ATF and ICE Collaboration to Reduce Mexican Firearms Trafficking

The United States (U.S.) has a strong interest in assisting its neighbors in matters of national security. By offering resources to improve/preserve the safety of citizens in bordering countries, the U.S. ideally hopes to improve their overall quality of life; thus reducing their impetus to contemplate illegal immigration into the United States. One aspect of this dynamic is ensuring that potentially dangerous materials created within U.S. borders (firearms, narcotics, etc.) do not fall into the hands of neighboring criminals; thereby diminishing the foreign security risk.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently released a report titled U.S. Efforts to Combat Firearms Trafficking to Mexico Have Improved, but Some Collaboration Challenges Remain showing that this particular dynamic is especially present in Mexico, where the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) has been working with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to stem the flow of illegal firearms to Mexican drug cartels. Unlike in 2009 when GAO criticized both organizations for their lack of coordination, this report applauds ATF and ICE for taking steps to remedy “jurisdictional conflicts” and to improve cohesion. However, there is still room for the two agencies to improve as the majority of firearms seized in Mexico are of U.S. origin.

The key points of the report are as follows:

  • According to ATF data, just under 105,000 illegal firearms were seized in Mexico between 2009-2014.
  • Only 17% (17,544) of the weapons seized during this time period were confirmed to be of non-U.S. origin, whereas 70% (73,684) were confirmed to be of U.S. origin. This left 13% (13,622) of undetermined origin, leaving the possibility that 83% (87,306) originated in the U.S.
  • The report also states that the majority of these weapons were purchased legally “in Southwest border states and that about half of them were long guns (rifles and shotguns),” which were then illegally transported to Mexico. Of the firearms confirmed to have originated in the U.S., 41.3% (13,628) were sold in Texas, 18.6% (6,153) in California, 14.6% (4,809) in Arizona, 12.3% (4,059) in New Mexico, Colorado, Oklahoma, Florida, Nevada, Illinois, and Washington combined, and then 13.3% (4,381) in the remaining 40 states.
  • A problem authorities are encountering when trying to prevent firearms trafficking is that criminals are purchasing components from different locations and then assembling the firearms in Mexico. This also makes it difficult to attribute a weapon’s origin and likely makes up the majority of the 13% of firearms seized whose origin was considered “undetermined.”
  • Since 2011 when approximately 22,000 firearms were seized in Mexico, the ATF has seen a steady decline in the number of seizures. In 2014 the number of seized firearms fell to just above 15,000. While GAO appreciates this decline and uses the seizure metric throughout the report, it cautions against using it as a performance-evaluator for the ATF and ICE. GAO contends that this number “does not reflect the total volume of firearms trafficked from the United States,” nor does it “take into account other key supporting agency actions and activities as measures.”

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