Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Arms and Guns Trade in North America

Cook, Philip J., Wendy Cukier, and Keith Krause. 2009. "The illicit firearms trade in North America." JCriminology and Criminal Justice 9:265-a-286.

Pages 276-78


According to the ATF director, investigators have traced 90 to 95 percent of the weapons found in Mexico to the United States (Caldwell, 2008).4 This figure, however, needs to be unpacked in light of the above considerations, since it may overestimate the role of the USA in supplying guns used in Mexican crime, and says little about how they may have got there. First, the figure reflects firearms submitted for tracing by Mexican authorities. Only a fraction of firearms used in crimes and gun battles are recovered by authorities, and traces are requested on only a subset of those recovered, so the sample of traced guns may not be completely representative of weapons in use. It is also not certain that only 10 (or less) percent of weapons recovered are from other sources, since no data are available on the weapons that have not been submitted for an American trace (Carpenter, 2009).

There are a variety of routes by which firearms can move from the USA to Mexico. In general, the descriptions offered by authorities suggest that the guns are first sold at retail in the United States and end up in the hands of Mexican criminals via smuggling on the ground across the border, mostly Downloaded from by on July 29, 2009 276 Criminology & Criminal Justice 9(3) in small batches (tráfico hormiga, or trail of ants) (Lumpe, 1998). Although the number of weapons crossing the border in any one ship ment may be small, the sources of weapons may be more concentrated. In one recent case, for example a dealer was charged with having sold hundreds of weapons to Mexican drug cartels (McKinley, 2009). According to ATF data analyzed by Glenn Pierce and Anthony Braga, 97 cases under investigation between 1996 and 2003 involved more than 30,000 firearms, with the average number of firearms per case (excluding two very large cases) being 124 (Pierce and Braga, 2008).5

Although some of these guns may be smuggled by individuals not associated with organized criminal groups for their personal security (or subsequent resale), the concentration of sources makes it appear that the traffic is mostly organized by gangs for the explicit purpose of providing them with arms. As one source has described it:

Drug trafficking organizations who are vying for control of drug trafficking routes to the United States and engaging in turf battles for disputed distribution territories. … rely on firearms suppliers to enforce and maintain their illicit narcotics operations. Intelligence indicates these criminal organizations have tasked their money laundering, distribution and transportation infrastructures reaching into the United States to acquire firearms and ammunition. (Project Gunrunner Fact Sheet, 9/08)

While the US route is likely the most important one, at least three other sources of arms for drug gangs and armed groups operating in Mexico can be identified. It is difficult, however, to assess their relative importance. First, guns can flow northwards to Mexico from Central America, a region awash with weapons imported by both governments and rebel groups during the civil wars in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala. It is clear (Cragin and Hoffman, 2003; Stohl and Tuttle, 2008) that extensive cross-border trafficking of weapons takes place in Central America, and it is difficult to see why Mexico should remain immune from this trafficking. High levels of armed violence and drug trafficking along the southern Mexican border area with Guatemala (Grainger, 2009) are indirect but solid indicators of high levels of weapons availability and a concentration of cross-border illegal activities, as they are in the northern states of Mexico. There is some evidence that hand grenades used in recent violence are sourced in Central America, from supplies left over after that region’s civil wars (Ginsburg, 2009, personal communication).

The second potential source of firearms would be those smuggled into Mexico from Chinese, Russian, Eastern European or other sources. Again, the evidence is anecdotal and not systematic, but nevertheless indicative. In some documented armed clashes the weapons used include hand grenades, rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and AK-47 rifles, in particular in largescale clashes with drug gangs that have occurred in 2007–9. Some of these weapons are not easily bought on the open market in the USA (although variants of AK-47s are available in the USA). Several court cases from the Downloaded from by on July 29, 2009 Cook et al.—The illicit firearms trade in North America 277 late 1990s also identified particular links between Mexican and Russian criminal operations, including those that smuggled weapons, drugs and other illicit goods (Míro Ramón, 2003: 30), and it has been claimed that weapons produced in Russia, Israel and the former Yugoslavia were entering the country (Procuraduría general de la república, 2007; Sánchez, 2007a). The rise of drug trafficking links with China also may indicate increased availability of arms from that source (Ginsburg, 2009, personal communication).

A third source of weapons, the least well understood, would be the Mexican security forces themselves. As one report has noted: In addition to acquisitions from the United States and other countries, Mexico supplies its own arsenal from local production. Some of the weapons confiscated from the Miguel Aleman ranch this month reportedly had the initials of the Mexican Defense Ministry stamped on them. As is routine practice, the most recent numbers released to the press did not shed light on the origin of illegal grenades. (Frontera Norte Sur, 2008) In this respect, Mexico would resemble many other countries where diversion from national stockpiles (police and armed forces) represent a major (often the main) source of illicitly held weapons (Small Arms Survey, 2008).

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