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Lack of US Gun Control Provokes Record Bloodshed in Mexico

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers conducting outbound inspections at Arizona’s Port of Lukeville arrested two Mexican nationals after finding unreported U.S. currency, weapons and ammunition in separate seizures. Date: March 16, 2017 (Photo: U.S. Customs and Border Protection)
U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers conducting outbound inspections at Arizona’s Port of Lukeville arrested two Mexican nationals after finding unreported U.S. currency, weapons and ammunition in separate seizures. Date: March 16, 2017 (Photo: U.S. Customs and Border Protection)

“Legally exported U.S. firearms have been used in massacres, disappearances, and by security forces that collude with criminal groups in Mexico on a broad scale.”

(By Parker Asmann, InSight Crime) U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S.-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 U.S. 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.

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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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.

February 2019 audit from the Office of the Inspector General at the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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.

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 U.S. 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 U.S. weapons manufacturers — while still in limbo — could send a new wave of firearms to Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America if passed.

Guest Post

Citizen Truth republishes articles with permission from a variety of news sites, advocacy organizations and watchdog groups. We choose articles we think will be informative and of interest to our readers. Chosen articles sometimes contain a mixture of opinion and news, any such opinions are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of Citizen Truth.


  1. J. P. September 10, 2019

    I love what you guys do but your article is very misleading.

    1. The U.S. Government has been flooding Mexican drug groups with guns for years. Meanwhile, in Mexico it is impossible to own the same kind of firepower legally, and even pistols are very difficult to purchase. This makes the people sitting ducks. So the reason innocent civilians are getting slaughtered is because they simply cannot defend themselves.


    2. In the same period of time that Mexico’s gun sales to gangs have been increasing, the US has also had booming weapons sales to all its citizens of various types of weapons. There is a direct correlation between the gun growth charts and violent crime charts. As gun sales have gone UP, in the US, violent crime has been plummeting. This shows that it isn’t a lack of gun control causing the deaths in Mexico, it’s too much of it.


    1. Lauren von Bernuth September 10, 2019

      Fair criticism, no doubt the U.S. government loves trafficking in weapons sales … legally or illegally! Thank you for the opening compliment too! If you don’t me asking, what do you like that we do as an organization/media outlet and what could we do better on?

  2. J.P. September 11, 2019

    I like that you guys aren’t ideologically biased one way or the other. You have MAGA members and progressives working for you and others in between. I have nothing wrong with ideological bias so long as the facts are directly represented. It’s one of the reasons I read you guys. Most of your articles have facts and data in them, regardless of which side writes it.

    1. Lauren von Bernuth September 11, 2019

      Thank you for the feedback. I think we need more conservative writers but I haven’t had as much luck connecting with them… but we are on the lookout. Everybody has a natural bias which will influence the whole media outlet, in my opinion, so bringing in as many different perspectives as possible is key to understanding the bigger picture. As we grow, that is a goal to bring in more perspectives and do more in-depth work.

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