How American Weapons Find Their Way to International Criminal Organizations

Earlier this month, the Mexican government filed an unprecedented lawsuit against U.S. gun manufacturers. The claim: Manufacturers are negligent in their sales and bear responsibility for the flow of weapons across the U.S.-Mexican border. Those weapons, they say, arm the cartels and contribute to the skyrocketing number of violent deaths—17,000 last year alone. Not surprisingly, the manufacturers reject such claims. They say they strictly follow American law. They argue that the porous nature of the border and the corruption of officials on the Mexican side are the problem.

The manufacturers are right on both counts. But the flow of illicit weapons south of the U.S. border is not Mexico’s fault alone. Guns in America are sold, by and large, by the book. But organized crime elements have found ways to purchase large quantities of weapons on the U.S. market legally through illicit actors who take advantage of insufficient custom controls, corrupt border officials, and freight companies that dispatch entire armories to Central and South America for the benefit of criminal syndicates and violent gangs. This happens despite a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year banning straw purchases—guns bought on others’ behalf. 

Two years ago, a joint international police operation nicknamed Patagonia Express exposed and dismantled a fraudulent scheme to ship weapons to criminal organizations in Argentina and Brazil. During the operation, U.S., Argentinian. and Brazilian law enforcement arrested 25 people and seized thousands of weapons. Among the arrested: an elderly couple from South Florida, who bought weapons locally, disassembled them, and then sent their components to Argentina in mislabeled shipments through the U.S. Postal Service.

Patagonia Express uncovered not only a scheme but also a method. A similar case involved a small Paraguayan import company, Paco Internacional, currently being prosecuted in Paraguay. In March 2016, local authorities inspected a container, just arrived from Miami, that included merchandise labeled as electronics. Inspectors found weapon parts instead. It took five years to mount a case against the recipient of the weapons Paco was importing into Paraguay. Officials today believe the buyer was a local businessman suspected of being involved in organized crime. Paraguayan prosecution documents allege that he bought the weapons online from U.S. suppliers and had them shipped to a Florida address. The freight forwarder and its Florida-based counterpart did the rest.

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