Where Drug Cartels Really Get Their Arms

The "blame America first" strategy is no match for the truth.

The Mexican government and the media have consistently blamed the U.S. for the vicious drug war in Mexico that has resulted in over 35,000 deaths since late 2006. A diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks will disappoint them, as it shows that 90 percent of the heavy weapons used by the drug cartels come from Central America. The strength of the drug cartels is more attributable to the Mexican government’s inefficiencies than America’s gun laws or consumption of narcotics.

According to the published documents, U.S. diplomats in Mexico believe that these weapons, such as grenades and rocket launchers, are being stolen from the armed forces of Central American countries. They arrive in Mexico via the 577-mile Guatemalan border that only 125 Mexican immigration officials guard. Hezbollah and the Colombian FARC terrorist groups also deserve blame, as there are increasing indications that they are in bed with the drug cartels and are providing them with training, financing and possibly arms.

Other cables show that U.S. diplomats are frustrated with Mexico’s handling of the drug war. The army is said to be so risk-averse that it declines to act on intelligence provided by the U.S. One document dated November 9, 2009 written by U.S. Ambassador Carlos Pascual says, “Mexico’s use of strategic and tactical intelligence is often fractured, ad hoc, and heavily reliant on the United States for leads and operations.” The responsibility for the failure to tame the escalating drug war lies with Mexico, as no U.S. gun restriction can disarm the drug lords when the Mexican army is unwilling or unable to fight.

These documents are unlikely to stop the blaming of the U.S. for the war in Mexico. Secretary of State Clinton said on March 25, 2009, “Our insatiable demand for illegal drugs fuels the drug trade.” The media constantly cites the dubious claim 90 percent of the guns used by the drug lords come from the United States. This statistic comes from a report by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. It is based on the fact that, of the 29,000 guns seized in 2007 and 2008, 6,000 were sent to the U.S. for tracing. Of these, 90 percent were indeed found to have come from the U.S. But there is much more behind this fuzzy statistic.

As Matt Allen, Special Agent of Immigration Customs and Enforcement explained to FoxNews.com, “[N]ot 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.” Of the guns sent to the ATF for tracing, a large amount could not be traced and therefore are not accounted for in the statistic. Guns known to be from domestic sources, like the Mexican police or military, and guns from foreign countries are not submitted.

When all is said and done, only 17 percent of the guns seized by the Mexican authorities from the drug lords were actually traced back to the U.S. The incorrect assumption that 90 percent of the cartels’ guns come from the U.S., though, continues to be regularly cited by the media and officials. The highly-respected STRATFOR intelligence company agrees that the statistic is incorrect. The group likewise explained that only 3,480 guns were traced back to the U.S., which equals 12 percent of the total arms seized by the Mexican authorities in 2008 and less than 48 percent of those sent for tracing.

“According to the figures presented by the GAO [Government Accountability Office], 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,” STRATFOR concluded.

In addition, it simply doesn’t make sense for the Mexican drug cartels to make the U.S. their primary point of gun acquisition. As Howard Nemerov writes, “Why would cartels spend over $1,000 -- plus a background check and smuggling risks — for a decent American semi-automatic rifle, when they can buy 4-5 fully automatic AK-47s for the same price on the black market?”

Even if it were true that U.S. gun laws are responsible for the violence in Mexico, these arms have to cross the porous border to end up being used in the drug war. Securing the border is a much more sensible solution than severe gun control laws, which wouldn’t be able to stop already-purchased guns from going south. This obvious fact isn’t mentioned because the Mexican government and left-wing politicians would rather portray gun control, rather than border security, as the solution. Furthermore, even if the U.S. was no longer a source for guns, the drug cartels would still have other sources, heavy weapons would still flow through Guatemala, and the corrupt, inefficient and risk-averse Mexican police and military would still be unable to defeat the drug cartels.

If the past is any indication, the U.S. and its gun laws will still be blamed for the drug war in Mexico, but it is only a distraction. The violence in Mexico continues to spiral out of control, and until the real problems and solutions are addressed, the death toll will only climb.