Shannon K. O'Neil

Latin America's Moment

O'Neil analyzes developments in Latin America and U.S. relations in the region.

Print Print Cite Cite
Style: MLA APA Chicago Close


Gun Trafficking to Mexico and the ATF

by Shannon K. O'Neil
July 18, 2011

Seized weapons are displayed to the media by the Mexican Navy in Mexico City (Jorge Lopez/Courtesy Reuters).

Seized weapons are displayed to the media by the Mexican Navy in Mexico City (Jorge Lopez/Courtesy Reuters).

Reformers say never to waste a crisis — or a scandal. They certainly have found one with the ATF’s Fast and Furious program, in which bureau officials allowed hundreds of firearms to “walk” across the border, straight into the hands of Mexican drug traffickers. Designed to track complex cartel networks and increase border security, the operation relied on surveillance to document so-called straw buyers’ purchase and sale of arms to Mexican drug traffickers, in hopes that the dealings would lead them to important criminal targets. Those in charge, however, lost track of the guns. When two Fast and Furious military-style firearms were found at the scene Border Patrol agent Brian Terry’s murder last year, ATF employees broke rank and began to speak out on the program’s failings. Since the initial whistle-blowing in March of 2011, the revelations of high-level ATF and justice officials involvement just keep expanding.

Fast and Furious illuminates the deep problems within ATF. In a recent report based on ATF data, Democrats highlight that  roughly 70 percent of all illegal guns found in Mexico come from the U.S., and attribute this to the weak tools ATF holds. They argue that to address the problem, the U.S. needs to better enforce the ban on imports of military-style weapons and ratify the CIFTA treaty, which would establish a standard for the control of  illicit manufacturing and trafficking of firearms.

Republicans, led by Darrel Issa (R-Vista) and Charles Grassley (R-Iowa)are more interested in holding top justice officials accountable for their involvement in Fast and Furious. Issa has all but ruled out any discussion of gun laws during the investigation into the scandal, interrupting a witness’s testimony in a hearing last week to remind him,“we’re not here to talk about proposed gun legislation.”

The Obama administration, trying to take initial steps to address the issue, recently issued new regulations requiring gun dealers to notify the ATF when a customer buys more than one gun in a short period of time, in an effort to detect so-called ‘straw buyers’ who purchase firearms on behalf of Mexican drug traffickers.

What else can and should be done? In a report for the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center and the University of San Diego, Colby Goodman and Michel Marizco recommend that states criminalize straw purchasing and urge ATF to boost its staff so the bureau can increase its inspections of gun stores. At current staffing levels, it would take the ATF a minimum of three years to inspect every licensed firearms dealer in the country. Michael Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Illegal Guns group wants to close the “terror-gap” in gun legislation, under which more than 1300 known terror suspects purchased firearms in the U.S. since 2004. The coalition of mayors also advocates the repeal of the Tiahrt amendments, which prevent the release of trace data to state and federal officials. One effect of this measure is to force the U.S. to rely on data from the Mexican government about the status of Fast and Furious guns. A repeal would to improve law enforcement’s ability to track criminals armed with illegal guns.

Studies of California’s regulation show that steps like these matter – of the thousands of guns heading to Mexico and into cartel hands, only an estimated 3% were purchased in California. Whats more, since it tightened restrictions on the sale of firearms in the early 1990s, its rate of firearm-related deaths has plummeted more than 45%, dwarfing the 16.5% average drop across the rest of the United States.

Average U.S. citizens are increasingly inclined to regulate gun sales, as a recent poll shows that the overwhelming majority of those surveyed, including gun owners, support more probative background checks for buyers. But to make a real move means taking on the NRA in a Presidential election year. This may mean, unfortunately, that this scandal will go to waste, and U.S. guns will keep fueling Mexican cartels’ fire.

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by Gene Ralno

    The only gap is between Bloomberg’s ears. I wonder if he had a hand in Fast & Furious. Holder & Co. take some of their marching orders from his thousands of press releases. Perhaps he needs to be sworn and deposed. Perhaps he had a hand in Operation Castaway too. He’s evidence of liberal logic.

  • Posted by JeffKnox

    The scandal is that you would repeat the lies and bogus statistics included in this report. The 70% statistic, like the 90% statistic which preceded it has been proven to be an out-right lie with the real number being something closer to 14% of guns at crime scenes in Mexico having come from the US. It is also important to note that the average “time to crime” on those guns is in excess of 5 years.
    Another is Bloomberg’s imaginary “Terror Gap.” Since the Terrorist Watch List is a secret and no one knows how people get put on it or taken off of it, the idea of simply making it illegal for any of the 1.1 million people reported to be included on it to purchase or possess firearms is outrageous. Especially so in light of official reports from the Department of Homeland Security suggesting that anyone with a bumper sticker opposing abortion, supporting gun rights, or endorsing a third-party candidate might be a potential “domestic terrorist.”
    Also the implication that California’s gun control laws are responsible for drops in its rate of firearms-related deaths is a stretch. Perhaps the laws had some impact, though I highly doubt it, but California’s overall crime rates, and particularly their non-firearms-related crimes have fluctuated pretty widely as they have been generally trending downward.
    What is going to waste in the face of this latest ATF scandal is the opportunity to clean up that troubled agency and more importantly fix some of the abusive and idiotic restrictions on responsible citizens’ right to arms.

  • Posted by Maria Dolores Campos

    No one seems to offer any reasonable solutions to this problem, but how about if both countries do something to provide alternatives to escape poverty, continue to invest in human capital and community development, curb corruption in public agencies. Many individuals, in both countries are tired of being poor and without any alternatives to improve their quality of life or provide for their families. Thus, lend themselves to alternative measures to earn a living.

Post a Comment

CFR seeks to foster civil and informed discussion of foreign policy issues. Opinions expressed on CFR blogs are solely those of the author or commenter, not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions. All comments must abide by CFR's guidelines and will be moderated prior to posting.

* Required