Citation(s) from the literature library

Schroeder, Matt. 2013 ‘Sources of Illicit Small Arms in Mexico.’ Small Arms Survey 2013: Everyday Dangers; Chapter 12, pp. 294-298. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press and the Small Arms Survey, the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva. 2 July

Relevant contents

Sources of Illicit Small Arms in Mexico

On one end of the spectrum are estimates that 90 per cent or more of these weapons are acquired in the United States, primarily from retail gun stores and gun shows (CBC News, 2009; Levi, 2009). These estimates appear to be based on data on firearms trace requests submitted by the Mexican government to the US government, which are not necessarily representative of all seized firearms, let alone all illicit firearms in Mexico. Some analysts explicitly note these data gaps.

In a 2009 report, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) concludes that '[o]ver 90 percent of the firearms seized in Mexico and traced over the last 3 years have come from the United States' (USGAO, 2009, p. 15).(24) Yet GAO also concedes that the data is incomplete; only firearms submitted for tracing to the United States by the Mexican government are reflected in the estimate, not all firearms seized in Mexico. Other references to the 90 per cent figure are less nuanced.(25)

Other analysts contend that firearms diverted from the US civilian market constitute only a small fraction of weapons used in crimes in Mexico - 'probably around 17 percent', according to Fox News (La Jeunesse and Lott, 2009).(26) Proponents of this position often claim that most firearms acquired by the DTOs are machine guns and automatic rifles that are illegal for civilians to purchase and sell in the United States. These weapons, they claim, include fully automatic M16, AK series, G3, and FAL assault rifles, as well as M249 and M60 machine guns (Kuhn and Bunker, 2011). These weapons are reportedly acquired from the Mexican military and police, poorly controlled government stockpiles in Central and South America, and the international arms market (La Jeunesse and Lott, 2009; Kuhn and Bunker, 2011).

A careful analysis of the ATF's 2012 report on traces of firearms recovered in Mexico sheds some light on this debate, including ambiguities and gaps in the data that call into question both high- and low-end estimates. The ATF report includes data on 99,691 firearms seized from 2007 to 2011 that Mexico sought to trace with assistance from the US government, or approximately 65 per cent of the 154,943 firearms reportedly seized by Mexican authorities in this time period (USDOJ, 2012).(27) Little is known about the remaining firearms, including why data on a particular firearm is not sent to ATF. In some cases, the weapon is clearly not of US origin. In other cases, bureaucratic obstacles and staffing limitations hinder submission of trace requests (USGAO, 2009, p. 16). It is not clear which of these reasons, or combination of reasons, are applicable to the roughly 55,000 firearms not submitted for tracing.

Of the 99,691 firearms that were submitted for tracing, ATF was able to confirm that 51,267 were manufactured in the United States, and that an additional 16,894 were imported into the US by federal firearms licensees. In other words, at least 68,161 (68 per cent) of the traced firearms were either of US origin or entered in the United States at some point. This data is presented in Table 12.5.

Of the 68,161 US-sources firearms recovered, ATF was able to trace 27,825 to retail purchases in the United States. An addition 1,461 were traced to foreign entities, such as governments, law enforcement organizations, or dealers. This data is summarized in Table 12.6.

Thus, ATF was able to account for at least 29,286 to the 99,691 firearms submitted for tracing, of which at least 27,825 were diverted from the US domestic market at some point. Little can be said definitively about the remaining 70,405 firearms. It is likely that many of the 38,875 untraceable firearms identified by ATF as 'US-sourced' were trafficked to Mexico from the United States, but without addition information it is impossible to determine how many. Similarly, while many of the 12,260 weapons identified as 'non-US-manufacture[d]' and not traced to a US entity may never have entered the United States, ATF notes that even these weapons may have been 'legally imported into the US' before making 'their way to Mexico by legal or illegal means' (USDOJ, 2012, p. 6).

Despite its limitations, the data is useful in assessing the high- and low-end claims about the flow of illicit firearms from the United States to Mexico. Many of the high-end estimates (90 per cent) appear to be misinterpretations or misrepresentations of data on successful traces conducted by ATF, which as noted above, reflects only a small percentage of all seized weapons.(28) For this estimate to be accurate, at least 90 per cent of the 31,530 firearms identified by ATF as being from 'undetermined countr[ies] of origin' and 90 per cent of the 38,875 US-sourced weapons for which ATF was 'unable to determine a purchaser' - along with 85 per cent of the roughly 55,000 firearms not submitted for tracing to ATF - would have to be sourced from the United States. While not inconceivable, there is insufficient publicly available, empirical evidence to support these claims…

[ATF = United State Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives]


24) A 2005 ATF report also references possible illicit transshipment of foreign-sourced firearms through the United States. Citing an unconfirmed Mexican intelligence report, the ATF identifies Port Langley, British Columbia, as the 'landing point' for Kalashnikov-pattern rifles from former Eastern bloc states, Kosovo, and Serbia. The weapons are reportedly trafficked through Arizona, California, and Texas and are eventually delivered to Mexico (Price, 2005, p. 21).
25) See Farley (2009) for examples of less nuanced statements made by US and Mexican officials.
26) Kuhn and Bunker also estimate that 17 per cent of 'weapons currently acquired by the Mexican cartels' com from US domestic weapons sources. It is not clear what is meant by 'weapons' - that is, whether their estimate includes all weapons or just firearms, or how they arrived at so precise an estimate given the limitations of open-source data (Kuhn and Bunker, 2011, p. 818).
27) According to data provided by the government of Mexico, Mexican authorities seized 154,943 firearms from December 2006 to 23 August 2012. Of those firearms, 99,691 were traced through 'e-trace'; 68,161 of those were manufactured in the United States or brought to Mexico from the United States (written response from the Government of Mexico to questions submitted by the Small Arms Survey, September 2012). ATF provides the same figures, suggesting that the two datasets are comparable even though the Mexican government's data covers six additional months.
28) See also Cook, Cukier, and Krause (2009).

CBC News. 2009. 'Joint Presse Conference with President Barack Obama and President Felipe Calderón of Mexico.' Transcript. 16 April.
Kuhn, David and Robert Bunker. 2011. 'Just Where Do Mexican Cartel Weapons Come From?' Small Wars & Insurgencies. 29 November.
La Jeunesse, William and Maxim Lott. 2009. 'The Myth of 90 Percent: Only a Small Fraction of Guns in Mexico Come from US.' Fox News. 2 April.
Levi, Michelle. 2009. 'Mexico: U.S. Supplies 90% of Cartel's Guns.' CBC News. 12 April.
USDOJ (United States Department of Justice). 2012. ATF Mexico Trace Data: Calendar Years 2007-2011. 12 March.
USGAO (United States Government Accountability Office). 2009. US Efforts to Combat Arms Trafficking to Mexico Face Planning and Coordination Challenges. GAO-09-709. Washington, DC: USGAO. June.

ID: Q8490

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