A new report says the majority of firearms trafficked into Mexico may not be manufactured in the United States, highlighting the need for the US government to close a loophole enabling high-powered foreign weapons to end up in the hands of Mexican drug cartels. 

The report (pdf), co-written by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and the Violence Policy Center (VPC), said the number of foreign-made firearms being trafficked across the US-Mexico border could be much higher than official statistics indicate.

Using US court records, the study says that 59 percent of confiscated weapons intended to be trafficked into Latin America between 2008 and 2014 were foreign made. (See WOLA-VPC’s graph below) For its part, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) says only 25 percent of all firearms seized by Mexican authorities that are submitted for tracing are found to have been manufactured outside of the United States. 


This discrepancy between the two datasets may be due to the inability of US government figures to accurately reflect current trends in arms trafficking, WOLA and VPC say. Many weapons seized by Mexican authorities and submitted for tracing were smuggled into Mexico years ago. This means even the most recent ATF data only offers “a composite picture of trafficking across several prior years,” the report states.

In contrast, data from the courts corresponds to the year in which the arms trafficking operation took place, and therefore may provide a more up-to-date snapshot of smuggling trends. The VPC data could in fact serve as a bellwether of shifting dynamics in the cross-border illicit arms trade, in which foreign-made weapons make up the majority of firearms being smuggled into Mexico.

“I would predict that the ATF data would start to resemble what the VPC found within a few years,” Clay Boggs, a WOLA Program Officer and co-author of the report, told InSight Crime.

Powerful and inexpensive foreign-made weapons — mostly AK-47 variances — are popular among US gun owners and Mexican drug traffickers alike, according to the report. These weapons are principally imported from Romania and Bulgaria.

Foreign and local manufacturers have found ways to skirt the import ban, using loopholes in the legislation to ensure the weapons pipeline that starts in the Balkans and ends in Mexico remains open.

InSight Crime has previously reported on the high number of Romanian-made weapons that are legally imported into the United States and later trafficked across the border to Mexican drug cartels. Indeed, this is a long-standing issue that has only been addressed with piecemeal legislation and little law enforcement or judicial backing.

In 1989, ATF banned the importation of foreign semi-automatic assault rifles, including AK-47 variants. The US banned assault rifles altogether in 1994 and further tightened restrictions on foreign-made weapons entering the United States in 1998.

However, the assault weapons ban ended in 2004, and foreign and local manufacturers have found ways to skirt the import ban, using loopholes in the legislation to ensure the weapons pipeline that starts in the Balkans and ends in Mexico remains open.

Among the most important of these loopholes allows imports of weapons for what are deemed “sporting purposes.” However, “sporting purposes” is interpreted very broadly and even when a gun’s “sporting” nature is questioned, the report’s writers say that ATF’s enforcement is lacking.

“They are not correctly applying the sporting purposes test,” Kirsten Rand of VPC told InSight Crime. “They are essentially letting in anything.” 

InSight Crime Analysis

In the war against weapons trafficking, the ATF is an easy target. As InSight Crime has pointed out, the bureau has about 2,400 agents, far below its counterparts. Of these, only about 700 are inspectors. Given the massive number of imports, the job of inspecting these weapons is next to impossible.

The bar set for prosecuting straw buyers and other gun-running logistical personnel is also very high: rock solid cases based on video surveillance and cooperating witnesses are often thrown out of court; prosecutors in pro-gun states, especially along the Mexico-US border, are reluctant to take these cases, which are seen as political hot potatoes.  

At the same time, gun trafficking remains a serious problem. Organized crime groups in Mexico have a voracious appetite for black market weapons; Mexican authorities seized nearly 29,000 weapons on an annual basis between 2010 and 2013, more than double the number of firearms confiscated in war-torn Iraq. While estimates of how many weapons are crossing the US-Mexico border vary widely, experts say almost half of all US firearms dealers are financially reliant on Mexican demand. 

There is evidence this enormous illegal arms trade has become a growing source of violence south of the Rio Grande. According to a 2014 report (pdf) by Mexican civil society group [Des]Arma, the number of homicides committed with firearms shot up by 184 percent between 2001 and 2013. From 2001 to 2014, assassins used firearms in over 90,000 homicides nationwide, according to the report. 

SEE ALSO: Coverage of US-Mexico Border

Determining the source country of Mexico’s guns is also important because this information provides us with a realistic expectation of the role the US government can have on limiting cross-border arms smuggling. According to the WOLA-VPC report, only the US Congress can ban specific styles of domestic weapons from being manufactured. This is unlikely to happen, given how politically divisive the issue of gun rights is in the United States. 

But US restrictions on foreign-made weapons require no such congressional action. According to the report, the executive branch has the authority to place a ban on any imported weapon that is not intended to be used for “sporting purposes.” This gives the US president significant power to prevent imported AK-47 style weapons from reaching the United States — and by extension, Mexico’s drug cartels.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Arms Trafficking

The notion of a US president signing an executive order to prohibit non-sporting weapons is not only plausible, it has already been done twice — by both Democrat (Bill Clinton) and Republican (George H.W. Bush) presidents. Simply put, the political obstacles standing in the way of placing a ban on foreign weapons are significantly lower than imposing a similar measure on the domestic arms industry. 

If the trafficking of non-US manufactured weapons into Mexico is on the rise, as the WOLA-VPC report suggests, the urgency placed on an executive ban of foreign military-style weapons only becomes magnified. With the stroke of a pen, the US president could put a sizable dent into the lucrative cross-border arms smuggling industry. There may yet be some truth to the old adage that “the pen is mightier than the sword” — or in this case, the gun. 

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