Firearms Trafficking:

U.S. Efforts to Combat Firearms Trafficking to Mexico Have Improved, but Some Collaboration Challenges Remain

GAO-16-223: Published: Jan 11, 2016. Publicly Released: Jan 11, 2016.

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What GAO Found

According to data from the Department of Justice's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), 73,684 firearms (about 70 percent) seized in Mexico and traced from 2009 to 2014 originated in the United States. ATF data also show that these firearms were most often purchased in Southwest border states and that about half of them were long guns (rifles and shotguns). According to Mexican government officials, high caliber rifles are the preferred weapon used by drug trafficking organizations. According to ATF data, most were purchased legally in gun shops and at gun shows in the United States, and then trafficked illegally to Mexico. U.S. and Mexican law enforcement officials also noted a new complicating factor in efforts to fight firearms trafficking is that weapons parts are being transported to Mexico to be later assembled into finished firearms, an activity that is much harder to track.

Origin of Firearms Seized in Mexico and Traced by ATF, 2009-2014

Origin of Firearms Seized in Mexico and Traced by ATF, 2009-2014 img  data-cke-saved-src=

Note: These figures reflect firearms seized by Mexican authorities and traced by ATF, not all firearms seized in Mexico.

In 2009, GAO reported duplicative initiatives, and jurisdictional conflicts between ATF and the Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). That year, in response to GAO's recommendations on these problems, ATF and ICE updated an interagency memorandum of understanding (MOU) to improve collaboration. ATF and ICE have taken several steps since then to improve coordination on efforts to combat firearms trafficking, such as joint training exercises and conferences to ensure that agents are aware of the MOU and its jurisdictional parameters and collaboration requirements. However, GAO found that ATF and ICE do not regularly monitor the implementation of the MOU. In the absence of a mechanism to monitor MOU implementation and ensure that appropriate coordination is taking place between the two agencies, GAO found that gaps in information sharing and misunderstandings related to their roles and responsibilities persist.

The indicator used to track U.S. agencies' efforts to stem firearms trafficking to Mexico in the Office of National Drug Control Policy's (ONDCP) National Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy , by itself, does not adequately measure progress. ONDCP tracks progress based on the number of arms seized in Mexico and traced to the United States; however, this number does not reflect the total volume of firearms trafficked from the United States, and it does not take into account other key supporting agency actions and activities as measures.

Why GAO Did This Study

Violent crimes committed by drug trafficking organizations in Mexico often involve firearms, and a 2009 GAO report found that many of these firearms originated in the United States. ATF and ICE have sought to stem firearms trafficking from the United States to Mexico.

GAO was asked to undertake a follow-up review to its 2009 report ( GAO-09-709 ) addressing these issues. This report examines, among other things, (1) the origin of firearms seized in Mexico that have been traced by ATF, (2) the extent to which collaboration among U.S. agencies combating firearms trafficking has improved, and (3) the extent to which the National Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy measures progress by U.S. agencies to stem firearms trafficking to Mexico. To address these objectives, GAO analyzed program information and firearms tracing data from 2009 to 2014, and met with U.S. and Mexican officials on both sides of the border.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that the Secretary of Homeland Security and the Attorney General of the United States take steps to formally monitor implementation of the 2009 MOU between ATF and ICE. GAO also recommends that ONDCP establish comprehensive indicators that more accurately reflect progress made in efforts to stem arms trafficking to Mexico. The Departments of Homeland Security and Justice, and ONDCP agreed with GAO's recommendations.

For more information, contact Jessica Farb at (202) 512-6991 or farbj@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In January of 2016, GAO reported that while the Department of Justice's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have pledged, through the 2009 memorandum of understanding (MOU), to collaborate effectively to combat firearms trafficking, these agencies have not set up a mechanism to monitor implementation of the MOU that would allow them to identify and address information sharing and collaboration challenges. ATF and ICE are the two primary agencies combating illicit sales and trafficking of firearms across the Southwest border. Therefore, GAO recommend that the Attorney General of the United States and the Secretary of Homeland Security convene cognizant officials from ATF and ICE to institute a mechanism to regularly monitor the implementation of the MOU and inform agency management of actions that may be needed to enhance collaboration and ensure effective information sharing. In response to our recommendation, the agencies established and begun implementing protocols to improve monitoring of the MOU. The protocols established by the agencies consist of the implementation of six specific activities: 1) Using the Treasury Enforcement Communication System (TECS) by ATF and ICE to identify international firearms investigations and ensure coordination between the two agencies; 2) Using ATF's Case Management System for ATF to identify international firearms investigations and ensure coordination with ICE; 3) Continuing to hold MOU training to reemphasize the importance of collaboration and coordination between the two agencies; 4)Holding mid-level ATF and ICE management quarterly meetings; 5) Holding ATF and ICE foreign post personnel quarterly meetings; and 6) Holding Semi-annual or annual executive level meetings. Since the protocols were established in March of 2016, ATF reported several activities have taken place to implement them. For example, the agencies have actively used TECS and ATF's case management system to identify trafficking investigations and ensure collaboration. Furthermore, ATF reported that meetings between SES managers, mid-level managers, and foreign post personal form ICE and ATF were held as planed in 2016, as well as a joint ATF-ICE training on the MOU.

    Recommendation: The Attorney General of the United States and the Secretary of Homeland Security should convene cognizant officials from ATF and ICE to institute a mechanism to regularly monitor the implementation of the MOU and inform agency management of actions that may be needed to enhance collaboration and ensure effective information sharing.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In January of 2016, GAO reported that while the Department of Justice's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have pledged, through the 2009 memorandum of understanding (MOU), to collaborate effectively to combat firearms trafficking, these agencies have not set up a mechanism to monitor implementation of the MOU that would allow them to identify and address information sharing and collaboration challenges. ATF and ICE are the two primary agencies combating illicit sales and trafficking of firearms across the Southwest border. Therefore, GAO recommend that the Attorney General of the United States and the Secretary of Homeland Security convene cognizant officials from ATF and ICE to institute a mechanism to regularly monitor the implementation of the MOU and inform agency management of actions that may be needed to enhance collaboration and ensure effective information sharing. In response to our recommendation, the agencies established and begun implementing protocols to improve monitoring of the MOU. The protocols established by the agencies consist of the implementation of six specific activities: 1) Using the Treasury Enforcement Communication System (TECS) by ATF and ICE to identify international firearms investigations and ensure coordination between the two agencies; 2) Using ATF's Case Management System for ATF to identify international firearms investigations and ensure coordination with ICE; 3) Continuing to hold MOU training to reemphasize the importance of collaboration and coordination between the two agencies; 4)Holding mid-level ATF and ICE management quarterly meetings; 5) Holding ATF and ICE foreign post personnel quarterly meetings; and 6) Holding Semi-annual or annual executive level meetings. Since the protocols were established in March of 2016, ATF reported several activities have taken place to implement them. For example, the agencies have actively used TECS and ATF's case management system to identify trafficking investigations and ensure collaboration. Furthermore, ATF reported that meetings between SES managers, mid-level managers, and foreign post personal form ICE and ATF were held as planed in 2016, as well as a joint ATF-ICE training on the MOU.

    Recommendation: The Attorney General of the United States and the Secretary of Homeland Security should convene cognizant officials from ATF and ICE to institute a mechanism to regularly monitor the implementation of the MOU and inform agency management of actions that may be needed to enhance collaboration and ensure effective information sharing.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: As part of ONDCP's comments on our draft report, the agency concurred with our recommendation to establish a more comprehensive set of indicators for the Weapons Chapter of the National Southwest Border Counternarcotic Strategy. ONDCP indicated that it would work with ICE and ATF to develop additional indicators to evaluate their progress. ONDCP agreed that the indicators developed through this collaborative process would be used in future iterations of the Strategy. However, in its July 26, 2017 letter to the relevant congressional committees leadership ONDCP explained that a decision has not been made on whether a new iteration of Strategy will be released, or if the current Administration will take different approach to address this issue. We will need to wait until an update of the Strategy is available for us to review to determine if our recommendation has been implemented.

    Recommendation: To ensure effective implementation of the strategic objective of the Weapons Chapter of the Strategy, the ONDCP Director should establish a more comprehensive indicator, or set of indicators, that more accurately reflects progress made by ATF and ICE in meeting the strategic objective.

    Agency Affected: Office of National Drug Control Policy

 

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