Thursday, June 25, 2009 | 2 a.m.
BY THE NUMBERS
87 percent — Share of firearms seized by Mexican authorities and traced in the past five years that came from the United States.
2 percent — Share of the guns from the United States that originated in Nevada. The majority of firearms come from the border states of Texas, California and Arizona.
Fourteen guns were seized after a deadly drug raid on a house in Tijuana, Mexico, in October. Five of those guns reportedly had been purchased in Las Vegas.
Those five guns — four assault rifles and one sniper rifle — represent a small drop in the steady stream of firearms that flows from the U.S. into Mexico, where they support drug trafficking operations, according to a report released by the Government Accountability Office last week. That report noted that 87 percent of firearms seized by Mexican authorities and traced in the past five years had originated in the United States, and that roughly one-quarter of those American guns confiscated in Mexico are high-power, high-caliber firearms. While the vast majority of these traced guns track back to border states Texas, California and Arizona, the report indicates that about 2 percent came from Nevada.
That’s 2 percent that we know of. Depending on how you read the report, there could be far more firearms streaming from Nevada and the greater U.S. into Mexico.
Or the suggestion behind the GAO report — that the vast majority of guns smuggled into Mexico are coming directly from America — could be totally overblown and alarmist.
Critics of the report were quick to caution that the study’s findings are based on a small percentage of seized guns — those that were actually traced. Even the report acknowledges this flaw, noting that while almost 30,000 firearms were seized by the Mexican attorney general in 2008, only about 7,200 were submitted for ATF tracing. The remaining three-quarters were not traced because of bureaucratic obstacles between countries, the report states.
The statistic — 87 percent of firearms confiscated and traced in Mexico since 2005 lead back to the U.S. — has a different meaning when you consider that so few of the known total are being traced. That figure is even more complicated when you consider the vast number of guns that are surely not being traced, as the very nature of illicit trafficking, no matter what’s being trafficked, is that it’s underground. For all we know, most of Mexico’s guns are coming from the small island nation of Nauru.
Although federal officials stand by the report’s statistics, Second Amendment enthusiasts worry that the data will be used to restrict gun ownership in the U.S. The report does find fault with current regulations governing the sale of “used” guns from one private party to another, which can be done without licenses or background checks. Law enforcement officials say these private sales give straw buyers a way to covertly acquire lots of weapons for criminal purposes and should therefore be more closely regulated and scrutinized — an idea that will surely outrage those who feel liberal “gun grabbers” are after their armories.
Las Vegas straw buyers may have been behind the Tijuana case, which was opened after four suspects and a Mexican soldier were killed during a narcotics raid in October.
The assessment of American gun laws is a small part of the GAO report, which is much more critical of government cooperation, or lack thereof, when it comes to stopping gun trafficking. The U.S. is not working effectively with Mexico or with itself; ATF agents and Immigration and Customs agents “do not consistently coordinate their efforts effectively,” and the U.S. lacks a strategy to combat arms trafficking, the report states. These problems are complicated by corruption in Mexico and the country’s feeble attempts at screening thousands of people and cars that travel south of the border every day.
The five guns recovered in Tijuana and traced to Las Vegas by ATF agents are now the subject of a federal court case against a handful of men who were supposedly paid to buy firearms or transfer them between Clark County and California. How they landed in Tijuana is the subject of an ongoing investigation and not detailed in the criminal complaint.
If the past is any indication, the five guns were smuggled into Mexico in the typical fashion, hidden in cars or trucks or somehow secreted by people who know enough to move only small numbers of firearms at a time, an army working under the radar of authorities.
In Mexico, officials have a name for this process: “contrabando hormiga” — ant contraband: Small, steady, everywhere and almost invisible.