The Myth of 90 Percent: Only a Small Fraction of Guns in Mexico Come from U.S.

While 90 percent of the guns traced to the U.S. actually originated in the United States, the percent traced to the U.S. is only about 17 percent of the total number of guns reaching Mexico.

By William La Jeunesse and Maxim Lott  Thursday, April 02, 2009

EXCLUSIVE: You’ve heard this shocking “fact” before — on TV and radio, in newspapers, on the Internet and from the highest politicians in the land: 90 percent of the weapons used to commit crimes in Mexico come from the United States.

— Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said it to reporters on a flight to Mexico City.

— CBS newsman Bob Schieffer referred to it while interviewing President Obama.

— California Sen. Dianne Feinstein said at a Senate hearing: “It is unacceptable to have 90 percent of the guns that are picked up in Mexico and used to shoot judges, police officers and mayors … come from the United States.”

— William Hoover, assistant director for field operations at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, testified in the House of Representatives that “there is more than enough evidence to indicate that over 90 percent of the firearms that have either been recovered in, or interdicted in transport to Mexico, originated from various sources within the United States.”

There’s just one problem with the 90 percent “statistic” and it’s a big one:

It’s just not true.

In fact, it’s not even close. The fact is, only 17 percent of guns found at Mexican crime scenes have been traced to the U.S.

What’s true, an ATF spokeswoman told, in a clarification of the statistic used by her own agency’s assistant director, “is that over 90 percent of the traced firearms originate from the U.S.”

But a large percentage of the guns recovered in Mexico do not get sent back to the U.S. for tracing, because it is obvious from their markings that they do not come from the U.S.

“Not every weapon seized in Mexico has a serial number on it that would make it traceable, and the U.S. effort to trace weapons really only extends to weapons that have been in the U.S. market,” Matt Allen, special agent of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), told FOX News.

A Look at the Numbers

In 2007-2008, according to ATF Special Agent William Newell, Mexico submitted 11,000 guns to the ATF for tracing. Close to 6,000 were successfully traced — and of those, 90 percent — 5,114 to be exact, according to testimony in Congress by William Hoover — were found to have come from the U.S.

But in those same two years, according to the Mexican government, 29,000 guns were recovered at crime scenes.

In other words, 68 percent of the guns that were recovered were never submitted for tracing. And when you weed out the roughly 6,000 guns that could not be traced from the remaining 32 percent, it means 83 percent of the guns found at crime scenes in Mexico could not be traced to the U.S.

So, if not from the U.S., where do they come from? There are a variety of sources:

— The Black Market. Mexico is a virtual arms bazaar, with fragmentation grenades from South Korea, AK-47s from China, and shoulder-fired rocket launchers from Spain, Israel and former Soviet bloc manufacturers.

— Russian crime organizations. Interpol says Russian Mafia groups such as Poldolskaya and Moscow-based Solntsevskaya are actively trafficking drugs and arms in Mexico.

– South America. During the late 1990s, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) established a clandestine arms smuggling and drug trafficking partnership with the Tijuana cartel, according to the Federal Research Division report from the Library of Congress.

— Asia. According to a 2006 Amnesty International Report, China has provided arms to countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Chinese assault weapons and Korean explosives have been recovered in Mexico.

— The Mexican Army. More than 150,000 soldiers deserted in the last six years, according to Mexican Congressman Robert Badillo. Many took their weapons with them, including the standard issue M-16 assault rifle made in Belgium.

— Guatemala. U.S. intelligence agencies say traffickers move immigrants, stolen cars, guns and drugs, including most of America’s cocaine, along the porous Mexican-Guatemalan border. On March 27, La Hora, a Guatemalan newspaper, reported that police seized 500 grenades and a load of AK-47s on the border. Police say the cache was transported by a Mexican drug cartel operating out of Ixcan, a border town.

‘These Don’t Come From El Paso’

Ed Head, a firearms instructor in Arizona who spent 24 years with the U.S. Border Patrol, recently displayed an array of weapons considered “assault rifles” that are similar to those recovered in Mexico, but are unavailable for sale in the U.S.

“These kinds of guns — the auto versions of these guns — they are not coming from El Paso,” he said. “They are coming from other sources. They are brought in from Guatemala. They are brought in from places like China. They are being diverted from the military. But you don’t get these guns from the U.S.”

Some guns, he said, “are legitimately shipped to the government of Mexico, by Colt, for example, in the United States. They are approved by the U.S. government for use by the Mexican military service. The guns end up in Mexico that way — the fully auto versions — they are not smuggled in across the river.”

Many of the fully automatic weapons that have been seized in Mexico cannot be found in the U.S., but they are not uncommon in the Third World.

The Mexican government said it has seized 2,239 grenades in the last two years — but those grenades and the rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) are unavailable in U.S. gun shops. The ones used in an attack on the U.S. Consulate in Monterrey in October and a TV station in January were made in South Korea. Almost 70 similar grenades were seized in February in the bottom of a truck entering Mexico from Guatemala.

“Most of these weapons are being smuggled from Central American countries or by sea, eluding U.S. and Mexican monitors who are focused on the smuggling of semi-automatic and conventional weapons purchased from dealers in the U.S. border states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California,” according to a report in the Los Angeles Times.

Boatloads of Weapons

So why would the Mexican drug cartels, which last year grossed between $17 billion and $38 billion, bother buying single-shot rifles, and force thousands of unknown “straw” buyers in the U.S. through a government background check, when they can buy boatloads of fully automatic M-16s and assault rifles from China, Israel or South Africa?

Alberto Islas, a security consultant who advises the Mexican government, says the drug cartels are using the Guatemalan border to move black market weapons. Some are left over from the Central American wars the United States helped fight; others, like the grenades and launchers, are South Korean, Israeli and Spanish. Some were legally supplied to the Mexican government; others were sold by corrupt military officers or officials.

The exaggeration of United States “responsibility” for the lawlessness in Mexico extends even beyond the “90-percent” falsehood — and some Second Amendment activists believe it’s designed to promote more restrictive gun-control laws in the U.S.

In a remarkable claim, Auturo Sarukhan, the Mexican ambassador to the U.S., said Mexico seizes 2,000 guns a day from the United States — 730,000 a year. That’s a far cry from the official statistic from the Mexican attorney general’s office, which says Mexico seized 29,000 weapons in all of 2007 and 2008.

Chris Cox, spokesman for the National Rifle Association, blames the media and anti-gun politicians in the U.S. for misrepresenting where Mexican weapons come from.

“Reporter after politician after news anchor just disregards the truth on this,” Cox said. “The numbers are intentionally used to weaken the Second Amendment.”

“The predominant source of guns in Mexico is Central and South America. You also have Russian, Chinese and Israeli guns. It’s estimated that over 100,000 soldiers deserted the army to work for the drug cartels, and that ignores all the police. How many of them took their weapons with them?”

But Tom Diaz, senior policy analyst at the Violence Policy Center, called the “90 percent” issue a red herring and said that it should not detract from the effort to stop gun trafficking into Mexico.

“Let’s do what we can with what we know,” he said. “We know that one hell of a lot of firearms come from the United States because our gun market is wide open.”

Clinton targets assault weapons

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is pledging further effort to help Mexico in its anti-drugs campaign.

Mrs Clinton said the use of military-style assault weapons was a particular concern, and she would discuss reimposing a ban on their sale.

A previous US decision to lift a ban on such sales had been a mistake, she told the NBC television network.

Earlier on her visit she admitted that America’s appetite for drugs was helping to fuel the violence.

Some 8,000 people have died in drug-related violence in Mexico over the past two years.


Mrs Clinton said assault weapons did not belong on anyone’s street.

She was referring to a ban on the sale of such powerful guns which was in effect in the United Sates between 1994 and 2004.

“During that time,” said Mrs Clinton, “police in America were able to drive down crime because they didn’t have to worry about these assault weapons getting into the hands of criminals and gang members.

“So we will make the case that we need to put more teeth in the law, try to prohibit the sale outside of our borders of these guns,” she said, stressing that Congress might oppose such a ban.

On the first day of her visit, Mrs Clinton had said an “insatiable” US demand for illegal drugs was fuelling the drug trade.

“Our inability to prevent weapons from being illegally smuggled across the border to arm these criminals causes the deaths of police officers, soldiers and civilians.

“I feel very strongly we have a co-responsibility.”

She also acknowledged that US efforts to ban drugs had so far been unsuccessful in stopping the narcotics trade.

“Clearly, what we have been doing has not worked and it is unfair for our incapacity… to be creating a situation where people are holding the Mexican government and people responsible,” she said.

Mrs Clinton said the Obama administration, working with the US Congress, intended to pledge $80m (£55m) to help Mexico buy Blackhawk helicopters.

“These aircraft will help Mexican police respond aggressively and successfully to the threats coming from the cartels,” she said.

Illegal guns

Mrs Clinton’s trip is the first in a series of visits by high-level officials, including Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Attorney General Eric Holder, before President Barack Obama himself visits Mexico in mid-April.

Ms Napolitano told the BBC on Wednesday that there had been a significant escalation of violence in Mexico, in part because of US efforts to clamp down on trafficking routes.

But, she said: “The most important thing is that the federal government of Mexico is now battling these cartels, and they weren’t in the past. And as a result the violence between the cartels and the government of Mexico has really increased.”

The Ongoing Mexico Crisis — Blaming American Gun Owners

Friday, March 20, 2009

Congress has jumped in with both feet when it comes to the crisis of violence in Mexico, and the usual suspects are once again blaming American gun owners and American gun laws.  This week there were two more hearings, one in the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Drugs and Crime, and the other in the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Western Hemisphere.  In both cases, anti-gun politicians such as Senators Dick Durbin and Dianne Feinstein, and Congressman Eliot Engel, blamed American gun laws for the crisis.  Fortunately, in both hearings, gun rights supporters in Congress stood up for American gun owners.

In the House subcommittee hearing, Chairman Engel made it clear from the onset he viewed this issue from one perspective: guns. His solution to the ultra violent Mexican drug cartels is to blame American gun owners and American gun laws.

Kristen Rand, the Legislative Director of the Violence Policy Center, repeated the unsubstantiated claim that 90% of guns seized from the cartels come from the U.S., blamed America’s gun laws and called for BATFE to use the broadest possible interpretation of the “sporting purposes” test to ban a much larger class of semi-auto rifles.

Congressman Connie Mack (R-Fla.), however, challenged Rand’s claim that 90% of guns seized from the cartels are from the United States.  Rand cited the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATFE) for her claim. But the BATFE has only stated that 90% of the guns traced are from America.  BATFE only traces a fraction of the guns seized; those firearms are not selected randomly, but are likely selected because they are the guns most likely to have come from the U.S.  Trace data reveals nothing about the large number of guns that are not traced.

In defending her call to ban the import of all “assault rifles” into America, Rand admitted she had no idea how many of those guns were subsequently smuggled into Mexico.  But a recent article in the Los Angles Times may shed some light on the real source of the cartels’ weapons.  The article describes the military arms being used by cartels in their battles with the Mexican army and federal police, and how those weapons are entering Mexico not through the U.S., but through Central America.

In the Senate Judiciary subcommittee, Chairman Durbin also made it clear he thought American guns, and not drug lords, drug users or illegal gun traffickers are the cause of violence in Mexico. Durbin had a terse exchange with Senator Jeff Sessions when Senator Sessions stated that American guns were not the problem.  Durbin snapped back at the Senator from Alabama, stating his firm belief that guns were indeed the problem.

In addition to Durbin, Senator Dianne Feinstein used this forum to express her long opposition to American gun owners’ rights.  In her remarks she made it clear she intends to use this crisis as an excuse to promote new gun laws here at home. During her remarks, she repeated the claim that 90% of seized guns come from America, and also stated that there are over 2,000 guns smuggled into Mexico from the U.S. each day.

Feinstein even tried to elicit support for that number from a representative from the BATFE. But when he responded that the number was much lower, most likely in the hundreds, Senator Feinstein was clearly unhappy that he would not endorse her anti-gun soundbite.

Not everything that came out of the hearings was negative.  In the Senate hearing, Senator Sessions made it clear that American gun rights should not be sacrificed.  His statement of support sent the message to anti-gun senators that they would find strong opposition to their efforts to use the Mexico crisis as an excuse to undermine those rights.

Additionally, three representatives of U.S. law enforcement, one each from BATFE, Drug Enforcement Agency, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, made it clear that the increase in violence in Mexico is being misinterpreted by the media and politicians. They testified that the increase in violence is a direct result of the actions taken by Mexican President Felipe Calderon to take on the cartels.  The cartels, they testified, are being pressured more than ever before and are fighting back in desperation, resulting in casualties. But in the end, they believed, the battle to shut down the cartels would be won.

For American gun owners, the battle will be to make sure that our Second Amendment rights are not sacrificed by scheming anti-gun politicians who see an opportunity to advance their gun ban agenda.

NRA-ILA will continue to closely monitor all activities relating to the crisis in Mexico and will keep our members informed.  If you wish to view the hearings, please use the following links.

House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere: “Guns, Drugs and Violence: The Merida Initiative and the Challenge in Mexico”

Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Drugs: “Law Enforcement Responses to Mexican Drug Cartels”