U.S. fails to stem flow of illegal firearms to Mexico

The U.S. government has pledged to combat the illegal flow of firearms across the border, but new data reveal that the United States remains by far the largest source of weapons seized in Mexico.

The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives traced 11,061 weapons seized in Mexico in 2014 as originating either with U.S. manufacturers or gun wholesalers and vendors.

That amounts to 71.9 percent of all weapons that Mexico asked U.S. authorities to trace, a percentage rate slightly above any for the three previous years.

“The United States hasn’t been able to halt the southbound flow of illegal weapons,” said Clay Boggs, the program officer for Mexico at the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights and democracy advocacy group.

The figures were released late last week by ATF, a bureau in the Department of Justice, but passed largely unnoticed.

Mexican authorities say the nation’s homicide rate dropped 14.6 percent last year, although the country remains home to numerous organized crime groups that smuggle narcotics and people, engage in extortion and kidnapping and exert control over some regions of the country through armed terror.

Mexicans have a constitutional right to own firearms but in practice a permit is difficult to obtain. One must belong to a shooting club, have a clean record and prove that one has fulfilled obligatory military service. The nation has only one gun store, which is operated by the military.

Only police and the armed forces can legally carry the types of large-caliber or semiautomatic weapons that crime gangs commonly use.

Law enforcement officials here asked their U.S. counterparts to trace 15,397 weapons last year that they had seized, according to the eight-page bulletin from the ATF’s Office of Strategic Intelligence and Information. Of those, the ATF found that 8,200 were manufactured in the United States, and that federal firearms licensees (usually gun wholesalers or vendors) imported another 2,861 weapons from third countries for U.S. sale.

The provenance of the remaining 4,336 weapons was not clear. Some of them may have gone directly to Mexico from a third country, or passed through the United States to another country before arriving in Mexico, the ATF bulletin said.

To conduct a trace of a firearm, the ATF said it requires the name of the manufacturer, model, caliber and serial number of the weapon.

Mexico does not submit such information to the ATF for all weapons it seizes, partly because criminals can file off serial numbers or otherwise alter weapons.

Only two other countries in the region chalk up a higher trace rate of their weapons to U.S. shores – the Bahamas (97.9 percent) and the tiny island nation of Saint Kitts and Nevis (82.6 percent).

All Central American nations reported a trace rate to the United States of less than 50 percent – except peaceful Costa Rica, where only 63 weapons were traced and 53.9 percent came from the United States. In aggregate, 40 percent of weapons from Central American nations were from the United States.

The U.S. government has vastly increased the presence of Border Patrol agents along the 1,950-mile southwest border and repeatedly pledged to combat arms trafficking to Mexico.

The Department of Homeland Security says staffing along that border area has climbed from 9,100 Border Patrol agents in 2001 to more than 18,500 today.

Since 2008, the U.S. government has given counter-drug assistance, including military weaponry and aircraft, to Mexico through the Merida Initiative program.

As part of that program, the White House has promised to do more to fight weapons trafficking. On Feb. 27, it issued a joint statement with the Mexican government stating, “Weapons trafficking is a serious crime which we must prevent and firmly combat.”