Broken Government

Published — December 10, 2008 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

U.S. guns arming Mexican drug cartels

The ATF says that 90 percent of guns seized at the Mexican border were originally sold in the States, two-thirds of which have been traced back to Texas, Arizona, and California


High-powered weapons smuggled into Mexico from the United States are arming drug cartels in a bloody war with Mexican authorities that has killed more than 4,000 in 2008 alone, including hundreds of police officers, soldiers, and prosecutors — all while Mexico’s calls for the United States to cut off the flow have had little effect. Mexico’s strict gun laws make buying the weapons difficult, but in the United States, they are sold legally at stores, gun shows, and flea markets — and then smuggled across the border. The Department of Justice’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) found that more than 90 percent of guns seized at the Mexican border were originally sold in the United States, two-thirds of which have been traced back to Texas, Arizona, and California. In a report issued in November, the Brookings Institution estimated that 2,000 guns cross the border into Mexico every day. Only 100 U.S. firearms agents and 35 inspectors are stationed along the border (compared to 16,000 Border Patrol agents).

Many of the U.S. weapons — including semiautomatic assault rifles, such as AK-47s, and other high-powered firearms — have fallen into hands of Mexican drug cartels and helped fuel drug-related violence, prompting Mexican officials to call for stricter gun laws in U.S. border states. Texas, for example, has some of the most relaxed gun laws in the country, allowing “straw buyers” to easily purchase weapons and hand them over to traffickers in exchange for money and drugs. In January, the ATF implemented Project Gunrunner in an effort to prevent the flow of weapons by increasing staff and enhancing eTrace, a tracing technology to follow trafficking trends. At a Border Governors Conference in August 2008, 10 U.S. and Mexican governors pledged to support Project Gunrunner’s programs to reduce violence and stop the spread of illegal weapons to Mexico. But as weapons flow south, the Mexican drug war rages on, and the cartels’ drugs continue to flow north into the United States.

As a result of Project Gunrunner’s initiatives, ATF agents were able to arrest Victor Varela, the alleged leader of a gun trafficking operation in Arizona and New Mexico, in April 2008. But despite this singular success, the DOJ has ultimately failed to halt the flow of guns to Mexico. In June, the House passed a bill that would authorize nearly $74 million to expand Project Gunrunner; it remains in the Senate.

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Laurence Almand
Laurence Almand

What about China? Keep in mind that Mexican cartels also buy guns on the international market, many of them from China. Note the following: Detractors argue that China’s weapons are only attractive to poorer nations because its older weapons are cheaper. While there is some truth in this argument, it needs qualification. China has been successful in diversifying its customer base and now exports arms to 55 countries worldwide, covering Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America. Many of China’s clients are indeed developing countries. For example, two-thirds of the countries situated in the world’s poorest continent, Africa, procure… Read more »