Fast Facts

Para la versión de esta página en español, ver a GAO-21-336.

Gun smuggling over the U.S.-Mexican border helps the illegal drug trade and has links to organized crime. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives has gathered data on guns recovered in Mexico and traced many of them to U.S. sources.

But ATF's data only shows part of the picture—for example, data reported by the Mexican Attorney General may not include guns recovered by other Mexican agencies. Also, more analysis—e.g., U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement analysis of data on U.S.-sourced guns seized in Mexico—could improve understanding of sources and smuggling routes.

Our recommendations address these issues and more.

 

Example of a Firearm Recovered in Mexico

 

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Highlights

Para la versión de esta página en español, ver a GAO-21-336.

What GAO Found

Trafficking of U.S.-sourced firearms into Mexico is a national security threat, as it facilitates the illegal drug trade and has been linked to organized crime. The Department of Justice's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) found that 70 percent of firearms reported to have been recovered in Mexico from 2014 through 2018 and submitted for tracing were U.S. sourced. However, ATF does not receive complete data about thousands of firearms, such as those recovered by Mexican states, because only Mexico's federal Attorney General's office submits trace requests to ATF. In addition, the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has identified smuggling trends by analyzing DHS data on 1,012 firearms seized in the U.S. by DHS agencies. However, ICE has not analyzed ATF data on 56,000 U.S. firearms recovered in Mexico. Additional data and analysis could enhance U.S. efforts to understand firearms sources and smuggling routes.

Examples of Firearms Recovered in Mexico

Examples of Firearms Recovered in Mexico

U.S. agencies have undertaken a number of efforts to disrupt firearms trafficking to Mexico—including several recently established efforts as well as prior and ongoing ones—but are unable to assess progress toward this goal.

In April 2020, ATF established Operation Southbound to coordinate with other agencies to disrupt firearms trafficking to Mexico. ATF also conducts investigations related to Mexico.

In fiscal year 2020, ICE and DHS's U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) established a joint operation to intercept firearms being smuggled to Mexico. ICE and CBP also conduct other efforts related to this issue. For example, in fiscal years 2015 through 2017, ICE-led taskforces seized 1,104 firearms along the southwest border. In fiscal years 2014 through 2019, CBP seized an annual average of 115 firearms at the border, and in the first 10 months of fiscal year 2020, CBP increased outbound inspection at some ports of entry and seized 321 firearms.

The Department of State (State) helps lead a working group to coordinate these and other U.S. efforts with the government of Mexico. State also provided $54 million in fiscal years 2015 through 2019 to help build Mexico's capacity to disrupt trafficking through, for example, forensics training, inspection equipment, and canines trained for weapons detection.

However, none of the agencies have fully developed performance measures for their efforts to disrupt firearms trafficking to Mexico, and thus they have limited ability to assess progress. Identifying performance measures—including goals, indicators, targets, and time frames—would enhance their ability to optimize the use of U.S. government resources to address this threat to U.S. national security.

Why GAO Did This Study

The U.S. Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy: 2020 identified the trafficking of firearms from the U.S. into Mexico as a threat to the safety and security of both countries. The Mexican government has estimated that 200,000 firearms are smuggled from the United States each year.

GAO was asked to report on U.S. efforts to counter firearms trafficking to Mexico. This report examines (1) the extent of U.S. agencies' knowledge about firearms trafficking to Mexico and (2) U.S. agencies' efforts to disrupt this trafficking and the extent to which they have assessed those efforts. GAO reviewed firearms tracing data, related analysis, and program information for fiscal years 2014 through 2020. GAO also interviewed U.S. and Mexican officials.

This is a public version of a sensitive report that GAO issued in December 2020.

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Recommendations

GAO is making eight recommendations, including recommending that ATF and ICE analyze additional information about the trafficking of U.S.-sourced firearms to Mexico and that ATF, ICE, CBP, and State develop performance measures to assess the results of their efforts to disrupt this trafficking. The agencies concurred with GAO's recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives The Director of ATF, working with State, should establish time frames for outreach to, and training for, Mexican agencies to encourage and facilitate additional submissions of information about recovered firearms to ATF for tracing. (Recommendation 1)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives The Director of ATF should analyze additional information--for example, data about U.S.-sourced firearms intended for Mexico but seized in the United States--to supplement its existing analysis identifying trends related to the illegal diversion of firearms and the trafficking of these firearms to Mexico. (Recommendation 2)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives The Director of ATF, working with ICE, should identify a mechanism for sharing aggregated information with HSI about firearms recovered in Mexico and traced to the United States. (Recommendation 3)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement The Director of ICE should ensure that HSI analyzes additional information--for example, data that ATF shares about U.S.-sourced firearms recovered in Mexico--to supplement its existing analysis identifying smuggling trends and patterns. (Recommendation 4)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives The Director of ATF, in consultation with relevant agencies, should develop performance measures to assess the results of ATF's efforts to investigate the trafficking of U.S.-sourced firearms to Mexico. (Recommendation 5)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement The Director of ICE should ensure that HSI, in consultation with relevant agencies, develops performance measures to assess the results of its efforts to investigate firearms smuggling into Mexico. (Recommendation 6)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
United States Customs and Border Protection The Commissioner of CBP, in consultation with relevant agencies, should develop performance measures to assess the results of CBP's efforts to interdict firearms being smuggled into Mexico. (Recommendation 7)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of State The Secretary of State, in consultation with relevant agencies, should develop performance measures to assess the results of State's assistance to Mexico related to firearms trafficking. (Recommendation 8)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

Full Report

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