Component parts of a pistol

Amid ongoing concerns about gun violence in the United States and Mexico, a new report highlights several bureaucratic obstacles hampering US efforts to stem the flow of illicit arms to its southern neighbor.

The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report (pdf) on January 11 that criticized a lack of effective collaboration between the two US agencies with primary responsibility for combating cross-border arms trafficking: the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and the Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

The GAO "identified persistent challenges in information sharing and some disagreement on the agencies' respective roles in investigations." In response to previous recommendations from the GAO in 2009, ATF and ICE attempted to improve cooperation by updating a memorandum of understanding between the organizations. But the new report says that no mechanism currently exists to monitor whether both agencies are complying with its provisions.

In addition, the GAO noted "there may also be some confusion in Mexico over ATF's and ICE's roles in combating firearms trafficking." According to the assessment, Mexican law enforcement agencies consider ATF "their lead US counterpart in investigating firearms trafficking." However, ATF is responsible for investigating violations of domestic US gun laws, whereas ICE has responsibility for investigating international trafficking operations.

The report also mentioned that corruption within Mexican law enforcement agencies has contributed to a reluctance to share information.

"ICE officials in the United States and along the US-Mexican border are concerned about sharing information with ICE officials based in Mexico, fearing that the information may unintentionally reach corrupt Mexican authorities and compromise their investigations," the GAO wrote.

The GAO also criticized the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) for using the number of gun seizures "with a nexus to Mexico" to assess the effectiveness of its anti-arms trafficking strategy, claiming this "does not adequately measure" whether the agency's efforts are working.

Instead, the GAO suggested that ONDCP combine this metric with other indicators, such as "the number of interdictions of firearms destined for Mexico, the number of investigations leading to indictments for firearms trafficking related to Mexico, and the number of convictions of firearms traffickers with a nexus to Mexico."

InSight Crime Analysis

Several experts consulted by InSight Crime said the GAO report tread some familiar territory when it comes to the issue of gun trafficking from the United States to Mexico. For instance, Kristen Rand, the legislative director of the Violence Policy Center (VPC), commented, "There have always been turf battles between agencies working on this issue."

On the other hand, arms trafficking specialist Robert Muggah of the Igarapé Institute described the report as "a wake-up call."

"It underlines that the US not only has a problem with enforcing the laws on the books, but that its gun regulation legislation is in serious need of improvement," Muggah wrote in an email to InSight Crime. "The evidence is clear: legally purchased US firearms and ammunition are sustaining cartel, gang and everyday criminal violence in Mexico."

Indeed, there is significant evidence pointing to that conclusion. The GAO report notes that about 70 percent of the firearms seized by Mexican authorities and submitted for tracing came from the United States. Most of these weapons were purchased legally in border states like Arizona, California, and Texas before being trafficked illegally to Mexico

Additionally, a recent data analysis by the research organization Mexico Evalúa indicates that more than half of murders in Mexico are now committed with firearms. A number of other academic studies have linked the upward trend in gun homicides in Mexico to the 2004 expiration of a US ban on assault weapons.

As InSight Crime has previously reported, more than half of firearms confiscated in Mexico after being trafficked from the United States may be manufactured in foreign countries, particularly Romania and Bulgaria. The high-quality, high-powered assault weapons made in those countries -- and often modified in the United States before resale in Mexico -- continue to be sought after in large numbers by Mexican criminal groups.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Arms Trafficking

While previous research and reporting has shed light on the above-mentioned issues, some experts InSight Crime spoke with pointed out that the GAO report did touch on an emerging trend related to gun trafficking -- namely, the expanding cross-border trade in weakly-regulated gun parts that can be used to make "homemade" firearms.

"I think the new information here is really the role that guns made from parts is starting to play in international trafficking," said Rand. "We've seen anecdotal examples of that, but I think this [report] suggests that it's really becoming a very serious problem."

Under US law, the sale of most gun parts is virtually unregulated. And parts that are more tightly regulated, such as "lower receivers," can be produced in an unfinished -- and therefore unregulated and untraceable -- form that can easily be modified into a functioning component after sale. Like the GAO report, recent media coverage (like this article from Motherboard last year) has indicated that Mexican crime groups are increasingly importing gun parts from the US in order to construct their own weapons.

Still, as Muggah pointed out, Mexican criminal groups have plenty of sources from which they can readily obtain commercially-manufactured weapons, including the country's security forces.

"Given the sheer wealth of some cartels, they may have developed some in-house capability," Muggah wrote. "But it is much more likely that arms are sourced by other means."

SEE ALSO: Coverage of the US-Mexico Border

Joy Olson, the executive director of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), said the facts presented in the GAO report suggested the issue of arms trafficking is receiving insufficient attention on both sides of the border.

"Both from the Mexican side and from the US side, I get nothing of the 'fierce urgency of now,'" Olson said, alluding to the famous phrase used by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and repeated by US president Barack Obama at his recent announcement of new executive actions aimed at curbing gun violence.

VPC's Rand seemed to agree.

"The problem of arms trafficking from the United States to Mexico is not really getting any better," she said.  

Investigations

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
Prev Next

Elites and Organized Crime: Preface

Elites and Organized Crime: Preface

Organized crime is not an abstract concept for me. I grew up in Oak Park, a leafy suburb of Chicago with a population of about 60,000. In general, it was a very low crime city, which is perhaps why many mobsters made their homes there, among them...

Guatemala Elites and Organized Crime: The CICIG

Guatemala Elites and Organized Crime: The CICIG

Like any arm of the justice system, the United Nations-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala - CICIG) had its battles with elites who used their charm and their muscle to try to influence what and who the celebrated commission...

Guatemala Elites and Organized Crime: Introduction

Guatemala Elites and Organized Crime: Introduction

Guatemala is Central America’s most populous country and its largest economy. But an intransigent elite, an ambitious military and a weak state has opened the way for organized crime to flourish, especially since the return of democracy.

Colombia Elites and Organized Crime: 'Jorge 40'

Colombia Elites and Organized Crime: 'Jorge 40'

Rodrigo Tovar Pupo never imagined it would come to this: dressed in an orange jumpsuit in a Washington DC courtroom and standing in front of a United States federal judge, the grandson of a wealthy Colombian cattle rancher and nephew to a governor was facing a possible...

Colombia Elites and Organized Crime: 'Don Berna'

Colombia Elites and Organized Crime: 'Don Berna'

By the end of 1993, Pablo Escobar was cornered. The cocaine king -- known as "El Patrón" -- was running out of money and options. His top assassins were either dead or had turned themselves in. Almost all of the senior members of the Medellín Cartel were...

Elites and Organized Crime: Conceptual Framework - Organized Crime

Elites and Organized Crime: Conceptual Framework - Organized Crime

This project defines organized crime as: a structured group of people that associate on a regular and prolonged basis to benefit from illicit activities and illegal markets. This group can be local, national or transnational in nature, and its existence is maintained using violence and threats; corruption...

Honduras Elites and Organized Crime: The Cachiros

Honduras Elites and Organized Crime: The Cachiros

As it tends to happen in Honduras, the news began as a well-heeled rumor: Javier Rivera Maradiaga, the oldest of the three Rivera Maradiaga brothers still alive and leader of the feared and powerful Honduran drug trafficking group known as the Cachiros, had handed himself in to...

Guatemala Elites and Organized Crime: The 'Huistas'

Guatemala Elites and Organized Crime: The 'Huistas'

In the northwest corner of Guatemala, a little known criminal organization known as the "Huistas" dominates the underworld, in large part due its ties with businessmen, law enforcement officials and politicians.

The FARC and the Drug Trade: Siamese Twins?

The FARC and the Drug Trade: Siamese Twins?

The FARC have always had a love-hate relationship with drugs. They love the money it brings, funds which have allowed them to survive and even threaten to topple the state at the end of the 1990s. They hate the corruption and stigma narcotics have also brought to...

Honduras Elites and Organized Crime: Juan Ramón Matta Ballesteros

Honduras Elites and Organized Crime: Juan Ramón Matta Ballesteros

On the morning of April 5, 1988, Juan Ramón Matta Ballesteros left his palatial Tegucigalpa estate for a jog. Matta Ballesteros was wanted for murder, drug trafficking and other crimes in several countries, but in Honduras he felt safe. He regularly hosted parties for high-level officials at...