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Testimony: 

Before the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, Committee on Foreign 
Affairs, House of Representatives: 

United States Government Accountability Office: 
GAO: 

For Release on Delivery: 
Expected at 11:00 a.m. EDT:
Thursday, June 18, 2009: 

Firearms Trafficking: 

U.S. Efforts to Combat Arms Trafficking to Mexico Face Planning and 
Coordination Challenges: 

Statement of Jess T. Ford, Director: 
International Affairs and Trade: 

GAO-09-781T: 

June 18, 2009: 

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee: 

I am pleased to be here today to discuss U.S. efforts to combat illicit 
arms trafficking to Mexico. This testimony is based on a GAO report, 
GAO-09-709, that we are releasing today. In recent years, violence 
along the U.S.-Mexico border has escalated dramatically as the 
administration of President Felipe Calderon has sought to combat the 
growing power of Mexican drug trafficking organizations (DTO) and curb 
their ability to operate with impunity in certain areas of Mexico. As 
illicitly trafficked firearms have fueled the drug trafficking 
violence,[Footnote 1] Mexican officials have come to regard illicit 
firearms as the number one crime problem affecting the country's 
security. According to the Department of Justice's (DOJ) 2009 National 
Drug Threat Assessment, Mexican DTOs represent the greatest organized 
crime threat to the United States, controlling drug distribution in 
many U.S. cities, and gaining strength in markets they do not yet 
control (see figure 1). In particular, law enforcement reporting 
indicates Mexican DTOs maintain drug distribution networks or supply 
drugs to distributors in at least 230 U.S. cities. 

Figure 1: U.S. Cities Reporting the Presence of Mexican DTOs, January 
1, 2006, through April 8, 2008: 

[Refer to PDF for image: map of the United States] 

Represented by a dot, the map depicts U.S. cities reporting the 
presence of Mexican DTOs. 

Sources: GAO analysis of DOJís National Drug Threat Assessment 2009; 
Map Resources (map). 

[End of figure] 

President Obama has expressed concern about the increased level of 
violence along the border, particularly in Ciudad Juarez and Tijuana, 
and, in March 2009, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced 
it planned to increase resources on the U.S.-Mexico border, including 
more personnel and greater use of available technologies. 

Today I will discuss (1) what data are available on the types, sources, 
and users of these arms; (2) key challenges that confront U.S. 
government efforts to combat illicit sales of firearms in the United 
States and to stem the flow of these arms across the Southwest border 
into Mexico; (3) challenges faced by U.S. agencies collaborating with 
Mexican authorities to combat the problem of illicit arms; and (4) the 
U.S. government's strategy for addressing the issue. 

Over the course of our work on this issue, we reviewed and analyzed 
program and project status reports, and related information, and met 
with officials from the DOJ's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and 
Explosives (ATF) and DHS's Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), 
which are the two primary agencies combating illicit sales and 
trafficking of firearms across the Southwest border. We also met with 
officials from other agencies supporting these efforts. We visited and 
met with officials from three major Southwest border cities and their 
Mexican counterpart cities to explore the challenges faced by law 
enforcement officials to stem the flow of arms smuggling across the 
border, and traveled to Mexico to meet with U.S. and Mexican government 
officials working on this issue. We also reviewed data on firearms 
seized at the Southwest border and recovered in Mexico over the last 5 
years, as well as data on firearms traced; investigations; inspections; 
and firearms trafficking cases. We determined the data provided to us 
by various U.S. agencies on these topics were sufficiently reliable to 
provide an overall indication of the magnitude and nature of the 
illicit firearms trade. We conducted this performance audit from July 
2008 to June 2009 in accordance with generally accepted government 
auditing standards. Those standards require that we plan and perform 
the audit to obtain sufficient, appropriate evidence to provide a 
reasonable basis for our findings and conclusions based on our audit 
objectives. We believe that the evidence obtained provides a reasonable 
basis for our findings and conclusions based on our audit objectives. 

In brief, Mr. Chairman, we found that U.S. efforts to combat the 
illicit trafficking of firearms to Mexico face several challenges, 
particularly relating to the planning and coordination of these 
efforts. 

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, over 20,000, or 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 (see fig. 2). Over 90 percent 
of the firearms seized in Mexico and traced over the last 3 years have 
come from the United States. 

Figure 2: Percentages of Firearms Seized in Mexico and Traced in Fiscal 
Years 2004-2008 That Originated in the United States: 

[Refer to PDF for image: vertical bar graph] 

Year: 2004; 
Percentages of Firearms Seized that Originated in the United States: 
72%; 
Estimated number of guns traced to the United States: 3,090. 

Year: 2005; 
Percentages of Firearms Seized that Originated in the United States: 
82%; 
Estimated number of guns traced to the United States: 5,260. 

Year: 2006; 
Percentages of Firearms Seized that Originated in the United States: 
95%; 
Estimated number of guns traced to the United States: 1,950. 

Year: 2007; 
Percentages of Firearms Seized that Originated in the United States: 
95%; 
Estimated number of guns traced to the United States: 3,060. 

Year: 2008; 
Percentages of Firearms Seized that Originated in the United States: 
93%; 
Estimated number of guns traced to the United States: 6,700. 

Source: GAO analysis of ATF data. 

[End of figure] 

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 
drug trafficking organizations, which are also responsible for 
trafficking arms to Mexico. 

The U.S. government faces several significant challenges to its efforts 
to combat illicit sales of firearms in the United States and to stem 
the flow of these arms across the Southwest border into Mexico. First, 
certain provisions of some federal firearms laws present challenges to 
U.S. efforts, according to ATF officials. Specifically, officials 
identified key challenges related to (1) restrictions on collecting and 
reporting information on firearms purchases, (2) a lack of required 
background checks for private firearms sales, and (3) limitations on 
reporting requirements for multiple sales. Another challenge we found 
is ATF and ICE, the primary agencies implementing efforts to address 
this issue, do not consistently coordinate their efforts effectively, 
in part because the agencies lack clear roles and responsibilities and 
have been operating under an outdated interagency agreement. This has 
resulted in some instances of duplicate initiatives and confusion 
during operations. Additionally, we found agencies lack systematic 
analysis and reporting of aggregate data related to arms trafficking, 
and they were also unable to provide complete information to us on the 
results of their efforts to seize firearms destined for Mexico and to 
investigate and prosecute cases. This type of information could be 
useful to better understand the nature of the problem, to help plan 
ways to address it, and to assess progress made. 

U.S. law enforcement agencies and the Department of State (State) have 
provided some assistance to Mexican counterparts in combating arms 
trafficking, but these efforts face several key challenges. U.S. law 
enforcement agencies have built working relationships with Mexican 
federal, state, and local law enforcement, as well as the Mexican 
military. This has given the United States the opportunity to provide 
Mexican government counterparts with some technical and operational 
assistance on firearms trafficking. However, U.S. assistance has been 
hampered by a number of factors. In particular, U.S. law enforcement 
assistance has been limited and, furthermore, it has not targeted arms 
trafficking needs. For example, although the Merida Initiative--a U.S. 
interagency response to transborder crime and security issues affecting 
the United States, Mexico, and Central America--provides general law 
enforcement and counternarcotics assistance to Mexico, it does not 
provide dedicated funding to address the issue of arms trafficking. A 
number of efforts officials told us could be helpful in combating arms 
trafficking--such as establishing and supporting a bilateral, 
multiagency arms trafficking task force--have not been undertaken. In 
addition, U.S. assistance has been limited due to Mexican government 
officials' incomplete use to date of ATF's electronic firearms tracing 
system, known as eTrace, which is an important tool for U.S. arms 
trafficking investigations in the United States. The ability of Mexican 
officials to input data into eTrace has been hampered partly because a 
Spanish language version of eTrace under development for months has 
still not been deployed across Mexico. Another significant challenge 
facing the United States in its efforts to assist Mexico is the concern 
about corruption among some Mexican government entities. Despite 
President Calderon's efforts to combat organized crime, extensive 
corruption at the federal, state, and local levels of Mexican law 
enforcement impedes U.S. efforts to develop effective and dependable 
partnerships with Mexican government entities in combating arms 
trafficking. Mexican federal authorities are implementing 
anticorruption measures--including polygraph and psychological testing, 
background checks, and salary increases--but government officials 
acknowledge fully implementing these reforms will take considerable 
time and may take years to affect comprehensive change. 

On June 5, 2009, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) 
released its 2009 National Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy, 
which, for the first time, includes a chapter on combating illicit arms 
trafficking to Mexico. Prior to the new strategy, the U.S. government 
did not have a strategy that explicitly addressed arms trafficking to 
Mexico. In the absence of a strategy, individual U.S. agencies have 
undertaken a variety of activities and projects to combat arms 
trafficking to Mexico. While these individual agency efforts may serve 
to combat arms trafficking to Mexico to some degree, they were not part 
of a comprehensive U.S. governmentwide strategy for addressing the 
problem. GAO has identified several key elements that should be a part 
of any strategy, including identifying objectives and funding targeted 
to meet these objectives, clear roles and responsibilities, and 
mechanisms to ensure coordination and assess results. We reviewed a 
copy of the new National Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy, 
which ONDCP officials told us will serve as the basic framework, with 
an "implementation plan" to follow in late summer of 2009. ONDCP 
officials told us that this implementation plan for the strategy will 
provide detailed guidance to the responsible agencies and have some 
performance measures for each objective. At this point, it is not clear 
whether the implementation plan will include performance indicators and 
other accountability mechanisms to overcome shortcomings raised in our 
report. In addition, in March 2009, the Secretary of Homeland Security 
announced a new DHS Southwest border security effort to significantly 
increase DHS presence and efforts along the Southwest border, including 
conducting more southbound inspections at ports of entry, among other 
efforts. However, it is unclear whether the new resources that the 
administration has recently devoted to the Southwest border will be 
tied to the new strategy and implementation plan. 

Recommendations for Executive Action: 

To ensure that relevant agencies are better focused on combating 
illicit arms trafficking to Mexico, we are making several 
recommendations, including that: 

* the U.S. Attorney General prepare a report to Congress on approaches 
to address the challenges law enforcement officials raised regarding 
constraints on the collection of data that inhibit their ability to 
conduct timely investigations; 

* the U.S. Attorney General and the Secretary of Homeland Security 
finalize the Memorandum of Understanding between ATF and ICE, and 
develop processes for periodically monitoring its implementation; 

* the U.S. Attorney General and the Secretary of Homeland Security take 
several steps to ensure improved data gathering and reporting by ATF 
and ICE to help identify where efforts should be targeted; 

* the U.S. Attorney General and the Secretary of State work with the 
Government of Mexico to expedite the dissemination of eTrace in Spanish 
to relevant Government of Mexico officials, provide these officials 
proper training on the use of eTrace, and ensure more complete input of 
information on seized arms into eTrace; and: 

* ONDCP ensures its implementation plan for the arms trafficking 
chapter of the 2009 National Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy 
includes the key elements we have identified that should be a part of 
any strategy, which were outlined earlier in this testimony. 

Agency Comments and Our Evaluation: 

DHS and State commented on a draft of our report and generally agreed 
with our findings and recommendations. DOJ and ONDCP did not comment on 
our recommendations. 

Mr. Chairman, this concludes my prepared statement. I would be pleased 
to respond to any questions you or other Members of the Subcommittee 
may have at this time. 

GAO Contact and Staff Acknowledgments: 

For questions regarding this testimony, please contact Jess T. Ford 
(202) 512-4268 or fordj@gao.gov. Individuals making key contributions 
to this testimony include Juan Gobel (Assistant Director), Joe Carney, 
Virginia Chanley, Matthew Harris, Elisabeth Helmer, Grace Lui, and J. 
Addison Ricks. Technical assistance was provided by Joyce Evans, Jena 
Sinkfield, and Cynthia Taylor. Contact points for our offices of 
Congressional Relations and Public Affairs may be found on the last 
page of this testimony. 

[End of section] 

Footnotes: 

[1] According to U.S. and Mexican government officials, including the 
Government of Mexico Attorney General's Office, Mexican law prohibits 
the commercial sale or purchase of a firearm; all firearm sales must go 
through the Government of Mexico. Officials told us that the 
application and sales process takes a long time and that the types of 
firearms that Mexican citizens are allowed to possess are limited to 
smaller caliber pistols and rifles. 

[End of section] 

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