It’s no secret that the huge U.S. arms industry is churning out assault rifles that end up in the hands of Mexican criminals. What’s less known is that U.S. gun dealers are importing semiautomatic weapons from eastern Europe and re-selling them to the cartels. Researchers say the non-U.S.-made weapons flowing across the border into Mexico may account for at least a quarter of the illegal guns in Mexico, and maybe more than half. They also see a way for President Obama to stop the gun-runners without having to deal with Congress.
A lingering sore point in Mexico-U.S. relations is the heavy southward flow of U.S.-made guns into the country to arm drug traffickers and other criminals. The flow goes on, but new studies suggest a need to modify that decades-old complaint, because it turns out that a significant amount of the arms coming across the border are not, in fact, U.S. made.
Probably a quarter of the firearms that Mexicans buy from U.S. sources were imported by the United States in the first place, and then sold for use in Mexico. In other words, the huge U.S. firearms industry isn’t just a seller to Mexicans. It’s a gun-runner as well, acting as middleman in arming organized crime in Mexico.
“The flow of these foreign-made guns into the hands of drug cartels in Mexico represents a major security threat,” said Clay Boggs, program officer at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a think-tank that used data from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to calculate that at least 25 percent of guns moving from the United States to Mexico are manufactured in countries such as Romania and Bulgaria.
This import-export business accounts for a sizeable chunk of Mexican organized crime’s arsenal, especially the preferred semiautomatic assault rifles. Another U.S. non-governmental organization, the Violence Policy Center, used 138 court-case records to put the number of non-U.S.-made firearms that end up in Mexico at 59 percent.
“These rifles are cheap, they are reliable, and they are a weapon of choice of cross-border drug traffickers,” said Kristen Rand, legislative director at the Violence Policy Center, or VPC.
The revelation that so many of the weapons that Mexicans purchase illegally are foreign-made might provoke in Mexico — a country whose homicide rate nearly tripled from 2007 to 2011, from 7.8 per 100,000 residents to 22.8 — a reaction akin to “so what?” What matters, most might think, is that they’re coming in from the United States. What difference does it make who made them?
But both the VPC and WOLA, who issued their studies jointly this week in a report titled “Gun Running Nation: How Foreign-Made Assault Weapons are Trafficked from the United States to Mexico and What to do About It,” find the importance in a legal opening that they say could help stem the weapons flow.
The prevalence of imported firearms in cross-border gun trafficking is especially significant, they argue in the report, because their importation into the U.S. can be restricted without congressional approval, whereas only an act of Congress could ban a specific category of domestically manufactured firearms.
That’s key, because the U.S. Congress has shown little inclination to enact any kind of legislation that restricts the gun industry. But legislation on the books since 1968 gives the president the authority to prohibit the importation of any firearm that lacks a “sporting purpose,” meaning target shooting, skeet and trap shooting, and hunting.
Assault rifles and assault pistols would presumably be excluded from the sporting category. As former U.S. President Bill Clinton put it in the 1990s, “You don’t need an UZI to go deer hunting, and everyone knows it.”
The report authors are urging U.S. President Barack Obama to take advantage of that authority, claiming that banning the import of foreign-made assault weapons — and therefore eliminating their export to Mexico — could make it more difficult and costly for criminals to buy lethal weapons.
“This is a significant new approach to an old problem,” said Joy Olson, WOLA’s executive director. “If the president wants to do something about gun violence, here’s something that would make a real difference here and in Mexico.”
The report notes that the reason the cartels and criminal groups need to get their weapons from the United States is quite simple. They are almost impossible to get in Mexico.
There is only one legal way to buy a firearm in Mexico — through the army, which is the sole legal seller to private citizens. There is exactly one army-run gun outlet in the entire nation.
The picture in the United States could not be more different. There are 8,827 licensed gun dealers in the southern border states alone (Arizona, Texas, New Mexico and California). The crime organizations have no problem getting what they need.
“Traffickers exploit weak U.S. firearm laws, using straw purchasers to avoid background checks, or purchasing firearms at gun shows or through private sellers, where background checks are not required under federal law,” the WOLA-VPC report says.
With gun violence soaring, Mexico has allowed weapons seized from criminals, more than 20,000 per year, to be traced by the ATF. Between 2009 and 2014, 70 percent of those weapons have been traced to the United States.
The sample consisting of seized guns is a fraction of the estimated 253,000 guns that come into Mexico from the United States each year (estimates range from 106,700, to 426,729). Plus Mexico doesn’t submit all its seized guns to the ATF, so the percentage of U.S.-originated guns used by Mexican criminals can be higher or lower.
But as WOLA and the VPC point out, even if all the unsubmitted guns didn’t come from the U.S., which is highly unlikely, to say the least , the percentage of U.S.-sourced seized guns in Mexico would still be at a very significant 42 percent.
What the WOLA study reveals is that at least 25 percent of that 70 percent were first imported to the U.S. from Europe before ending up in Mexico. What the VPC study indicates is that the percentage of European-manufactured guns could be as high as 59 percent.
Both organizations are urging the Obama administration to cut at least that part of the weapons flow by using its authority to ban their import into the U.S.
“The ATF should conduct an annual review of imported firearms for the purpose of identifying, by make and model, non-sporting firearms that are closely associated with gun and drug trafficking and other serious crimes, and to specifically prohibit the importation of such firearms,” reads the report.