German Rifles Seized in Mexico Call U.S. Gun Exports Into Question

While guns trafficked into Mexico from U.S. stores and gun shows continue to be a blight on Mexico’s security landscape, the news about dozens of German assault rifles found near a major crime scene in Mexico last September highlight another way U.S. firearms could be fueling bloodshed in Mexico. If German firearms exported to Mexican states where corruption is rampant are fueling crime, to what extent are U.S.-government approved firearms exports to Mexico doing the same?

According to U.S. officials, the United States does not specifically restrict gun sales to Mexican states such as Guerrero, Jalisco, Chihuahua and Chiapas where corruption blurs the line between police officers, government officials and cartel leaders. Instead, the U.S. government has said they regularly checks the risks of supplying guns to a particular Mexican security force unit, including those related to corruption and human rights violations. This includes checking whether a specific Mexican security force unit or any of its personnel are under investigation by Mexican authorities.

The United States has had some success in getting Mexico to implement at least some polices designed to prevent the misuse of U.S.-supplied firearms. Until a couple of years ago, Mexican soldiers were allowed to take firearms home with them instead of keeping them at an arms depot, increasing the risk of guns reaching organized crime groups or being misused off-the-job. The United States voiced heavy concerns, and in response, the Mexican military now mandates that soldiers leave their guns at work.

Despite these U.S. risk assessments, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) have indicated a small percentage (between 2.4 and 3.3 from FY 2010 to FY 2014) of U.S.-origin firearms seized by Mexican authorities (and reported to ATF) were connected with a U.S. export license to Mexico, see "Traced to a Foreign Country". This means that more than 1,600 U.S.-origin firearms connected with a U.S. export license have been found at crime scenes in Mexico from FY 2010 to FY 2014. And that is likely a low number.

Mexican security force units have a clear incentive to refrain from providing tracing requests to ATF involving firearms that they received legally from the U.S. government. News that such U.S. firearms were misused or found at a crime scene would likely mean new transfers of U.S. arms and ammunition would be withheld. Unique markings on guns also make it easy for Mexican security forces to readily identify which firearms Mexican authorities own.

In response to the revelation about the German rifles found in Guerrero, Germany’s minister for economic affairs, Sigmar Gabriel, announced plans to have embassy employees investigate whether the exported arms are actually in the hands of the intended end-user for non-European and non-NATO member countries. In the United States, the State Department, through programs such as the Blue Lantern Program, does conduct pre- and post-export end-use checks on shipments of U.S. firearms, often based on tips that something is wrong with a deal. However, it is unclear how often the United States verifies the physical location of U.S. firearms that have already been exported to Mexico.

Based on the above information, it seems that the United States could be doing more to effectively curb U.S. firearms from reaching illicit users and from being used for nefarious purposes in Mexico. Without a prohibition on U.S. firearms exports to the four above Mexican states, the United States increases the chance that U.S. guns could be diverted to criminal networks or be used by corrupt security forces.

This enhanced risk comes from the challenging job of identifying corrupt security force units or personnel in a widely corrupt governance and security sector. The lack of information on several of the above issues also makes it difficult for the public and Congress to assess the complete risk.

An important first step would be to gain a better understanding of the nature and extent of U.S. firearms exports to Mexico. A U.S. government review and report on this issue could go a long way to improving this information gap if it answered these questions: 1) How many firearms has the United States exported to the four states Germany has prohibited gun exports; 2) Who were the main Mexican security force recipients – such as the military, federal police or local police – slated to receive U.S. firearms; and, 3) What are the trends and patterns associated with legally exported U.S. firearms found at crime scenes?

Although U.S. firearms trafficked to Mexico from U.S. gun stores are still a bigger problem than legal shipments of U.S. guns, the alarming levels of violence in Mexico mean the United States must be vigilant in ensuring that any U.S. arms exports does not exacerbate the problem. It is time to investigate this issue further and ensure effective methods exist to prevent U.S. guns from fueling violence.