Weapons seized along US border with Mexico

A new study suggests the number of guns trafficked from the United States to Mexico is higher than previously believed, underscoring the uncertainty that surrounds the cross-border weapons trade, as well as its impact on violence in Mexico.

According to a recent report (pdf) on arms trafficking by Mexico's governmental research service, known as the CESOP, an estimated 2,000 weapons illegally enter Mexico from the United States every day. The report says 85 percent of the approximately 15 million weapons that were in circulation in Mexico in 2012 were illegal.

The report -- which is based largely on numerous international studies and reports -- highlights the large number of cheap military and assault-style weapons available in the United States, in addition to lax US gun laws, as the main reasons for the high number of arms smuggled into Mexico. Some 40 percent of firearms used by drug traffickers in Mexico come from Texas alone, the report stated. 

The report identifies straw purchasing -- in which individuals legally buy weapons in the United States, before smuggling them into Mexico and selling them on the black market -- as the most common form of arms trafficking.

The report does not, however, mention Mexican security forces, which InSight Crime found in a 2011 study to be a large source of black market weapons. 

The CESOP report also does not explain where it sourced its estimate that 2,000 weapons illegally cross the US-Mexico border every day. According to Clay Boggs, a specialist on Mexico and gun trafficking at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), this figure may be a relic from the era of former President Felipe Calderon, who was a vocal critic of the perceived inaction of the US on stemming the flow of guns illegally entering Mexico

“Two thousand is a number Calderon frequently used, but it was a projection because no one knows how many guns cross the border,” Boggs told InSight Crime.

SEE ALSO: Mexico News and Profiles

A 2013 study (pdf) by the University of San Diego and the Igarape Institute in Brazil -- and a follow-up to that report published in 2014 -- estimated that, on average, 212,887 firearms were bought in the US every year between 2010 and 2012, by purchasers who intended to traffic them. This represents some 580 weapons a day -- just 29 percent of the figure provided by CESOP.

While arms trafficking on the US-Mexico border is undoubtedly big business, the discrepancy between the two estimates highlights the uncertainty of just how many weapons are being trafficked into Mexico.

"Getting a firm grasp on the scope and scale of arms trafficking across the US-Mexico border is exceedingly difficult," Robert Muggah, an author of the joint 2013 study, told InSight Crime.

According to Muggah, there are three primary ways to track arms trafficking: 1) "gun-walking", which is when authorities purposefully allow arms dealers to sell to straw purchasers, then tracing the weapon across the border, 2) assessing seized weapon stocks, and 3) estimating arms trafficking using statistical models. However, none are even close to perfect, Muggah said. 

One reason why it's hard to get a handle on the US-Mexico illegal arms trade is the difficulty in tracing confiscated weapons to a source country. Firearms purchased at gun fairs or private auctions in the United States that require no registration -- or weapons with missing serial numbers seized by Mexican authorities --  are nearly impossible to track. In 2012, US authorities admitted they could not identify the source country for 30 percent of the seized weapons suspected of being used for a crime in Mexico.

Even if the number of firearms illegally crossing the US-Mexico border is significantly lower than 2,000 per day, evidence suggests the flow of illegal guns into Mexico is increasing. The number of weapons seized along the US southwest border by the Department of Homeland Security from 2010 to 2012 increased 189 percent compared to the years 2006 to 2008. In addition, the University of San Diego study found a growing percentage -- nearly half -- of licensed US gun dealers are financially dependent on Mexican consumers. 

SEE ALSOCoverage of Arms Trafficking

Despite studies showing that tightening legislation on US gun purchases can have a direct impact on violence levels in Mexico, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has proven more hesitant than his predecessor to call for stricter laws in the United States. The issue is politically charged, and US-Mexico relations are strong -- in part due to various captures of high-level drug traffickers such as Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman in February of last year -- so Mexican authorities may not want to stir the waters.