Building Partner Capacity:

U.S. Agencies Can Improve Monitoring of Counter-Firearms Trafficking Efforts in Belize, Guatemala, and Mexico

GAO-16-235: Published: Jan 13, 2016. Publicly Released: Feb 2, 2016.

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What GAO Found

U.S. agencies and their implementing partners have undertaken a number of capacity-building activities that support counter-firearms trafficking efforts in Belize, Guatemala, and Mexico. The figure below outlines examples of the areas of effort under which these activities fall. Selected, in part, based on partner country needs, these activities include efforts to provide support in using the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' (ATF) web-based firearms tracing system (eTrace) and providing forensics training, including on ballistics. Some of these activities, such as firearms identification training, relate directly to firearms trafficking, while others broadly support antitrafficking or border security efforts for which stemming the trafficking of firearms is one of many goals. Presidential Policy Directive 23 highlights key factors, including partner country needs, absorptive capacity, sustainability, and other U.S. and other donor efforts, as important in planning security sector assistance. Agencies considered these factors in determining what activities to fund.

Examples of Areas of Effort for U.S. Counter-Firearms Trafficking Activities in Belize, Guatemala, and Mexico, Based, in Part, on Each Partner Country's Identified Needs

Examples of Areas of Effort for U.S. Counter-Firearms Trafficking Activities in Belize, Guatemala, and Mexico, Based, in Part, on Each Partner Country's Identified Needs

U.S. agencies and implementing partners have achieved many of their goals for eight key counter-firearms trafficking activities GAO reviewed, but could enhance their efforts to measure and report on progress. Agencies and implementers established performance measures and targets for five of these eight activities. Standards for Internal Control in the Federal Government states that managers should compare actual performance against expected results, highlighting the importance of such measures and targets. ATF tracks its activities but has not established performance targets for them, without which it is difficult to measure the success of its efforts. Two of the five activities GAO reviewed that established metrics and targets are ongoing and are meeting their goals, while three other activities were completed and met or partially met their goals, according to Department of State (State) and implementer reports. For activities it funds, State requires implementers to include a discussion of key challenges and strategies to address those challenges in quarterly reports. However, implementers' reports for activities GAO reviewed were inconsistent and did not always identify challenges or strategies for addressing them. Without this information, agencies risk not fully meeting their goals and may be unable to maximize the use of U.S. resources.

Why GAO Did This Study

Trafficking of illicit materials, including firearms, is widespread across Mexico's more than 700-mile southern border with Guatemala and Belize. Such trafficking presents a challenge for law enforcement in all three countries and for U.S. security interests. State and other U.S. agencies, such as ATF, have provided support to build the capacity of their counterparts in these three countries to address problems related to firearms trafficking. GAO was asked to review U.S. support to the governments of Belize, Guatemala, and Mexico to stem firearms trafficking across their shared border. This report examines, for these three countries, (1) the activities undertaken by U.S. agencies to build partner capacity to combat firearms trafficking and the extent to which they considered key factors in selecting the activities and (2) progress the United States has made in building such capacity. GAO analyzed program documentation and conducted interviews with U.S., Belizean, Guatemalan, and Mexican officials. To examine progress, GAO selected a nongeneralizable sample of eight key activities based on a number of factors, including whether the activity addressed firearms trafficking.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that (1) ATF establish and document performance targets for its key counter-firearms trafficking activities in Belize, Guatemala, and Mexico, as appropriate, and (2) State work with other U.S. agencies and implementers to help ensure that progress reports identify key challenges and plans to address them. ATF and State agreed with these 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 September 2018, ATF provided documentation of a set of performance metrics and targets it developed for overseas offices in Central, South America, and Mexico. According to ATF officials, this plan has been approved and is in effect. ATF established performance targets and metrics for three of the bureau's key counter-firearms trafficking activities in Belize, Guatemala, and Mexico, including technical assistance and investigative referrals, ATF-sponsored training programs, and complex changes, such as submitting more weapons to ATF's eTrace system, made by the host country over time. ATF officials determined that these metrics were quantifiable, consistent with ATF's mission and funding, aligned with Department of State regional strategies, and can be combined with other metrics to determine mission impact.

    Recommendation: To enhance U.S. agencies' performance monitoring of counter-firearms trafficking activities, the Director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives should establish and document performance targets for the bureau's key counter-firearms trafficking activities in Belize, Guatemala, and Mexico, as appropriate.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice: Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Department of State concurred with this recommendation. State officials stated they have reinforced the importance of identifying key challenges and plans to address them with their implementing partners through the use of a revised Quarterly Reporting Template. They stated that they are consistently receiving timely reporting and believe the percentage of responses to the "problems or challenges" section accurately represents program implementation. For example, in fiscal year 2017, INL received 100 percent of DOJ quarterly reports, of which 76 percent had substantive responses addressing their challenges. INL officials determined that was appropriate; given some projects do not face substantive challenges. INL officials also provided a copy of a recent CBP report that outlined challenges. We are closing this recommendation as implemented.

    Recommendation: To enhance U.S. agencies' performance monitoring of counter-firearms trafficking activities, the Secretary of State should work with other U.S. agencies and implementers to help ensure that quarterly progress reports identify key challenges and plans to address them.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

 

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