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Column 081709 Longmire

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Monday, August 17, 2009

Making Sense of the Southbound Weapons Flow to Mexico

By Sylvia Longmire

There is no question that guns are flowing south from the United States into Mexico. Many, many guns. But the question so many people want answered is, exactly how many guns, and exactly where are they coming from?

The simple answer is, no one really knows, and no one will ever know with absolute certainty.

This fact is frustrating for many, including the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), the Mexican and U.S. governments, the National Rifle Association and anti-gun activists, and countless law enforcement officials trying to stem the southbound flow of guns. Seizure and trace statistics are funny things, in that they can be—and have routinely been—manipulated to fit almost any group’s agenda. The U.S. government has been using the statistic of 90 percent for the last year, and this number has been the source of much debate and controversy. So, what does that number mean?

Playing the numbers game

According to the ATF, Mexican authorities submitted over 7,500 firearms for tracing in fiscal year 2008. That means that the ATF uses serial numbers stamped on the weapons to determine where they were sold and to whom they were sold. Of those 7,500+ firearms that were actually traced by the ATF, approximately 90 percent of them were sold to individuals in Texas, Arizona, and California.

This seems pretty cut and dried, but in reality, it’s not so simple. According to the Mexican government, over 20,000 guns were seized by Mexican authorities in drug-related crimes during the same time period. One has to ask why so many guns were not submitted to the ATF for tracing, and more importantly, where did those guns come from.

This is where it gets easy to fudge statistics because there is no easy answer. My sources within the ATF have been kind enough to explain to me some of the many reasons why those thousands of guns were never submitted by Mexican authorities for tracing.

Many of those untraced guns have serial numbers that have been filed off. Until recently, only a small percentage of U.S.-origin guns in Mexico had the serial numbers filed off, and that number has increased significantly—from roughly five to 20 percent. This renders those guns untraceable. Other guns are stolen or “misplaced” by corrupt law enforcement officials, either for personal use or for passing on to Mexican drug trafficking organizations (DTOs). Some are never submitted because corrupt officials are attempting to protect the DTO-sponsored purchasers. And finally, some are simply destroyed without being traced.

Is it possible that less than 90 percent of those untraced guns came from U.S. sources? Yes. It’s also possible that more than 90 percent came from U.S. sources, but we will never know. This problem can be approached from a purely statistical standpoint, meaning the 7,500 guns submitted for tracing would represent a sample of the total gun “population.” If 90 percent of traced guns were sold in the U.S., then statistically speaking, there’s a good chance that somewhere in the neighborhood of 90 percent of untraced guns also came from the U.S. This is because 7,500 is a large sample from a “population” of 20,000. Despite its simplicity and mathematical validity, this approach does not satisfy many people following this issue.

Legal and easy gun purchases

There are many guns and other high-powered weapons used by Mexican DTOs that come from Central America, South Korea, and former eastern bloc countries. Some are remnants from civil wars and other conflicts in Latin America, and some are sold to DTOs on the black market. I don’t want to discount these sources for weapons in Mexico because it is important to note that the U.S. is definitely not the only source of guns in Mexico. However, the U.S. still remains the cheapest and easiest way to obtain the DTOs’ weapons of choice. This is because DTOs have mastered the art of using our own laws against us.

People who buy guns in the U.S. on behalf of Mexican DTOs are called straw purchasers, or simply “straw men.” These individuals have no criminal histories and are U.S. residents or citizens, meaning they will easily pass a background check at a U.S. gun shop, gun show, or pawn shop. When straw men buy guns for DTOs in the U.S., they lie on the mandatory forms they must fill out, stating that the guns they are purchasing are for personal use and will not be provided to another individual. If the gun seller notices suspicious behavior from the buyer, he or she can report the buyer to the ATF. However, the seller then risks losing a sale—possibly a big one that could be legitimate.

Few gun sellers are prosecuted for selling guns to straw men because it’s extremely difficult to prove the seller knew for certain how the guns were going to be used. It’s also extremely difficult for the ATF and other law enforcement agencies to identify straw men because the purchases themselves are legitimate (apart from lying on purchase forms).

Once the guns are purchased, they are sent south through a method called “ant trafficking.” Usually no more than four guns (because getting caught with four is a misdemeanor and five is a felony) are placed in dozens of southbound vehicles all along the U.S.-Mexico border. Very few of these vehicles are checked at the 36 border crossings into Mexico, despite a new agreement between the U.S. and Mexican governments to begin inspecting 10 percent of southbound vehicles. Even if some of those guns are seized, most make it into Mexico because of the trafficking system being used.

Trying to stop the flow with new laws

Some have offered the reinstatement of the assault weapons ban as a solution to the southbound weapons trafficking problem. Others claim that the “90 percent” figure is an attempt by the anti-gun lobby to clamp down on U.S. gun sales. However, most of the weapons on the original 1994 ban list are not the ones going to Mexico. The majority of those firearms are 5.56 caliber, although assault rifle calibers can range from 5.45mm to 7.62mm. 

The ATF has analyzed firearms recovered in Mexico from 2005-2008, and has identified the following weapons most commonly used by Mexican DTOs: 9mm pistols; .38-caliber revolvers; 5.7mm pistols; .223-caliber rifles; 7.62mm rifles; and .50 caliber rifles. Specifically, certain DTOs are fond of the Fabrique Nationale (FN) FiveSeven pistol and the FN-P90, as well as the Barrett .50-caliber sniper rifle. The AK-47 and the AR-15 are very popular with the DTOs and are on the ban list, but many “copycat” assault rifles would be easily—and legally—available should the ban be reinstated.

No quick and easy solution

Stopping the flow of weapons from the U.S. into Mexico is complicated and difficult for so many reasons. Fingers are being pointed at both governments for having weak laws or weak enforcement efforts, but the problem has so many facets that it’s impossible to tackle them all at the same time. DTOs have virtually unlimited financial resources and don’t have to follow laws to accomplish their goals. The Mexican authorities are dealing with widespread corruption, which allows seized guns to reenter circulation. The U.S. doesn’t have enough enforcement agents or resources, but does have constitutionally protected laws being used to the DTOs’ advantage.

It may be impossible to tackle all these challenges at once, but there are efforts being made to address them one at a time. President Felipe Calderón is working hard to reduce corruption levels within his government, and Mexican authorities are making record gun seizures. The ATF is working closely with Mexican authorities to trace significantly more seized guns. The U.S. government is making more personnel and financial resources available to the ATF and other agencies involved in stemming the southbound weapons flow.

DTOs are creative, persistent and they have money to burn, and despite aggressive government action it is likely DTOs will find ways to bring desired guns into Mexico. But if getting guns from the U.S. becomes too difficult—which is the U.S. government’s ultimate goal—then the DTOs will have to look to other, more expensive sources. This would hurt their profits and livelihood, which falls in line with the Mexican government's goals. There is no telling how successful either government's efforts will be in slowing the southbound flow of guns, but anything that remotely hurts the bad guys' bottom line is a victory for the good guys.

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Sylvia Longmire is a former Air Force officer and Special Agent with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, where she specialized in counterintelligence, counterespionage, and force protection analysis. After being medically retired in 2005, Ms. Longmire worked for almost four years as a Senior Intelligence Analyst for the California State Terrorism Threat Assessment Center, providing daily situational awareness to senior state government officials on southwest border violence and significant events in Latin America. She received her Master’s degree from the University of South Florida in Latin American and Caribbean Studies, with a focus on the Cuban and Guatemalan revolutions. Ms. Longmire is currently an independent consultant and freelance writer.  Her website is Mexico's Drug War; she is a regular contributor to Examiner.com; and her email address is spooky926@gmail.com.