The number of firearms seized from criminal groups over the past ten years — an average of 40 a day — could equip a force equivalent to Mexico’s Navy and Federal Police put together; while the amount of seized cartridges would allow each weapon to fire at least 105 rounds.
Over the past decade, the Army has seized almost 13,000 grenades and 150,000 firearms, including assault weapons meant for use in warfare. This is despite the fact that conventional arms sales are illegal in Mexico, and — at least on paper — the country has been living in times of “peace” for at least half a century.
The seizures were part of the Army’s permanent campaign against organized crime, and while there have been cases of large arsenals discovered in warehouses or secret hideouts, many weapons have also been taken from cars, people, or violent crime scenes.
Last December, a United Nations and World Health Organization (WHO) report on violence prevention revealed that in Mexico — contrary to the most conservative estimates — seven out of 10 people are killed with firearms. This put Mexico in the 12th spot worldwide, among countries with the greatest proportion of these kinds of homicides, at the same level as Kuwait and Brazil.
Information on weapons seizures kept by Mexico’s Secretary of National Defense (SEDENA) also shows that criminal firepower is increasing — the percentage of larger weapons seized by authorities is rising compared to smaller weapons, like pistols.
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This increase in criminal firepower can also be seen in the number of grenades seized from criminal groups, which increased by more than 1,400 percent over a decade. However, the numbers from 2014 show a significant decrease in these seizures compared to previous years.
Mexico’s Underworld has an Army
In little more than a decade — from January 2005 to February 2015 — the Mexican army seized 147,041 firearms that were either in the hands of organized crime or civilians not permitted to own them, meaning an average of 40 weapons are seized… every 24 hours.
To put this in perspective, these weapons could equip an “army” that outnumbers all the troops in Mexico’s Navy (approximately 60,000 marines) or the Federal Police (approximately 45,000 officers). In total, the number of weapons seized from organized crime would arm about 60 percent of the operational forces in the Mexican Army.
Statistics on annual arm seizures saw a steady increase over this time, finally peaking in 2011. That year, the Army seized almost 32,500 weapons from criminal groups, 10,000 more weapons than the amount seized between 2005 to 2008.
In 2012 — the last year of President Felipe Calderon’s term — weapon seizures began to steadily decrease, until they reached levels similar to those seen in 2007.
But the apparent strength of Mexico’s criminal groups is not decreasing. The proportion of seized handguns and rifles was relatively stable until 2008. However, this changed in the following years, even as the total number of seized weapons has gone down.
According to data from SEDENA, over the last five years more than 60 percent of seizures have consisted of large weapons, including shotguns, rifles, automatic and semi-automatic weapons, sniper rifles, machine guns, and grenade launchers, among others.
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There are cases in which the armed forces have had a significant impact. For example, on November 7, 2008, elements of the Mexican Army raided a warehouse in Reynosa, Tamaulipas that belonged to the Gulf Cartel, where they discovered 278 large arms, 126 short arms, over half a million bullet cartridges, and almost 300 grenades.
Discovering the arsenals is not always easy. For example, on July 3, 2011, soldiers confiscated 171 firearms and almost 100,000 cartridges from the Zetas, who had hidden them in an underground storehouse. The weapons were buried on a piece of land in Las Salinas, Coahuila, where there otherwise appeared to be nothing there. If there hadn’t been an anonymous tips, no one would have ever looked.
But beyond these large operations, the majority of firearms have been discovered during daily, small-scale actions, like arrests or vehicle inspections. Weapons seizures are also common after street shootouts like those that occur in Tamaulipas.
A Lot of Ammo… and Grenades
“If we had any ammunition, you would not be here.” So said General Anaya said to General Twiggs, during the Mexican-America war of the 19th century. This is something that appears to weigh heavily in the minds of Mexico’s criminals.
According to official statistics, over the last decade Mexican authorities seized almost 15.8 million munitions, from small .22 caliber bullets to 7.62 caliber rounds used by the so-called “Goat Horns” (AK-47s) or .50 caliber bullets for anti-material Barrett rifles.
Leaving the calibers aside — and without counting the number of bullet clips found — Mexico has seized enough ammunition for each seized weapon to fire an average of at least 105 rounds.
The number of seized grenades also points to the increased firepower of criminal gangs. Available data shows that between 2006 to 2014, Mexico seized 12,857 explosives — the equivalent of about three a day.
As occurred with firearms, grenade seizures increased year-on-year until reaching almost 3,000 in 2011. From then on seizures began to decrease, and have continued to do so during the administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto.
Criminals have had few qualms about using these explosive devices on various targets — including civilians attending Independence Day ceremonies in Morelia in 2008, to a military convoy in Guachinango, Jalisco last year, and in 2015, when they were used against a TV station in Matamoros, Tamaulipas.
‘Goat Horns’ From China
Selling high-caliber weapons in Mexico is prohibited. However, this hasn’t been an obstacle for the traffic and sale of high-powered firearms on the black market, as evidenced by the types of weapons seized.
According to data from a special unit in the Attorney General’s Office that investigates arms trafficking, 60 percent of seized large weapons correspond to 7.62×39 millimeter cartridges. These are weapons that use long and highly lethal bullets — those used in AK-47 rifles, known as “goat horns” for their shape.
While the AK-47 is of Russian origin, there are 14 countries that produce similar models or copies of this gun, according to a report by non-governmental organization Control Arms. Some of these foreign models have been found in Mexico.
For example, according to SEDENA data from 2011, one of every six “goat horns” is a NORINCO brand, a Chinese company that markets weapons technology internationally, and that has been accused of, among other things, selling missiles to countries like North Korea and Iran.
The “Chinese AK-47” offers the same benefits as its Russian cousin, but at a lower price, as this model lacks chrome plating in the barrel and gas piston.
The AK-47 is not the only war weapon seized from criminals in Mexico. To cite two more examples, included among seizures are M-16 assault rifles used by the US Army in conflicts like the Vietnam War, or the Mossberg 500 caliber shotgun used in operations like Desert Storm in Iraq.
Investigations into the origins of the weaponry, with the support of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), has determined that 75 percent of seized weapons that have been traced come from gun stores in the United States and are trafficked across the northern border of Mexico.