US firearms have flowed into the hands of corrupt security forces and criminal organizations in Mexico for years, yet the United States is still struggling to stem the tide of deadly weaponry moving across its southern border.
Between 2013 and 2018, 70 percent of the 96,036 firearms recovered by Mexican authorities and turned over to the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) were traced back to the United States, according to official government data. In 2018 alone, half of the 16,343 firearms recovered in Mexico were manufactured in the United States.
This comes as Mexico, a country with the third most gun-related deaths in the world, continues to see historic levels of violence. In 2017, Mexico suffered its most homicidal year in history since such records started being kept in 1997. The number of killings surged again in 2018, and the country is on pace to reach a record high once more by the end of 2019.
Firepower has also increased. As of the end of July 2019, Mexico Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said that the number of assault weapons and automatic rifles seized at crime scenes in the country has jumped by 122 percent and 63 percent, respectively.
In the border city of Tijuana, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported that “nearly every single gun seized by police since 2016 came from the United States,” according to Tijuana's police chief. The city has become one of the most deadly in the world as rival gangs wage a ruthless war to control sales of synthetic drugs like methamphetamine and fentanyl.
Some experts estimate that more than 210,000 weapons are smuggled across the US-Mexico border each year.
A Market Issue
The problem of US-sourced firearms finding their way into the hands of Mexico’s organized crime groups is a market issue. The United States has a glut of weapons -- especially high-powered ones -- and lacks strong control mechanisms. At the same time, criminal actors in Mexico are in constant search of such weaponry.
“Criminal actors in Mexico are using weapons to control whatever happens economically in their territory, and to dispute territory between each other,” John Lindsay-Poland, a researcher and activist at Global Exchange, told InSight Crime. “The demand side of the market has not changed, and dynamics on the supply side are really perfect to meet that demand.”
One of the most common ways that US firearms make their way into Mexico are through straw purchases. This is when an individual legally purchases a weapon in the United States on behalf of somebody who isn't allowed to own one. Smugglers enlist Americans with clean records to buy guns from authorized dealers, and then the weapons are moved south across the border.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Arms Trafficking
The guns are often broken down into pieces, hidden in electronics or disguised in other ways to evade authorities.
“Even in cases with very obvious patterns of trafficking, almost carelessly obvious, gun dealers don’t have a duty to do anything,” said Alex Yablon, a reporter who covers US gun policy for The Trace, a news organization focused on gun violence. “There really isn’t a mechanism for cutting off this flow [of US guns to Mexico].”
For border authorities and customs officials, locating illegal weapons is extraordinarily difficult. They lack the resources to adequately inspect the enormous quantities of goods and vehicles crossing the border each day. Outright corruption and a lack of interagency collaboration also complicate these efforts.
Legal Gaps and Pitfalls
Straw purchases and illegal trafficking aren’t the only ways that US firearms get into the hands of bad actors. The United States is the largest supplier of firearms globally. The mechanisms, however, put in place to control legal sales of firearms by licensed dealers to international actors have failed.
A February 2019 audit from the Office of the Inspector General at the US State Department, for example, found that the Directorate of Defense Trade Controls (DDTC) did not ensure that permanent export license applications met standards for approval.
Of the 21 firearms export license applications reviewed in the audit that were filed between December 2017 and August 2018, the report found that State Department officials approved all but one “despite the absence of required information.”
What’s more, under current law, the State Department is supposed to notify the US Congress if sales of firearms valued at over $1 million are approved. But Congress was never notified of 17 firearms export agreements that exceeded $1 million, according to the report.
The audit highlighted staff rotations, a lack of training and personnel cuts to explain these shortcomings. As of July 2018, the agency tasked with examining firearms agreements had a 28 percent reduction in staffing, according to the report. The department also lacks a “standard training program” for conducting checks.
“It’s extremely concerning that individuals who aren’t authorized to sign off on export licenses for the sales of weapons are doing so,” Christina Arabia, the director of the Security Assistance Monitor at the Center for International Policy, told InSight Crime. “It doesn’t seem like it’s much of a priority for the State Department.”
Gaps in this process can have severe consequences. Between 2015 and 2017, the United States exported nearly $123 million worth of firearms and ammunition to Mexico, according to US Census Bureau trade data reported by the Intercept.
Over the years, Mexican soldiers have been accused of a range of severe human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings. “Legally exported US firearms have been used in massacres, disappearances, and by security forces that collude with criminal groups in Mexico on a broad scale,” according to the Intercept report.
A Better Path Forward?
Experts agree that the United States can implement a variety of strategies to slow the number of US firearms illegally trafficked across the southern border, while also safeguarding legal international sales of firearms.
At the federal level, ending the importation of high-powered assault weapons into the United States would help restrict the flow of such weapons into Mexico, said Global Exchange's Lindsay-Poland.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of US-Mexico Border
On the state level, enforcing universal background checks and placing limits on the number of firearms -- particularly long weapons -- that can be purchased from a single dealer would also likely reduce the number of weapons used in Mexico to commit violent crimes.
Experts consulted by InSight Crime agree that both the ATF and State Department need more resources and personnel to tackle illegal gun trafficking and to ensure the process for legal gun exports isn’t flawed.
But that's not enough.
“There’s a resource issue and a political will issue,” Lindsay-Poland told InSight Crime. “You can put more resources into an agency, but if the political will isn't there to actually prevent weapons from getting to bad actors, it’s not going to make that much of a difference.”
The administration of US President Donald Trump hasn’t shown any desire to confront the country’s weapons problem. In fact, a proposed reform to ease firearm export controls for US weapons manufacturers -- while still in limbo -- could send a new wave of firearms to Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America if passed.