Originally published in The Mantle.

Lately, the news from Mexico has not been particularly positive. Every day the number of victims of the ongoing turf wars in the northern border area of the country grows. In 2009, Mexico reported 7,724 drug war-related deaths,1 while in January of this year alone, the number of people killed in Ciudad Juárez reached a stunning 227. Recently, over the weekend of March 13, 2010, nearly 50 people were killed in that bloody city, including employees and family members of the U.S. Consulate. Most scholars and politicians believe that these deaths are all related to drug gang activity, implying that they are the result of in-gang struggles for control of businesses and territory; fights amongst gangs for routes, and because of clashes with the military.

Much of the discussion and debate regarding the sad situation along the U.S.-Mexican border has been centered on analyzing drug policy and immigration laws. No doubt failed drug policies and practices are fueling much of the violence across the American border. More recently, however, and for the purposes of this essay, a focused discussion on the guns that fuel such violence is taking shape.

Mexico has very strict gun-ownership laws. While the country’s constitution allows for citizens to bear arms, the conditions it places on this ownership—through amendments to the constitution—are much more limiting. Indeed, only one entity is permitted to sell weapons, and it is run by the army. This does not imply that the situation is perfectly controlled, however; there are certainly ways around any law or institutional arrangement. Yet the violence in the northern border states of Mexico seems to be nurtured not only by weapons acquired illegally from Mexico, but also by those trafficked illegally from the United States.

In April last year, a statement made by President Barack Obama on the arms trafficking situation between the U.S. and Mexico sparked heated debate. The President, referring to data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (A.T.F.), stated that 90% of the weapons seized in Mexico could be traced back to the U.S.2 On the one hand, this comment was used by supporters of stricter gun regulation in the U.S. and by opponents of the so-called War on Drugs to strengthen their cases. On the other hand, the statistic of 90% was widely criticized by people opposed to finding alternative solutions to the current situation in Mexico and to any suggestion to changes regarding gun ownership in the U.S. Fox News, for one, proposed that the percentage of arms that could be traced back to the U.S. was actually closer to 17% percent.3

To give the material substance and to enhance its rich meaning, all data must be presented in its original context; otherwise, statistics risk becoming meaningless sound bites and generalizations. In its Firearms Trafficking Report, the American Government Accountability Office (GAO) clearly states that,

[W]hile it is impossible to know how many firearms are illegally smuggled into Mexico in a given year, about 87% of the firearms seized by Mexican authorities and traced in the last five years originated in the U.S., according to data from Dept. of Justice’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. According to U.S. and Mexican officials, these firearms have been increasingly more powerful and lethal in recent years.4

The report further refines its information, pointing out that in a three-year period (2005-2008), “Over 90% of the firearms seized in Mexico and traced … have come from the United States.”5 Taken together, there are a few elements that make the presentation of this data more compelling than seemingly random statistics bandied about for one cause or another:

  • There is a specific time frame;
  • There is a specific set of arms seized and traced, and, as is true with all illegal commerce;
  • The reality of the arms trade is nebulous.

That said, independent of all the caveats and “ifs” the percentage carries with it, there is no denying that there is a significant movement of weapons from the U.S. to Mexico that, unfortunately, end up in the hands of people in the drug trade. The G.A.O. report mentions that this trafficking is not new to officials on the border, pointing out that U.S. and Mexican government and law enforcement officials “saw no reason why the drug cartels would go through the difficulty of acquiring a gun somewhere else in the world and transporting it to Mexico when it is so easy for them to do so from the U.S.”6 This is consistent with the report’s claim that,

While the eTrace data only represents data from gun trace requests submitted from seizures in Mexico and not all the guns seized, it is currently the only systematic data available, and the conclusions from its use that the majority of firearms seized and traced originated in the United States were consistent with conclusions reached by U.S. and Mexican government and law enforcement officials involved personally in combating arms trafficking to Mexico.7

The G.A.O.’s data seems to be sufficiently transparent in its presentation. The 90% figure has been used un-wisely to make an already serious issue seem even more outrageous. Still, while discussions continue as to the appropriate use of this number, the reality is still readily apparent: there is an important and undeniable illegal market of weapons at the U.S.-Mexico border that fuels the violence between different drug-trafficking organizations.

Reports show that some of these arms are bought through “straw purchases,” meaning it “occurs when someone who may not legally acquire a firearm, or who wants to do so anonymously, has a companion buy it on their behalf.”8 These purchases tend to take place in gun shops and in gun shows located in southern border towns in the United States. The weapons are then hidden in automobiles or trucks so that they pass through the border with little chance of being noticed. These are not massive quantities being moved; piecemeal movements, which are difficult for authorities to detect, can occur, especially given the large numbers of cars crossing the border daily.9

The following illustration conveys the seemingly obvious relationship between the movements of arms trafficked into Mexico from the U.S., as traced, and the areas of influence of various drug cartels. (Arrows indicate arms movements.)

Drug Cartels and Arms Shipments

The flow of arms from the U.S. into Mexican drug cartel territories
Sources: GAO, Stratfor, Mexican Attorney General’s Office

The challenge ahead—and where the conversation should focus—is to address the flaws in the system that allow such arms-trafficking to occur. The G.A.O. report points to some circumstances that make trafficking possible, mentioning some faults and weak links in both Mexican and U.S. procedures and bureaucracy:

  • Rampant and systemic corruption in the Mexican government;
  • Weak institutional links and information sharing between A.T.F. and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that lead to incomplete data;
  • Unavailability of a Spanish language version of the eTrace program for use by the Mexican authorities.

Addressing these issues will improve the quality of information received by both U.S. and Mexican authorities, which will also lead to a more informed anti-arms trafficking strategy. This does not imply that there must be a halt to ongoing actions to reduce arms trafficking, but that information collection and sharing between countries and institutions must improve.

It is also important not to lose sight of the larger issue surrounding arms trafficking at the U.S.-Mexico border. We must keep in mind that in both countries, albeit with some restrictions, the weapons markets are legal. And as with all markets, it is in the interest of those that do business to keep them alive and well. As a weapons dealer, the U.S. is an important player in this market. According to the 2006 report, “Conventional Arms Transfers to Developing Nations,” produced by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service (C.R.S.), an office of the Library of Congress, the United States was the leading supplier of weapons to the developing world.10 In a more recent report, the C.R.S. establishes that for the 2005-2008 period, the United States and Russia dominated the arms market in the developing world in the value of arms transfer agreements. During this time, in 36% of all such agreements, the United States made $56.3 billion in arms deals. The report also states that, alone, “in 2008, the United States ranked first in the value of all arms deliveries worldwide, making $12.2 billion in such deliveries, or 38.4%. This is the eighth year in a row that the United States has led in global arms deliveries.”11 And even though the report does not break down information for the Latin American region, the report also establishes that the U.S. and Russia are the region’s major suppliers of weapons.

Although the U.S. is the world leader in weapons agreements, there are other countries that sell and re-sell arms. While the data seems to establish that most of the weapons seized in Mexico make their journey into the country over the U.S. border, it is probably true that many weapons come through other routes. Some of the arms seized might actually have arrived in Mexico through a legal transaction between governments (as can be concluded by the above mentioned report), for example, but somehow found their way into the illegal market and eventually into the hands of these drug gang members.

An area that lends itself to further research is the manufacturing of weapons. Does the U.S. gun industry outsource part of its production to Mexico? Are they produced locally in border towns like Ciudad Juárez? Do weapons factories function like the maquiladoras in Mexico? Are they regulated by local or international agencies? To be able to localize the issue would be a starting point for a much more nuanced discussion.

The debate on the U.S.-Mexico border and on the future of the relationship between these two countries is not an easy one. There are many important themes that demand attention: immigration (both legal and illegal), drug policy, border infrastructure, security, and a shared environment, to name but a few. It is clear that, although the smallest details can offer glimpses into the larger reality, to base the discussion solely on the “immediate,” like the debate over Obama’s use of the 90% statistic, is to lose sight of the much larger and more important debate that frames the future of a complicated and dynamic relationship. The reality of an illegal arms market is one such discussion. In this context, it is clear that the number of illegal arms passing through the border must be drastically and immediately reduced, and this can happen through better supervision and regulation of the arms market.

Lisa Guáqueta studied economics at Universidad Externado de Colombia and holds a master’s degree in international affairs from The New School. Her interests include the urban dynamics of Latin America, especially the role of cities and local governments in international issues. She is both fascinated by and fearful of boarded up windows and doors, and, for some strange reason, takes many photos of abandonded industrial structures.