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ICG Risk Blog - [ The reality of Mexican drug cartel weapons sourcing ]

The reality of Mexican drug cartel weapons sourcing



Earlier version posted to Frontera List on 20 August 2010


A robust myth


Each side of the US-Mexican border has its myths; one shared by both is the preponderance of weapons used by the drug cartels are US sourced and transited south to Mexico. Between deserting Mexican military selling their weapons, weapons harvested from armories further south in the Americas, and purchases made on international arms markets, the cartels can acquire whatever they desire from a price/performance level.


In other words, the cartels could easily rise above the squad subordinated weapons (assault weapons and light machine guns) currently in use to include antitank missiles and larger ordnance. Beyond the demands of ego and attempts to demonstrate superior area control, there are not enough viable targets to justify the added expense. Be certain that when the need or desire is there, so will be the weapons:

The Mexican army and police have seized 180,000 arms over the past three and a half years from organized-crime gangs, mainly drug cartels, including sophisticated, deadly weapons manufactured in South Africa...


A 40mm grenade launcher capable of firing up to six grenades in 30 seconds and a disposable projectile launcher are among the South African weapons seized recently from Mexican drug traffickers...


Other weapons being stored at the warehouse include AR-15 and AK-47 assault rifles, different types of grenades – including Israeli-made grenades – and .50-caliber Barrett rifles capable of penetrating armor and downing helicopters at a distance of two kilometers (1.2 miles)...


The Mexican states where the largest number of seizures of these types of weapons has occurred are (in order): Baja California, Michoacan, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Tamaulipas and the Federal District (Mexico City). Drug-trafficking gangs and other organized crime groups are known to operate in those jurisdictions...

Allan Wall of MEXIDATA brings data to the question:

So where do all the non-US weapons in Mexico come from?


They come from all over. They are brought by sea by the boatload. They are brought overland from Central America (where weaponry galore is left over from the civil wars there).


There are weapons in Mexico from South Korea (fragmentation grenades) and China (AK-47s).  There are rocket launchers that came from Israel, Spain and the former Soviet Union.


There are Russian Mafia groups in Mexico which are sources of weapons.  The Tijuana Cartel has an alliance with the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), which is another source of weapons.


A lot of weaponry comes up through Guatemala. A recent bust on that border, reported in the Guatemalan press in late March, confiscated grenades and AK-47s.


Many Mexican army deserters, of whom there have been a staggering 150,000 in the past six years, have brought their weapons with them (including M-16s).

For now the addition of VBIEDs to Mexico is a cheap and effective escalation. See Beyond Colombianization, Mexico is the Iraq, the Afghanistan, on our southern border.


Mexico would rather showcase the fraction of weapons imported from the US than confront its global illicit arms trade


The claim that "more than 90 percent of the guns recovered in Mexico come from the United States" is bogus, yet no less than a US president was let down by his fact checkers:

[Obama on 16 April 2009] A demand for these drugs in the United States is what is helping to keep these cartels in business. This war is being waged with guns purchased not here, but in the United States. More than 90 percent of the guns recovered in Mexico come from the United States, many from gun shops that line our shared border.

Obama would have been correct to say that 90 percent of the guns submitted for tracing by Mexican authorities were then traced to the U.S. The percentage of all recovered guns that came from the U.S. is unknown.

Another claim of 17% was equally bogus:

[The] Fox figure of 17 percent is based on a misreading of some confusing House subcommittee testimony by ATF official William Newell. The Fox reporters come up with a figure of 5,114 guns traced to U.S. sources in fiscal 2007 and 2008. That figures to 17.6 percent of the 29,000 figure for guns seized in Mexico, as given by the country’s attorney general.

The 5,114 figure is simply wrong. What Newell said quite clearly is that the number of guns submitted to ATF in those two years was 11,055: "3,312 in FY 2007 [and] 7,743 in FY 2008." Newell also testified, as other ATF officials have done, that 90 percent of the guns traced were determined to have come from the U.S...


Fox News reporters William La Jeunesse and Maxim Lott note, quite correctly, that Mexico doesn’t submit all the guns it recovers to the U.S. for tracing. Furthermore, Fox News reported, this is "because it is obvious from their markings that they do not come from the U.S." And it quoted a law enforcement official as to why:

Fox News, April 2: "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.

If that’s true, then the guns given to ATF for tracing constitute a badly biased sample of all crime guns seized in Mexico...

Given the bribery rife in Mexico, my assumption is that both criminal elements and corrupt politicians would prefer to mask the source, at best, of their weapons or, at least, distract the lay reader from ground truth.


Storing and destroying confiscated weapons


The War Materiel warehouse in Mexico City has a remarkable security protocol. Honestly manned, it has promise:

The vault nestled in a Mexican military base is the government's largest stash of weapons... The warehouse [in] northeastern Mexico City [is] surrounded by five rings of security. There are two military guards at the door and five more are in the lobby. Inside, another 10 soldiers sort, clean and catalog weapons. Some are dismantled and destroyed, a few assigned to the Mexican military... The security, bolstered by closed-circuit cameras and motion detectors, makes the warehouse practically impenetrable, said Gen. Antonio Erasto Monsivais, who oversees the armory...

But the process of getting, keeping and identifying weapons bound for, or in, storage is fraught with peril, and can lead to weapons, and their records, being lost and recycled back into criminal hands:

"Many of these rural municipalities that may come into a gun seizure ... may not even know anything about tracing guns,"... A police officer in Mexico submits a description, serial number and distinctive markings of the gun. The weapons are then turned over to the military for storage in one of a dozen armories such as the one in Mexico City.


When U.S. investigators need additional details, as they often do, the request goes back to the original police officer, who must retrieve the gun from a military vault — sometimes hundreds of miles away... Many mistakes are made because of difficulty translating technical terms about firearms...


Mexican police must ask permission each time they need to look at a stored gun... Even if that permission is granted, the investigator cannot go past the metal fencing separating a reception desk and the shelves holding the guns. A soldier has to bring out the requested weapons...

Given my interviews and research on cartel weapons sourcing, I find this statement difficult to believe:

But [General Monsivais] said that despite the type of weapons in the possession of the drug-trafficking gangs, their firepower still does not exceed that of the Mexican armed forces and police.

My opinion is that the only reason that this and similar warehouses are not thoroughly penetrated is that it is cheaper and easier for cartels to source new weapons, paid for with drugs, en masse from overseas.


Sophisticated South African Weapons Among Arms Seized from Mexican Gangs

By Edna Alcantara

Latin American Herald Tribune

August 20,2010


Mérida Initiative in Need of Performance Metrics

by Phil Leggiere

Homeland Security Today

Friday, 23 July 2010


Merida Initiative: The United States Has Provided Counternarcotics and Anticrime Support but Needs Better Performance Measures

GAO-10-837 July 21, 2010

Highlights Page (PDF)

Full Report (PDF)


GAO Report: U.S. Source For “Large Portion” of Mexican Crime Guns


June 19, 2009


FIREARMS TRAFFICKING: U.S. Efforts to Combat Arms Trafficking to Mexico Face Planning and Coordination Challenges

Report to Congressional Requesters



June 2009


Mexico's weapons cache hard to trace

Military has more than 300,000 confiscated weapons locked in vaults


updated 5/6/2009 8:32:46 PM ET


Counting Mexico’s Guns

President Obama says 90 percent of Mexico's recovered crime guns come from the U.S. That's not what the statistics show.


April 17, 2009

Corrected: April 22, 2009


Mexico is Awash with Weapons – Is the USA to Blame?

By Allan Wall


Monday, April 13, 2009


Gordon Housworth

InfoT Public  Infrastructure Defense Public  Risk Containment and Pricing Public  Strategic Risk Public  Weapons & Technology Public  


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