Firearms Trafficking:

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

GAO-09-781T: Published: Jun 19, 2009. Publicly Released: Jun 19, 2009.

Additional Materials:


Jess T. Ford
(202) 512-4268


Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800

This testimony discusses U.S. efforts to combat illicit arms trafficking to Mexico, 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, 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. In particular, law enforcement reporting indicates Mexican DTOs maintain drug distribution networks or supply drugs to distributors in at least 230 U.S. cities. (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.

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 DOJ's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (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. 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 Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement (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. 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.