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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  • One thing not mentioned in the article was the Fast and Furious debacle. I realize that is not the only source of the problem, but it certainly played a major role in cartel weapon acquisition in Mexico. If anything the US Gov still bears more blame than any US weapons manufacturer.

  • This might explain many of the small arms, but where are these cartels getting the grenade launchers, .50 caliber machine guns, light machine guns, and RPGs? Those aren't really items you can get reliably in an American gun store.

  • Anybody want to guess where the 600,000 now captured by the Taliban are going to end up? Not only can they sell heroin get a M16 or M4 along with your kilo.

  • If we want to curtail gun violence, it sure seems to me that anyone who buys a gun legally and then transfers it illegally should be locked up forever and throw away the key.

  • In order to dispel a commonly heard objection to online gun purchases, some context: While it is possible to purchase a gun from a website, that gun has to be shipped to the holder of a Federal Firearms License (FFL). The FFL holder is then responsible for the “transfer”, which usually includes a fee and always includes a background check for the buyer. In the end, online buyers are subject to the same controls and vetting process as someone who walks into a gun store to make their purchase.

    1. What about the secondary market? Do those purchases have to go through a FFL holder's hands if they are internet based?

      1. Depends on the firearm, state, and the buyer. Individuals not “in the business” of selling firearms can transfer long guns (rifles, shotguns) to another individual residing in their own state if they have no reason to believe that person is barred from possessing the firearm and if the transaction takes place in a non-Universal background check state. However, I don’t believe that’s the issue - those transactions are face-to-face and would require a lot of leg work, plus the legal ones would be very low volume - you could get a firearm here or there, almost always used, but getting numbers and quality sufficient for large-scale smuggling would require a different method.

        This almost certainly is related to people straw-buying firearms en masse at licensed gun dealers then illegally transferring them. Current law requires the ATF to be notified if a person buys more than one detachable magazine semi-automatic firearm in a five-business-day period at a dealer in some border states or more than one pistol in a five-business-day period anywhere - but with what’s going on now, it’s probably time to change the law to require all large purchases of detachable magazine semi-automatic firearms to be reported. I know there are people in the firearms community who would oppose it, but there are few instances where an individual would go out and buy multiple semi-automatic firearms at once (generally relating to an estate sale or auction of collectible firearms, and those are easy to spot and usually don’t involve semi-automatics). Even then, it’s not a huge burden for a normal gun owner to wait a week if they want another modern rifle and don’t want the ATF being notified, but it would stop or heavily limit straw buyers. That and looking for patterns of purchases in the data (in case someone tries to get something past the ATF) should be able to put a big dent in this type of thing. I also understand this has tended to happen at a small number of firearms dealers - the dealers I’m familiar with get to know you by name if you stop by at all often, would recognize a strange pattern of purchases and, from what I’ve seen, start asking questions or refuse a sale. For practical reasons (paperwork and the background check take a decent amount of time) smugglers would need to make large purchases and should be relatively easy to spot if a dealer isn’t simply turning a blind eye to strange purchases - and someone like that should lose their license and livelihood, and spend a nice stint behind bars.

      2. The internet is no different than a newspaper in that case. If the transaction is interstate, it is subject to what's written above but if intrastate it is based on the laws of the state where the transaction occurs.