mauricio Funes, the president of El Salvador, told me recently. “El Salvador can build, together with the United States, an alliance for development.”

The U.S. should know by now that alliances with Latin America work, while secret shipments of arms across borders do not. Cooperation works, but forcing your policies on another nation does not. Sharing information works; secret operations on foreign soil do not.

Dan Restrepo, a White House national security adviser, told me that “the United States, under President Obama’s leadership, wants to work as a partner, as equals,” with these nations. And that — an equal partnership — is exactly what Latin America wants from the U.S.

But a partnership cannot be achieved via divisive schemes like Operation Fast and Furious, which always have very predictable, lethal consequences.

(I will be traveling with President Obama as he visits Latin America starting March 19 and will be tweeting about the tour on (at)jorgeramosnews.)

By Jorge Ramos Avalos
© 2010 Jorge Ramos
(February 14, 2011)

Previous ArticleNext Article
Jorge Ramos has been the anchorman for Noticiero Univision since 1986. He writes a weekly column for more than 40 newspapers in the United States and Latin America, and provides daily radio commentary for the Radio Univision network. Ramos also hosts Al Punto, Univision’s weekly public affairs program offering analysis of the week’s top stories, and Fusion’s AMERICA with Jorge Ramos, a news program geared towards young adults. Ramos has won eight Emmy awards and is the author of ten books, most recently, STRANGER - The Challenge of a Latino Immigrant in the Trump Era.

A survey conducted by the Pew Hispanic Center found that Ramos is the second most recognized Latino leader in the country. Latino Leaders magazine chose him as one of “The Ten Most Admired Latinos” and “101 Top Leaders of the Latino Community in the U.S.”