Expert: Drug Wars in Mexico Drive Demand for Weapons – Including From the US

Mark Browne | February 14, 2018 | 7:31pm EST
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A still from a video clip shows firearms seized from criminal gangs in Mexico. (Screen capture: YouTube)

(Editor's note: Corrects name of weapon in sixth paragraph.)

Mexico City ( – A splintering of the drug cartels in Mexico and territory battles between them are fueling the demand for weapons, including guns manufactured in the U.S.

“Because of the warfare going on between the cartels they’ve needed more and more guns and heavier caliber guns. We have seen a militarization of the cartels,” said Scott Stewart, vice president of tactical analysis for the global risk consultancy Stratfor.

While the U.S. is the “closest, cheapest, and fastest” source of guns flowing into Mexico, the drug cartels have the resources to purchase guns from other sources, including Eastern Europe, Asia and China, Stewart said.

“The demand and economics that are driving the gun market in Mexico are very similar to the drug market in the U.S. and as long as there is that demand, somebody is going to fill it.”

More recently, there has been a huge influx of hand grenades entering Mexico from South Korea, Stewart said, noting that organized crime is also able to obtain guns sold by the U.S. government to security forces in the region.

“We have seen some M60 machine guns sold to Latin American governments and then sold in Mexico from Honduras and Guatemala.”

The number of guns entering Mexico illegally from the U.S. each year is in the “thousands,” said Stewart, but added that no-one can know the exact number.

“It’s very, very difficult. It’s like trying to do an estimate on how much cocaine is being shipped into the U.S.”

The Mexican cartels are “very well armed,” and “most of those arms are coming from the United States” according to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

Speaking in Austin, Texas prior to his recent Latin America tour, Tillerson said the U.S. inspects 90 percent fewer trucks leaving the U.S. for Mexico compared to those coming the other way.

“We have committed to [Mexico] that we will do a better job of interdicting weapons flowing in” to that country, he said.

The number of guns recovered in Mexico and traced to the U.S. fell by 41 percent between 2011 (22,945 guns) and 2016 (13,452), according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).

The decrease in guns in Mexico traced to the U.S. shows the ATF is  “succeeding in taking a lot of firearms away,” said spokesman Frank Kelsey.

The ATF focuses on stopping straw purchases of guns in the U.S., where the weapons are then resold for smuggling into Mexico.

The traced weapons, however, probably don’t represent the total amount of weapons smuggled into Mexico, according to a recent report by the Center for American Progress.

They “likely represent only a fraction of the total number of guns that cross the southern border, as they only account for those guns that were both recovered by law enforcement during a criminal investigation and submitted to ATF for tracing,” it said.

According to the report, other estimates put the number of firearms smuggled into Mexico from the U.S. at “close to 213,000 each year.”

Citing analysis by the GAO, the report noted that between 2009 and 2014, the three border states of California, Arizona and Texas were the primary sources of guns traced back to the U.S. after being used in crimes in Mexico.

Meanwhile the Office of Management and Budget last fall proposed shifting the responsibility for monitoring legal exports of small arms and light weapons to other countries from the State Department to the Commerce Department.

The aim is “to ensure that U.S. industries have every advantage in the global marketplace, while at the same time ensuring the responsible export of arms,” according to a State Department spokesperson.

Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), Ben Cardin (Md.) and Patrick Leahy (Vt.) wrote to Tillerson at the time, opposing the idea.

They argued it would “eliminate” congressional oversight and result in “less rigorous” monitoring of the sales.

Under the Arms Export Control Act, Congress has the right to review the export of “lethal weapons.”

The senators wrote that the purpose was to ensure that such sales conform with “U.S. foreign policy and goals.”

Shifting the responsibility of reviewing the sales to the Commerce Department, they said, “would be directly contrary to congressional intent, effectively eliminating congressional oversight of the exports of these weapons.”

The rule change review is pending.

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