Reporting on the Mexican Cartel Drug War

Mexico's Gun Supply and the 90 Percent Myth

Monday, February 21, 2011 |

By Scott Stewart
Stratfor

For several years now, STRATFOR has been closely watching developments in Mexico that relate to what we consider the three wars being waged there. Those three wars are the war between the various drug cartels, the war between the government and the cartels, and the war being waged against citizens and businesses by criminals.

In addition to watching tactical developments of the cartel wars on the ground and studying the dynamics of the conflict among the various warring factions, we have also been paying close attention to the ways that both the Mexican and U.S. governments have reacted to these developments. Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects to watch has been the way in which the Mexican government has tried to deflect responsibility for the cartel wars away from itself and onto the United States.

According to the Mexican government, the cartel wars are not a result of corruption in Mexico or of economic and societal dynamics that leave many Mexicans marginalized and desperate to find a way to make a living. Instead, the cartel wars are due to the insatiable American appetite for narcotics and the endless stream of guns that flows from the United States into Mexico and that results in Mexican violence.

Interestingly, the part of this argument pertaining to guns has been adopted by many politicians and government officials in the United States in recent years. It has now become quite common to hear U.S. officials confidently assert that 90 percent of the weapons used by the Mexican drug cartels come from the United States. However, a close examination of the dynamics of the cartel wars in Mexico — and of how the oft-echoed 90 percent number was reached — clearly demonstrates that the number is more political rhetoric than empirical fact.

By the Numbers
As we discussed in a previous analysis, the 90 percent number was derived from a June 2009 U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report to Congress on U.S. efforts to combat arms trafficking to Mexico (see external link).

According to the GAO report, some 30,000 firearms were seized from criminals by Mexican authorities in 2008. Of these 30,000 firearms, information pertaining to 7,200 of them (24 percent) was submitted to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) for tracing. Of these 7,200 guns, only about 4,000 could be traced by the ATF, and of these 4,000, some 3,480 (87 percent) were shown to have come from the United States.

This means that the 87 percent figure relates to the number of weapons submitted by the Mexican government to the ATF that could be successfully traced and not from the total number of weapons seized by Mexican authorities or even from the total number of weapons submitted to the ATF for tracing.

In fact, the 3,480 guns positively traced to the United States equals less than 12 percent of the total arms seized in Mexico in 2008 and less than 48 percent of all those submitted by the Mexican government to the ATF for tracing. This means that almost 90 percent of the guns seized in Mexico in 2008 were not traced back to the United States.

The remaining 22,800 firearms seized by Mexican authorities in 2008 were not traced for a variety of reasons. In addition to factors such as bureaucratic barriers and negligence, many of the weapons seized by Mexican authorities either do not bear serial numbers or have had their serial numbers altered or obliterated.

It is also important to understand that the Mexican authorities simply don’t bother to submit some classes of weapons to the ATF for tracing. Such weapons include firearms they identify as coming from their own military or police forces, or guns that they can trace back themselves as being sold through the Mexican Defense Department’s Arms and Ammunition Marketing Division (UCAM). Likewise, they do not ask ATF to trace military ordnance from third countries like the South Korean fragmentation grenades commonly used in cartel attacks.

Of course, some or even many of the 22,800 firearms the Mexicans did not submit to ATF for tracing may have originated in the United States. But according to the figures presented by the GAO, there is no evidence to support the assertion that 90 percent of the guns used by the Mexican cartels come from the United States — especially when not even 50 percent of those that were submitted for tracing were ultimately found to be of U.S. origin.

This point leads us to consider the types of weapons being used by the Mexican cartels and where they come from.

Types and Sources of Guns
To gain an understanding of the dynamics of the gun flow inside Mexico, it helps if one divides the guns seized by Mexican authorities from criminals into three broad categories — which, incidentally, just happen to represent three different sources.

Type 1: Guns Legally Available in Mexico
The first category of weapons encountered in Mexico is weapons available legally for sale in Mexico through UCAM. These include handguns smaller than a .357 magnum such as .380 and .38 Special.

A large portion of this first type of guns used by criminals is purchased in Mexico, or stolen from their legitimate owners. While UCAM does have very strict regulations for civilians to purchase guns, criminals will use straw purchasers to obtain firearms from UCAM or obtain them from corrupt officials.

Cartel hit men in Mexico commonly use .380 pistols equipped with sound suppressors in their assassinations. In many cases, these pistols are purchased in Mexico, the suppressors are locally manufactured and the guns are adapted to receive the suppressors by Mexican gunsmiths.

It must be noted, though, that because of the cost and hassle of purchasing guns in Mexico, many of the guns in this category are purchased in the United States and smuggled into the country. There are a lot of cheap guns available on the U.S. market, and they can be sold at a premium in Mexico.

Indeed, guns in this category, such as .380 pistols and .22-caliber rifles and pistols, are among the guns most commonly traced back to the United States. Still, the numbers do not indicate that 90 percent of guns in this category come from the United States.

Additionally, most of the explosives the cartels have been using in improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Mexico over the past year have used commercially available Tovex, so we consider these explosives to fall in this first category. Mexican IEDs are another area where the rhetoric has been interesting to analyze, but we will explore this topic another time.

Type 2: Guns Legally Available in the U.S. but Not in Mexico
Many popular handgun calibers, such as 9 mm, .45 and .40, are reserved for the military and police and are not available for sale to civilians in Mexico. These guns, which are legally sold and very popular in the United States, comprise our second category, which also includes .50-caliber rifles, semiautomatic versions of assault rifles like the AK-47 and M16 and the FN Five-Seven pistol.

When we consider this second type of guns, a large number of them encountered in Mexico are likely purchased in the United States. Indeed, the GAO report notes that many of the guns most commonly traced back to the United States fall into this category.

There are also many .45-caliber and 9 mm semiautomatic pistols and .357 revolvers obtained from deserters from the Mexican military and police, purchased from corrupt Mexican authorities or even brought in from South America (guns made by manufacturers such as Taurus and Bersa). This category also includes semiautomatic variants of assault rifles and main battle rifles, which are often converted by Mexican gunsmiths to be capable of fully automatic fire.

One can buy these types of weapons on the international arms market, but one pays a premium for such guns and it is cheaper and easier to simply buy them in the United States or South America and smuggle them into Mexico. In fact, there is an entire cottage industry that has developed to smuggle such weapons, and not all the customers are cartel hit men. There are many Mexican citizens who own guns in calibers such as .45, 9 mm, .40 and .44 magnum for self-defense — even though such guns are illegal in Mexico.

Type 3: Guns Not Available for Civilian Purchase in Mexico or the U.S.
The third category of weapons encountered in Mexico is military-grade ordnance not generally available for sale in the United States or Mexico. This category includes hand grenades, 40 mm grenades, rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), automatic assault rifles and main battle rifles and light machine guns.

This third type of weapon is fairly difficult and very expensive to obtain in the United States, especially in the large numbers in which the cartels are employing them. They are also dangerous to obtain in the United States due to heavy law enforcement scrutiny.

Therefore, most of the military ordnance used by the Mexican cartels comes from other sources, such as the international arms market — increasingly from China via the same networks that furnish precursor chemicals for narcotics manufacturing — or from corrupt elements in the Mexican military or even deserters who take their weapons with them. Besides, items such as South Korean fragmentation grenades and RPG-7s, often used by the cartels, simply are not in the U.S. arsenal. This means that very few of the weapons in this category come from the United States.

In recent years the cartels, especially their enforcer groups such as Los Zetas, Gente Nueva and La Linea, have been increasingly using military weaponry instead of sporting arms. A close examination of the arms seized from the enforcer groups and their training camps clearly demonstrates this trend toward military ordnance, including many weapons not readily available in the United States. Some of these seizures have included M60 machine guns and hundreds of 40 mm grenades obtained from the military arsenals of countries like Guatemala.

But Guatemala is not the only source of such weapons. Latin America is awash in weapons that were shipped there over the past several decades to supply the various insurgencies and counterinsurgencies in the region. When these military-grade weapons are combined with the rampant corruption in the region, they quickly find their way into the black arms market.

The Mexican cartels have supply-chain contacts that help move narcotics to Mexico from South America, and they are able to use this same network to obtain guns from the black market in South and Central America and then smuggle them into Mexico. While there are many weapons in this category that were manufactured in the United States, the overwhelming majority of the U.S.-manufactured weapons of this third type encountered in Mexico — like LAW rockets and M60 machine guns — come into Mexico from third countries and not directly from the United States.

There are also some cases of overlap between classes of weapons. For example, the FN Five-Seven pistol is available for commercial purchase in the United States, but the 5.7x28 armor-piercing ammunition for the pistol favored by the cartels is not — it is a restricted item. However, some of the special operations forces units in the Mexican military are issued the Five-Seven as well as the FN P90 personal defense weapon, which also shoots the 5.7x28 round, and the cartels are obtaining some of these weapons and the armor-piercing ammunition from them and not from the United States.

Conversely, we see bulk 5.56 mm and 7.62 mm ammunition bought in the United States and smuggled into Mexico, where it is used in fully automatic AK-47s and M16s purchased elsewhere. As noted above, China has become an increasingly common source for military weapons like grenades and fully automatic assault rifles in recent years.

To really understand Mexico’s gun problem, however, it is necessary to recognize that the same economic law of supply and demand that fuels drug smuggling into the United States also fuels gun smuggling into Mexico. Black market guns in Mexico can fetch up to 300 percent of their normal purchase price — a profit margin rivaling the narcotics the cartels sell.

Even if it were somehow possible to hermetically seal the U.S.-Mexico border and shut off all the guns coming from the United States, the cartels would still be able to obtain weapons elsewhere — just as narcotics would continue to flow into the United States from other places. The United States does provide cheap and easy access to certain types of weapons and ammunition, but as demonstrated by groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, weapons can be easily obtained from other sources via the black arms market — albeit at a higher price.

There has clearly been a long and well-documented history of arms smuggling across the U.S.-Mexico border, but it is important to recognize that, while the United States is a significant source of certain classes of weapons and ammunition, it is by no means the source of 90 percent of the weapons used by the Mexican cartels, as is commonly asserted.

Mexico's Gun Supply and the 90 Percent Myth is republished with permission of STRATFOR.

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27 Borderland Beat Comments:

Anonymous said...

It's about time the facts get set straight..It really does get old listening to people regurgitate the same nonsense about all the evil being the fault of the u.s..the real blame is on greed, if you trace back the root of this poisonous tree, youll see all of this because human beings want more and more and can't just be content.

Anonymous said...

I would believe this but then again its STRATFOR? So much for a credible source....lets see how all these rednecks react to the news haha...but geez I wonder why they don't submit all the weapons maybe bz "many of the weapons seized by Mexican authorities either do not bear serial numbers or have had their serial numbers altered or obliterated" which can be easily done by cartels...just a thought...but in the end who cares..if its 10 percent or 90 percent coming from the U.S. the fact of the matter is those guns shouldn't be getting into criminal hands.

Anonymous said...

"According to the Mexican government, the cartel wars are not a result of corruption in Mexico or of economic and societal dynamics. Instead, the cartel wars are due to the insatiable American appetite for narcotics and the endless stream of guns that flows from the United States into Mexico and that results in Mexican violence."

So according to Statfor weren't not consuming drugs, were not financing this drug war, with all are crackheads, were not part of the problem? Shit, I guess the drugs are being transported through the US on its way to Canada then right?

Anonymous said...

"A large portion of this first type of guns used by criminals is purchased in Mexico, or stolen from their legitimate owners."

Goes to show the load of BS stratfor really is. A large portion of this type of guns is purchased or stolen from their legitimate owners. Last time I checked majority of common citizens in Mexico don't even have guns let alone have the money to purchased them. Legitimate owners? Who the cartels? lol

Anonymous said...

UNCLE!!! UNCLE!!! Y'all win... the 90% statistic is full of it.


Hijole, mano...Estos plebes siguen queriendo tapar el sol con un dedo....


So...if its not the 90%, it must be zero then, huh? The US has NO FAULT. Zero!


But...now that I think about it... Can we say then that 90% of all narco-violence deaths (90% of 32,000) can be attributed to the small arms
starting from .22LR up to the 7.62x39 and .223?

Is that any better for you?


What was it Judge Judy used to say?

...don't pee on my leg and tell me its raining...

Resilient Tucsonian said...

What is this article doing on BB? It is the guns fault and ALL the guns are coming from the USA. It is the job of the Mexican government, and the US government, to protect Mexican citizens and ensure their safety. Mexicans have no responsibility for their own society and the consequences of the behaviors they encourage, like corruption, cartel activity, seizing of private property and gun "control", is not their fault. You just don't understand Mexican society. Mexicans are all helpless. That is why they need a new, strengthened Socialist regime to end the lawlessness caused by the previous socialist culture.

Buela said...

while true in this case (guns) we do not carry the heavy responsibilty we are culpable in other aspects of this war. For example: MONEY. we do not oversee the banks who turn a blind eye, if we cut their ability to move money we chop the war at their knees. We simply do not apply the law.

we are not blameless is all I am saying.

Anonymous said...

Awwwww, who will poor mexico blame for their problems now?

Anonymous said...

Strafor how much contributions do you get from the NRA?

Tiso said...

"Awwwww, who will poor mexico blame for their problems now?"

Looking at these comments, they are still finding a way to blame the US. Doesnt matter whos fault it is, time to pull yourself up by your boot straps mexico. Your country is really going to shit.

Resilient Tucsonian said...

I would love to see some actual EVIDENCE of STRATFOR's lack of credibility or the falsehood of any of the facts they are presenting.

By saying outright that STRATFOR is not credible helps the rest of us to see who here is an irrational ideologue.

Resilient Tucsonian said...

"February 21, 2011 12:58 AM
Anonymous said...
"A large portion of this first type of guns used by criminals is purchased in Mexico, or stolen from their legitimate owners."

Goes to show the load of BS stratfor really is. A large portion of this type of guns is purchased or stolen from their legitimate owners. Last time I checked majority of common citizens in Mexico don't even have guns let alone have the money to purchased them. Legitimate owners? Who the cartels? lol"

You should actually read the article and try to understand what the first type of weapons are. They are small caliber (.38 and smaller) handguns which are the only ones for purchase in Mexico. These are popular with the cartels because of their usefulness in hits using a silencer.

Anonymous said...

Well it is not like they said there were no guns coming from the US, just that certain kinds of weapons come from other places. That seems reasonable to me.

I've been to tons of US gun stores and have never seen RPGs or hand grenades for sale. Those weapons are coming from elsewhere, and so are many of the fully automatic guns.

Anonymous said...

I think any percentage coming from the US is too much. It is nice to see the 90% myth debunked though. We (the USA) still need to own up to culpability in this or rather instead of own up just make sure that we make it 0%. It won't solve the problem but it will make it better.

Anonymous said...

Enough with the STRATFOR bullshit! This was published in BB ( a link within an article) a few weeks ago. It helps make things clearer. Read it if you haven't:
http://narcosphere.narconews.com/notebook/bill-conroy/2011/02/pentagon-fingered-source-narco-firepower-mexico

Gotta love loopholes!

Anonymous said...

I still believe that 90 percent comes from the US thru the "presta nombres" (straw purchasers) hired in gun shows and gun shops and firmly believe Stratfor has employees that are NRA members or that the NRA provides financial support to them.

El_Regio said...

We all know the corrupt Mexican government is innocent! lol its all the USA's fault, right Anti American liberals?

EarniesWorld said...

@ Tiso,
Who will Mexico blame now? How about the United States stops pressuring/financing Mexico and the rest of the Latin American countries to fight the drug war for Uncle Sam. NAFTA also paved the ways for lucrative smuggling routes into the U.S abused by organized crime and also destroyed millions of jobs souther/western Mexican farmers used to do.A lot of weapons are still coming from the United States maybe not 90% but at least 60%. How about Americans stop feeding their addictions?

Anonymous said...

Funny how some people here are not willing to believe Strat's statistics yet are quick to spew facts of their own as if they know exactly what's going on. Face it you're all posers.

Anonymous said...

..... someone said ONCE, you have his side, her side, and then you have "THE TRUTH"...

Anonymous said...

Its funny how all these idiots when presented with another investigation done by the Washington Post were crying that GUNS WEREN'T COMING FROM THE US even though the evidence was right there in front of them...and now presented with the STATFOR investigation they are quick to jump on the bandwagon haha..Strator like I said before not credible source, I want to see the full report then make up my own mind. Just like they said the two ice agents were part of a car jacking gone wrong and now they say they were targeted. Well which one is it?? NOT CREDIBLE AT ALL.

@Resilient Tucsonian
"You should actually read the article and try to understand what the first type of weapons are. They are small caliber (.38 and smaller) handguns which are the only ones for purchase in Mexico. These are popular with the cartels because of their usefulness in hits using a silencer."

Are you really that stupid? How about you ask the ICE agent, what he was shot with? A .38? No!! the cartels don't even use silencers they use could care less about being silent haha. Get the hell out of here.

"A large portion of this type of guns is purchased or stolen from their legitimate owners"
Everyone knows that statement is a load of Bullshit! Mexicans don't carry guns lets get real. And all you BB readers know this. You guys are always the first ones crying about how Mexicans can't defend themselves because the government won't let them.

Tiso said...

@earniesworld:

I dont think America is going to stop doing what we've been doing. So its basically up to you guys

Anonymous said...

fact of the matter is Mexico is corrupt and Mexican politicians (who are making millions on the drug sale) like to blame someone, other than their corrupt ways, BUT the US is still the number one place to get guns for the Carteles... Will Mexico"s violence stop if guns were to become illegal in the US (huge stupid presumption, bc it goes after the 2nd amendment) NO. But the facts are that American guns are making their way into mexico, so is ammunation. Why are Americans so hesitant to take some blame? Seriously, its not like we are 100% guilty for mexicos problem....
On the side not, if the US was to get stricter with money being sent into Mexico, now that would make a difference..
Guns are sold practically everywhere, but the 40 billion dollar drug market is the US.. Cut the profits, and you put the cartels out of business.

Anonymous said...

@earniesworld:

Do you get your name from that cartoon character; Ernie?? Thats why your looney tuney, like that other character:
Ernest1.

Anonymous said...

The answer is not to blame either country, that fixes nothing..the answer is to stop government corruption on BOTH sides, and give people the right to organize and defend their family and home...it's a big responsibility but it can be done when people unite for a cause....

Anonymous said...

...BANG..BANG...BANG

Anonymous said...

What is it with you morons who say things like, it doesn't matter if it's 10 percent or 90 percent?!? Hey, don't you just want the freaking truth? Isn't that what it's about?

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