Drug trafficking in South America and Mexico

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For decades South American and Mexican drug trafficking organizations (DTO's) or cartels have been supplying the United States' high demand for illegal narcotics. These cartels are the main suppliers of marijuana and cocaine to the United States, but also have a hand in the heroin trade. "According to the Department of Justices' 2010 national drug threat assessment, Mexican cartels pose the single greatest drug trafficking threat to the United States and are active in every region of the United States" (U.S. Department of, 2010).

Over recent years violence has increased exponentially due to the shifts in leadership and the rise of new organizations. It is almost daily that we hear about casualties. Law enforcement and civilians alike suffer due to the warring between these drug cartels themselves and between the drug cartels and law enforcement. "From December 2006 to July 2010, the Mexican government reported almost 30,000 deaths in Mexico resulting from organized crime and drug trafficking, with 9,635 murders alone" (U.S. Department of, 2010). Much of the violence is credited to the large number of illegal firearms acquired by these cartels. These firearms range from smaller 9mm pistols to AK-47 assault rifles. The majority of these weapons, confiscated by either Mexican or United States law enforcement agencies, were purchased in the United States and smuggled into Mexico. The reason for the purchasing of the firearms in the United States is because Mexico strictly restricts firearm ownership and purchase as opposed to United States laws which are much more lenient. "In 2009, ATF reported that about 90 percent of the guns recovered in Mexico that ATF has traced, were initially sold in the United States" (U.S. Department of, 2009). The Mexican drug cartels take advantage of Unites States laws and purchase weapons or have another individual, termed a "straw buyer", purchase the weapon for them. Southwest border states such as Texas, California, Arizona and New Mexico are the primary source for firearms being purchased and smuggled into Mexico. Violence due to the

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drug war in Mexico has reached a new high resulting in both the Mexican and United States

government taking action to stop the violence and bloodshed on both sides of the border. Here in the United States, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, ATF for short, is the primary law enforcement agency faced with the difficult task of addressing this problem. ATF has conceived and initiated a strategic project with the intent of slowing down the trafficking of firearms across the border into Mexico that are being used in the drug war. Project Gunrunner was put into affect in 2005. The ATF will work collaboratively with Mexican law enforcement towards a common goal. This program should greatly reduce the illegal trafficking of firearms into Mexico which in turn should greatly reduce the violence and loss of human life.

Gun Control Laws and Regulations for Purchases and Possession

Every country throughout the world has laws pertaining to gun control and these laws hold penalties if broken. Some countries severely limit the ownership of firearms and reserve extremely harsh penalties for individuals who break these laws. On the other hand there are countries in which the purchase and regulation of firearms are more l

United States Gun Control Laws

To better understand the reasons that DTO's smuggle firearms from the U.S. to

Mexico, both nations firearms laws must be analyzed. The United States is both harsh and lenient on laws pertaining to gun purchase and regulation depending upon your perspective and state in which you live. The United States is unique because there are federal laws as well as state and local laws regarding firearms.

Federal Law Background and History

In 1934, Congress implemented a gun control act which regulated the sale of fully automatic weapons. In 1938, an additional act was passed requiring gun dealers to be licensed and prohibiting violent felons from purchasing weapons. Through the Gun Control Act of 1968,

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Congress regulated imported guns and prohibited anybody convicted of a non-business related felony, minors, the mentally ill or drug users from purchasing a firearm. Congress also passed

legislation requiring mandatory penalties for the use of a gun in the commission of a federal crime. In 1990, manufacturing and importation of semi-auto assault rifles was banned. In 1994, the "Brady Bill" was implemented requiring a five day waiting period and a background check conducted by local authorities for a gun purchase. Presently, the mandatory waiting period has been eliminated ("Gun control policy," 2009).

State and Local Gun Laws

There are additional state and local laws pertaining to gun control. There are several issues which are addressed by the majority of state and local laws. Issues such as child access, concealed weapons, sales to minors, preemption and mandatory waiting periods to name a few. Other issues are the bans on assault weapons and "junk guns".

One major issue that weapons traffickers take advantage of and that some states

do not regulate, is the accumulation of firearms by an individual over a certain period of

time. Some states such as New Jersey, Hawaii, Connecticut and Maryland have a one gun a month law which is aimed at preventing the accumulation of firearms. Members of DTO's involved in weapons trafficking will take advantage of states in which this law is not present and pay other eligible individuals to buy large quantities of legal weapons to be smuggled across the border.

The most important issue concerning gun control is the regulation of all secondary market sales. Over twenty states have laws in place addressing this issue in which a gun registration or license is needed. In states that do not have this law, anybody can purchase a secondary market weapon including minors, felons and criminals. Weapons traffickers take advantage of the lack of this law and purchase whatever they can get their hands on without a

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problem. This problem is known as the "gun show" loophole.

Mexican Gun Laws

Mexican gun laws are much more restrictive then most countries and the penalties are

extremely harsh if these laws are broken. If an individual is caught with an illegal firearm, knife or even a single bullet, that person can find themselves in a Mexican jail for up to twelve years.

The Constitution of Mexico does allow its citizens the right to bear arms but there are strict limitations. Article Ten of the Mexican Constitution basically states that a Mexican citizen can possess a weapon for defense, except for a weapon that is reserved for the armed forces. This article also states that a citizen cannot carry a weapon within an inhibited place without adhering to police regulations. Federal law determines the specifics for a citizen to bear arms ("Mexico's gun laws," 2010).

When looking at the Constitution of Mexico, one wonders why Mexican citizens involved in the drug trade would smuggle weapons from the U.S. into Mexico when they can legally purchase a firearm in their home country. The reason this is done is because there is a single gun store in the entire country of Mexico which is located on a military base. A citizen must apply to be eligible to purchase a gun which generally takes about a month. After approval is granted, a citizen can only legally possess a maximum of two handguns. When involved in a drug war, a Mexican citizen cannot and will not go through such a process to obtain a weapon, thus turning to the United Stated to obtain such weapons. United States law enforcement is aware of this growing threat and took action making the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives the main agency responsible for addressing this ongoing problem.

Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) Brief History

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) has roots in early American history. ATF's history and evolution can be traced back to 1789 and is intertwined

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with the history of the Department of the Treasury, as well as the Department of Justice. Put into affect January 24, 2003, ATF was transferred to the jurisdiction of the Department of Justice as a result of the Homeland Security bill. The law enforcement functions of ATF were transferred from the Department of the Treasury to the Department of Justice. However, ATF's tax and trade

functions still remain under the Department of the Treasury ("Atf's history,")

ATF Mission Statement

ATF is a "unique law enforcement agency within the United States Department of

Justice that protects our communities from violent criminals, criminal organizations,

the illegal use and trafficking of firearms, the illegal use and storage of explosives, acts of arson and bombings, acts of terrorism and the illegal diversion of alcohol and tobacco products. They partner with communities, industries, law enforcement and public safety agencies to safeguard the public they serve through information sharing, training, research and the use of technology" ("Aft -bureau of,").

ATF Position Descriptions

There are several positions within the ATF organization and each position plays a specific role in the ATF's war against firearms trafficking. The following is a brief description of the positions within the ATF organization.

A Special Agent is a federal law enforcement officer in charge of investigating criminal violations that fall under ATF's jurisdiction. These agents contribute to Project Gunrunner by investigating and arresting individuals involved in illegal firearms trafficking (U.S. Department of, 2010).

An Industry Operations Investigator is responsible for conducting inspections of new gun dealers and federal explosive licensees. He or she is in charge of training gun dealers about relevant gun laws as well as detecting and preventing firearms trafficking. An industry

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Operations Investigator plays a vital role in Project Gunrunner by education

gun dealers about avoiding selling merchandise to possible straw purchasers and firearms

traffickers. They also make referrals to special agents about possible firearms trafficking activity and provide analyses of gun dealers' records. (U.S. Department of, 2010).

An Intelligence Research Specialist is responsible for providing intelligence and

information about ongoing or emerging investigations as well as intelligence analyses in support of ATF operations. An Intelligence Research Specialist is also in charge of coordinating functions within ATF as well as outside organizations (U.S. Department of, 2010).

An Investigative Analyst is responsible for providing research and investigative support. He or she is required to compile information about criminal leads as well as performing many of the administrative functions (U.S. Department of, 2010).

An Area Supervisor manages ten Industry Operations Investigators. He or she

is responsible for hiring, training and managing. An Area Supervisor instructs Industry Operations Investigators to inspect explosives and gun dealers. Sometimes an area Supervisor is required to receive referrals for criminal investigators and pass them on to intelligence groups (U.S. Department of, 2010).

A Group Supervisor is in charge of ten Special Agents. He or she directs and supervises criminal investigations and assigns work to the Special Agents. (U.S. Department of, 2010).

The Director of Industry Operations is the head of the Industry Operations Investigators and Area Supervisors in a field division. The Director chooses where staff will be deployed within the field division and determines which gun dealers will be

inspected (U.S. Department of, 2009).

Project Gunrunner

Project Gunrunner is ATF's national initiative to reduce firearms trafficking to Mexico

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with the intention of reducing the violence that is associated with these weapons. According to the Department of Justice, there are five main objectives that have been established for Project Gunrunner. The first objective is to investigate individuals responsible for illicit firearms trafficking along the southwest border. The second objective is to coordinate with United States and Mexican law enforcement along the border in firearms cases and violent crime. The third

objective is to train Mexican and United States law enforcement officials to identify firearms

traffickers. The fourth objective is to provide outreach education to gun dealers. The fifth and final objective is to trace all firearms to identify firearms traffickers, trends, patterns, and networks (U.S. department, 2010). Project Gunrunner relies on interagency collaboration between U.S. law enforcement agencies and Mexican authorities alike. Participating United States agencies include the DEA, USAO, the Department of State, DHS, ICE and CBP. Participating Mexican agencies include the Attorney General of the Republic, the National Center for information, analysis, and planning in order to fight crime, the Secretariat of Public Security and the Secretary of National Defense/ Mexican Military.

A Brief history of Project Gunrunner

Project Gunrunner was established in 2005 as a pilot project in Laredo, Texas. The project was fully implemented nationally in 2006. In 2007 ATF published the Southwest Border Initiative, a document outlining it's strategic plan for the future of Project Gunrunner focusing on four main components.

The Expansion of Etrace - ATF planned to deploy it's weapons tracing software Etrace in Mexico.

International Component - ATF planned to coordinate with Mexican law enforcement and government officials. ATF will provide resources such as technology, equipment, and information to their Mexican allies as well as training to Mexican federal law enforcement. Golden 9

Domestic Component - ATF will make firearms trafficking associated with crime guns seized along the border a national priority. ATF will use criminal investigations and regular inspections to target the trafficking of illegal weapons into Mexico.

Intelligence Component - ATF stated that Project Gunrunner intelligence must be real time to be effective. ATF also stated that intelligence must flow into ATF and between ATF and its Mexican and domestic partners.

Financial Background of Project Gunrunner

In 2009, ATF received a total of $21.9 million dollars from several different

sources to fund, support and expand Project Gunrunner. This sum included $5.9 million in ATF's appropriation for Project Gunrunner. In March 2009 ATF received $10 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 and another $6 million in June. ATF was also granted an additional sum of $37.5 million for the continued expansion of Project Gunrunner. (U.S. Department of, 2010).

The Cornerstone of Project Gunrunner ETrace

The main component of Project Gunrunner and ATF's most effective weapon against the trafficking of firearms is ETrace. ETrace is a software program created by ATF which provides web access to ATF's firearms tracing system. This program allows law enforcement in the United States, as well as other countries which are provided with Etrace software, to trace firearms connected with criminal activities as far back as the original purchaser of the weapon.

How it Works

ATF's Etrace requires the firearms make, model and serial number to perform a trace of the weapon. Any agency registered to use the Etrace software can search the database for weapons several ways. A few of which are the type of crime, individuals name and date of recovery. Any weapon that has been traced and is part of ATF's database is referred to as a crime

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gun. The information about the crime gun also provides a description of the original purchaser of the weapon.


The benefits of this technology are enormous. ATF or any agency involved with

the Etrace software can trace the pattern of a crime gun to the original location of the purchase and analyze this data to form patterns and determine new emerging patterns or trafficking routes. Etrace also allows these law enforcement organizations to gain access to other vital information

such as the type of firearms traced, the amount of traces and the time lapsed between crime. With access to this information, ATF and other law enforcement agencies can take the necessary action to stop weapons from being smuggled into Mexico and intercept weapons that are en route to their destination.


Etrace, although very advanced, is not without it's faults, both internally and externally. Etrace can only trace guns that are either imported into the United States or manufactured domestically. Any weapons imported before 1968 are untraceable. In addition to this limitation, Etrace can only trace a gun to the first purchaser and cannot determine the final or intermediate owners of a gun. The final limitation of the software does not lie within the software, but rather in the ability of ATF to demonstrate and explain the importance of gun tracing to Mexican authorities. With the lack of cooperation and participation of the Mexican authorities, Etrace cannot be utilized to it's full potential.

Current History and Direction of Etrace

Etrace was deployed to the nine United States consulates in Mexico in 2008. In 2009, a Spanish version of Etrace was deployed to Mexico, Costa Rica and Guatemala

making the software much easier to use by Spanish speaking law enforcement officials. ATF has

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plans to deploy Etrace software to all 31 states in the Republic of Mexico in the

near future. There are currently over thirty five foreign countries registered with Etrace software and thousands of police and law enforcement agencies nationally. ATF has

reported that over 2,000 agencies around the world and over 10,000 individuals have access to first purchaser American gun ownership and personal information. ATF continues to provide training to Mexican and Central American countries to ensure that Etrace technology is being utilized to its full extent.

Looking Forward, The Future of Project Gunrunner

ATF reported that in September 2010, plans had been put into place to initiate Gunrunner resources, personnel, equipment and offices dedicated to firearms trafficking investigations in several new locations in the southwest border region. Recently offices were established in strategic locations in McAllen, Texas; El Centro, California; and Las Cruces, New Mexico. There was also a plan to put a satellite office in Roswell, New Mexico. Each of these locations is staffed with a Gunrunner team which is be comprised of Special Agents, Industry Operations Investigators, Intelligence Research Specialists and Investigative Analysts. There is also a plan to station four ATF agents in Ciudad Juarez, which has recently become a war zone between drug cartels and law enforcement and Tijuana Mexico which is also a hot spot for firearms trafficking. ATF is also developing plans to add new Gunrunner teams in Phoenix and Houston, each team will be staffed with twenty eight positions. ATF received $37.5 million dollars as a result of the 2010 emergency supplemental appropriation for border security. With this additional funding ATF plans to place firearms trafficking groups along already established trafficking routes as well as newly discovered routes in Atlanta, Brownsville, Dallas, and Las Vegas. Aside from the expansion of its resource's, ATF will work collaboratively with the DEA, CBP and ICE and

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other U. S. and Mexican agencies to achieve a common goal (U.S. Department

of, 2010).

Evaluation Methods to Assess Project Gunrunner

To measure the effectiveness of Project Gunrunner the ATF has taken three separate variables and measured these three years prior to the implementation of Project Gunrunner and then re-assed these variables three years into the project. The first variable was the number of traces of seized firearms from Mexico and the southwest border. The second variable used was the number of cases initiated by the project, cases referred to prosecution to the U.S. Attorneys office and defendants referred for prosecution for firearms trafficking related offenses. The third

variable that was used was Gun dealer compliance inspections conducted on the southwest border, inspection hours worked by southwest border field division inspectors finding referrals made to ATF's criminal enforcement personnel for subsequent action (U.S. Department of, 2010). Another measure used to evaluate the project is an a detailed report written by the Inspector General of the U.S Department of Justice which addresses every aspect of the project and makes recommendations for future courses of action.

Affects of Project Gunrunner

According to the report from the inspector general Trace requests rose from 1% prior to Gunrunner up to 8% after it's implementation. ATF has increased the number of cases initiated by Project Gunrunner up to 109%, and the number of cases referred to the U.S. Attorney rose to 54%. The number of defendants referred by the ATF for prosecution increased by 37%. Gun dealer compliance inspections along the southwest border rose to 133% and the number of compliance inspection hours worked increased by 102%. The number of referrals for ATF criminal enforcement increased by 47% (U.S. Department of, 2010). Since the implementation of the Project there has no doubt been an affect on firearms trafficking along the southwest border.

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Obstacles facing Project Gunrunner

Project Gunrunner works well in theory but when it comes to actuality there are several obstacles which halt the progress of Project. One of the major problems Gunrunner is facing is the lack of information sharing and cooperation between agencies both U.S. and Mexican alike. Another is the lack of success in proving Etrace's usefulness to Mexican authorities and training Mexican authorities to properly use the system. The ATF has also had trouble in prosecuting defendants arrested for firearms possession . There is a shortage of ATF agents to work alongside their Mexican counterparts and Mexican law enforcement organizations are having trouble recruiting qualified personnel. Another obstacle is the number of cases in which a larger number of defendants are being charged for firearms infractions. These are just a few of the

setbacks Project Gunrunner is facing. Once these issues are addressed and overcome the project should only become more successful.


Violence resulting from the drug war in Mexico is overwhelming on both sides of the border. This violence has increased exponentially due to the large quantities of firearms in the possession of the Mexican drug cartels. Such weapons are being purchased in the United States and illegally smuggled over the Mexican border and into

the hands of ruthless Mexican cartel members.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives initiated Project

Gunrunner to combat the firearms trafficking. With the introduction of the ETrace technology, ATF can work collaboratively with Mexican law enforcement officials to determine the emerging patterns and frequent routes used by the firearms traffickers. This vital information allows law enforcement personnel to take the proper action to intercept these "gunrunners". Since the launch of the program in 2005, ATF has expanded its offices and resources to major

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firearms trafficking hot spots throughout the south western border of the United States and even some strategic locations in Mexico.

With the increasing resources and advancements in technology ATF has been able to seize a significant amount of illegal firearms that would have ended up in criminal hands, and brought the perpetrators to justice. With the many advancements and strides ATF has made, Project Gunrunner will only become more effective. Over the next ten years, but hopefully sooner, we will see increased seizures of illegal weapons by ATF agents participating in Project Gunrunner. With these weapons no longer available to the Mexican drug cartels, hopefully the violence will decrease and eventually end.