SAN ANTONIO — In 2008, a year during which more than 7,000 Mexicans were killed in drug violence, a record number of weapons confiscated in Mexico were traced to U.S. retailers, according to the latest available government data obtained by GlobalPost.
The number of traced firearms that originated in the U.S. — 12,073 — is by far the most ever recorded in one year since the U.S. Bureau of Tobacco, Alcohol, Firearms and Explosives began tracing Mexico's seized guns in 2005.
The 2008 figure is more than the last three years combined, and it brings the total number of guns confiscated in Mexico and traced to American sources to 22,848.
The tracing numbers, which the ATF plans to officially release in a report next month, are significant in that they provide the only statistical indication of the extent to which American guns might be arming Mexico's cartels.
The ATF uses the results of traced weapons, which reveal an original seller, as starting points for investigations into “straw buyers,” who legally qualify to purchase firearms but then turn them over to smugglers who don’t.
ATF officials say the banner number of weapons last year reflects an improvement in U.S.-Mexico cooperation, a new political emphasis in Mexico to conduct more traces so that American agents can arrest more smugglers, and more firearm seizures from drug traffickers. Texas was the state with the largest percentage of guns smuggled to Mexico, at 41 percent, followed by California and Arizona.
“We basically educated everyone on the importance of tracing and how we can use this as a system to get leads and stop these traffickers,” said J. Dewey Webb, special agent in charge of the Houston ATF division, which covers a long swath of the Texas border. “Also, there could be more guns on the market down there right now (than) in the previous year. There was a big push and increase in fighting among the drug trafficking organizations, and they’re going to have a higher demand for weapons.”
In recent weeks, ATF tracing statistics have become increasingly politicized within the U.S. as gun control advocates cite them as grounds for new legislation. Second Amendment rights activists have challenged whether the traces prove American guns make up a large enough percentage of the total number of guns confiscated in Mexico to warrant gun control laws.
Fueling the domestic debate is the fact that no one can really say how many guns in total Mexico has seized, making it impossible to place the number of U.S.-traced weapons in the larger context of Mexican weapons seizures. Mexican authorities have provided widely varying numbers of total guns confiscated.
In the absence of one credible total seizure number, a largely speculative fight is underway over the origins of those weapons that aren't traced back to their origin.
Top Mexican and U.S. politicians assert that the high percentage of the traced guns that lead to U.S. sources — 90 percent of all those submitted for traces — indicate that a sizeable majority of those guns that aren't traced also comes from U.S. retailers, with a small smattering of foreign military weapons in the mix.
But gun rights advocates argue the number of guns that actually gets traced is but a small fraction of the total number of guns confiscated in Mexico. As a result, they argue that many of the untraced weapons must come from somewhere other than the U.S.
"They're getting their firearms and weapons from another place, but it certainly is not the U.S.," said National Rifle Association spokeswoman Vickie Cieplak. “The anti-gun community is trying to mislead people and encourage lawmakers to approve an assault weapons ban."
One of the reasons that so little is known about the untraced guns is that the Mexican military — which demands custody over all captured illegal weapons — has, for reasons of sovereignty, largely refused the ATF access to gun vaults.
Agency officials with knowledge of the issue say Mexican military officers have not received sufficent training to know how to identify the correct four or five markings required for a successful trace — or they simply don't feel like doing the work.
Also, these ATF officials say, Mexican military officials are believed to be pilfering some of the seized caches, either to sell back into the black market for illicit profit or to keep for themselves.
The consequence, they say, is that many more guns are sitting in Mexican vaults that, if traced, would lead to U.S. sources.
ATF officials including J. Dewey Webb concede the 90 percent figure only represents weapons that were traced, which are a small fraction of the total seized. But based on his 33 years of experience, ATF agent visits to Mexican gun vaults and other information, Webb believes that a majority of the untraced guns are indeed from the U.S.
To illustrate his point, Webb recounted a recent anecdote: He recently attended a firearms trafficking conference in Mexico alongside Homeland Security Department Secretary Janet Napolitano. Mexican military authorities were displaying some 30 seized cartel guns, from which Webb quietly had U.S. law enforcement officials collect serial numbers for tracing. It turned out that none of the weapons had been submitted for tracing, and that all led to U.S. sources.
He said he is certain similar experiments would yield the same outcome all over Mexico, if the ATF had access.
"You're not going to have containers of guns coming from a lot of other countries," Webb said. "Right now, the U.S. is the easiest place and cheapest place for them to buy their guns, and because that's the case, we're their number one source."
More on Mexico's drug wars:
Investigation: US retailers fuel Mexico's drug wars
Analysis: Mexico a failing state?
The cross-border bullet trade
A tale of two Laredos