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GAO Report: U.S. Source For “Large Portion” of Mexican Crime Guns

According to a new report issued by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office, the United States is the source for a “large proportion of the firearms fueling Mexican drug violence”:

GAO, June 2009: Available evidence indicates a large proportion of the firearms fueling Mexican drug violence originated in the United States, including a growing number of increasingly lethal weapons. While it is impossible to know how many firearms are illegally trafficked into Mexico in a given year, around 87 percent of firearms seized by Mexican authorities and traced over the past 5 years originated in the United States, according to data from ATF. Around 68 percent of these firearms were manufactured in the United States, and around 19 percent were manufactured in third countries and imported into the United States before being trafficked into Mexico. According to U.S. and Mexican government officials, these firearms have been increasingly more powerful and lethal in recent years. For example, many of these firearms are high-caliber and high-powered, such as AK and AR-15 type semiautomatic rifles. Many of these firearms come from gun shops and gun shows in Southwest border states, such as Texas, California, and Arizona, according to ATF officials and trace data. U.S. and Mexican government and law enforcement officials stated most guns trafficked to Mexico are intended to support operations of Mexican DTOs [Drug Trafficking Organizations], which are also responsible for trafficking arms to Mexico.

The report, “Firearms Trafficking: U.S. Efforts to Combat Arms Trafficking to Mexico Face Planning and Coordination Challenges,” is the most authoritative look at the subject so far. GAO’s investigators conducted extensive interviews with U.S. government officials and had access to data that isn’t available to the public; investigators also traveled to Mexico and interviewed authorities in that country.

The document generally supports and elaborates on the facts we reported in our April article, “Counting Mexico’s Guns,” in which we looked at President Barack Obama’s claim that “more than 90 percent of the guns recovered in Mexico come from the United States.” (Many lawmakers and others were saying the same thing.) We said that “government statistics don’t actually support that claim” and concluded, based on information obtained from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, that the 90 percent figure “represents only the percentage of crime guns that have been submitted by Mexican officials and traced by U.S. officials.” This is due to the fact that Mexican officials do not submit all seized and recovered guns to the U.S. for tracing. The GAO report reflects our conclusion by saying that “around 87 percent of firearms seized by Mexican authorities and traced over the past five years originated in the United States.” It says that the figure is more than 90 percent for the last three years.

One important figure differs from what we had in our story, though it doesn’t change our conclusion about Obama’s statement. According to the GAO report, a total of 29,824 firearms were seized in Mexico in 2008. That number comes from CENAPI, the Spanish acronym for Mexico’s Planning, Analysis and Information Center for Combating Crime, GAO said. We had great difficulty pinning down the number of guns recovered, and eventually relied on an account citing Mexico’s attorney general, who reportedly said that nearly 30,000 guns had been recovered over the years 2007 and 2008 — a two-year period. The new data mean that Mexican officials are submitting an even smaller percentage of the firearms they seize for tracing by ATF than we had previously believed.

But if the total number of guns seized in Mexico last year is greater than the figure we found, the bottom line remains the same: The 90 percent figure applies to the number of guns seized and submitted to the U.S. for tracing. It may also apply to all the guns seized, but there is no data to support that.

Other noteworthy items from the report:

  • Of the guns submitted by Mexican officials for tracing, 1.74 percent were traced back to the Mexican government.
  • According to U.S. law enforcement officials, less than 1 percent of Mexican guns seized and traced were U.S. military arms.
  • Southwest border states of Texas, California and Arizona were the prime sources for most of the guns seized in Mexico and traced from fiscal year 2004 to fiscal year 2008.
  • One of the biggest impediments to Mexican authorities’ submitting more guns for tracing by ATF is the fact that there is no Spanish-language version of the electronic tracing system deployed by the agency, as we wrote last month in the FactCheck Wire.