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America's Wild-West Gun Laws Are Helping Fuel the Border Crisis

The unwanted traffic between the U.S. and Central America goes both ways

Javier Arcenillas / LUZphoto/Redux

One day in 2008, two people walked into American Range & Gun shop in a warehouse in Pembroke Park, Florida, between Miami and Fort Lauderdale. One of them had been there before and had told the dealer, Victor Needleman, that he was worried about passing the background check to buy a gun because he’d been in trouble with the law. No problem, said Needleman, according to court records: just have the purchase done in another person’s name. Soon afterward, the man returned with a partner and picked out 14 semi-automatic pistols. The man provided the $2,120 deposit, but his partner filled out the paperwork. When they returned to pick up the 14 guns, they put 20 more Glock pistols on hold.

The man with the money, a confidential informant cooperating with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, made clear to Needleman what he intended to do with the guns: He was going to bring them to Guatemala. Authorities discovered in their investigation that, in fact, guns had already made their way from American Range & Gun to Guatemala, and that several of them had been used in a shootout between gangs in Guatemala in which several people had been killed. Needleman pled guilty to knowingly selling guns to felons via straw buyers and falsified paperwork and was sentenced to nearly six years in prison.

Chuck Liddy/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT via Getty Images
Sales representative Jason Brown, right, shows Steve Levy, of Rolesville, North Carolina, an AR-15 assault rifle at Perry's Gun Shop in Wendell, N.C., in December 2012.

This case is representative of a broader problem that’s contributing to the current migrant crisis in South Texas: The surge of migrants coming to the U.S. from Central America is being fueled in part by the movement of guns heading in the other direction, from U.S. dealerships doing brisk business with the help of porous guns laws and a powerful gun lobby.

The role of gun trafficking has been oddly absent in the debate over the gang violence in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala that, coupled with economic despair, is driving the migrant wave from those three nations, the so-called Northern Triangle. It’s not as if we’re unwilling to consider any U.S. responsibility for the surge—there’s plenty of talk about the fact that several of the gangs terrorizing the Northern Triangle got their start in Los Angeles, and about the role that U.S. drug policy has played in fueling violence south of the border.

Getting less attention, though, has been the U.S. link to the actual weaponry being used in the killings and other crimes that make the three Central American nations among the most dangerous in the world. (Honduras has by far the highest homicide rate in the world; El Salvador and Guatemala are fourth and fifth.) According to data collected by the ATF, nearly half of the guns seized from criminals in El Salvador and submitted for tracing in the ATF’s online system last year originated in the U.S., versus 38 and 24 percent in Honduras and Guatemala, respectively. Many of those guns were imported through legal channels, either to government or law enforcement agencies in the three countries or to firearms dealers there. But a not-insignificant number of the U.S.-sourced guns—more than 20 percent in both Guatemala and Honduras—were traced to retail sales in the U.S. That is, they were sold by U.S. gun dealers and then transported south, typically hidden in vehicles headed across Mexico, though sometimes also stowed in checked airline luggage, air cargo, or even boat shipments. (Similar ratios were found in traces the ATF conducted in 2009 of 6,000 seized guns stored in a Guatemalan military bunker—40 percent of the guns came from the United States, and slightly less than half of those were found to have been legally imported, leaving hundreds that were apparently trafficked.) “It is a problem,” says Jose Miguel Cruz, an expert in Central American gang violence at Florida International University. “The problem is we don’t have any idea how many [of the trafficked guns] there are. It’s a big, dark area.”

REUTERS/Ulises Rodriguez
A gang member and inmate poses for a photograph inside the jail in Quetzaltepeque, El Salvador, May 2, 2012.

The gun trafficking from the U.S. to the three Central American nations is not nearly on the scale that it is from the U.S. to Mexico, which stands to reason. Not only is Mexico closer to the U.S., but it has vastly stricter gun laws than its neighbors to the south, with virtually no legal firearms market to speak of. In the Northern Triangle, by contrast, it is possible to buy guns through legal channels—Guatemala is the most permissive of the three, with countless private dealerships selling guns that are licensed and registered by a division of the military, whereas Honduras is the least permissive, with guns sold legally only through 25 military-run stores. (When gun-control proponents in the Northern Triangle have made attempts in recent years to strengthen local laws, there have, notes Cruz, been reports in the Central American press of the National Rifle Association lending assistance to the resistance, as it did to help defeat a gun-ban referendum in Brazil in 2005. The NRA did not respond to a request for comment.) There is also no shortage of black-market sales of guns by military and law enforcement in the three nations, just another manifestation of the official corruption that plagues the region and that the U.S. has too often turned a blind eye to while providing funding and equipment to law enforcement in the countries.

Still, despite the availability of guns from local sources, there is ample demand for guns sold in the U.S. from Central American gang members who don’t want to contend with the legal barriers and risks of buying through local channels or who can only find the kind of guns they prefer at U.S. dealers. “The market demand is there. There’s only so much that [local] retail can provide,” said Samuel Logan of Southern Pulse, a risk-management consultancy in Latin America. The stream of gun trafficking from the U.S. to Central America has become strong enough that the ATF expanded to Central America its eTrace system and installed a “regional firearms advisor,” plus a deputy attaché, at the U.S. embassy in San Salvador. The current advisor, Harry Penate, has won praise for getting Northern Triangle law enforcement agencies to make more use of the gun-tracing system, albeit at levels below their Mexican counterparts.

But back in the U.S., the ATF has been hamstrung in stopping up the flow of guns to Central America by the same force that limits its investigation of domestic trafficking: the American gun lobby. Simply tracing a crime gun in the U.S. is a chore. Since licensed firearms dealers are not required to report sales to the authorities and gun buyers are not required to register guns upon purchase, the ATF must go the roundabout route of tracing a gun’s serial number to its manufacturer, then to the distributor, and then to the shop, where it can ask a dealer for information on the gun’s buyer. The exception to this has been the longstanding requirement that licensed firearms dealers report to the ATF multiple handgun sales—the sale of two or more handguns to the same person within five days. This rule has given authorities a leg up against domestic criminals, who use handguns for the vast majority of gun-related crimes. But it had an unintended side effect south of the border: Once traffickers realized their bulk handgun purchases were being reported to the ATF, it gave them more reason to switch to making bulk purchases of rifles, which dealers did not need to report.

This led to the spectacle of U.S. gun shops close to the Mexican border turning into bazaars for high-powered, military-style rifles being bought in huge quantities for use in Mexico’s bloody drug-war turf battles. (One four-store chain in the Houston area sold more than 115 guns that were later seized by the police and military in Mexico between 2008 and 2010.) To stanch the flow, the Department of Justice in 2011 issued a new regulation expanding the multiple-sales reporting requirement for handguns to certain semi-automatic rifles as well, but only in the four states along the Mexican border: California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas.

ATF officials say this border-state rule, which has been unsuccessfully challenged in court by the NRA and the National Shooting Sports Foundation, has been enormously helpful in tipping off its investigators to possible trafficking much earlier in the process than they used to be. “It’s that immediate first look—it really gives you the indicators, whereas before, unless you had good human intelligence, you hadn’t found out about multiple purchases” until it was too late, said Kevin O’Keefe, director of the ATF’s criminal intelligence division, in an interview last week.

The problem, of course, is that the rule applies only to the four border states, and it doesn’t take a genius trafficker to simply shift his purchases to Utah or Oklahoma or Florida instead. “Within six months, the big purchases died off—the guys buying 10 or 20 at a time found out what was happening and stayed away,” said O’Keefe. Are buyers just going one state over? “There is concern about that. Unless it’s on a case by case basis, we have no way to know if that’s happening.” Gun control groups are urging the expansion of the border-state rule to the rest of the country, but with the gun lobby already gearing up in Washington to fight even just the renewal of the border-state rule, the ATF is not inclined to seek expansion.

Meanwhile, there are plenty other obstacles to trafficking investigations. The ATF is so understaffed that it has to be very selective in which dealerships it inspects and which trafficking investigations it launches. There are the so-called Tiahrt Amendments passed last decade at the urging of the gun lobby to restrict the use of firearm trace data, which have limited the ability of the ATF and other law enforcement to share information on trafficking and the small number of dealerships that are the source of a disproportionate share of trafficked guns. While the amendments have been loosened slightly in recent years to allow law enforcement agencies to share the information with each other, they are still prohibited against sharing information with researchers, potential litigants, and other members of the public, thus limiting accountability for bad-apple dealers.

REUTERS/Ulises Rodriguez
A soldier holds a sticker while standing amidst bundled up weapons to be destroyed at the Brigada Especial de Seguridad Militar (Special Brigade for Military Security) on the outskirts of San Salvador on September 26, 2012.

The ATF is also hamstrung by the lack of any actual federal gun-trafficking statute—prosecutors end up bringing cases for relatively low-sentence charges for, say, falsifying paperwork, which gives low-level traffickers less incentive to flip on the ringleaders and gives prosecutors less incentive to bother with bringing cases in the first place. (Legislation to strengthen the laws against trafficking was among the proposals rejected by a Senate filibuster last year following the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings.) “Because the average penalty is only six months, it’s hard to get straw purchasers to say who they did it for,” said Colby Goodman, author of a 2013 Wilson Center report on U.S. gun trafficking to Mexico and Guatemala.

There is language attached to appropriations bills in recent years that prohibits the ATF from simply requiring licensed firearms dealers to conduct occasional inventories of their supplies to check for lost or stolen guns. Finally, there is the notorious background-check loophole, which allows traffickers worried about being able to pass a background check at a dealership, or find a straw buyer to do so, to simply buy firearms from unlicensed dealers at gun shows or over the Internet, where background checks are not required.

The multiple hurdles thrown up against ATF investigators help explain how the bureau ended up with the ill-fated “Fast and Furious” investigation that concluded in 2011, in which the bureau allowed trafficked guns from the U.S. to circulate in Mexico in hopes of exposing the full reaches of a trafficking network—only to have investigators lose track of some of the guns and have two of the weapons show up at the scene of a shootout that claimed the life of a U.S. Border Control agent in late 2010.

And the hurdles help explain why successful prosecutions of trafficking to Central America, which are tracked by the Violence Policy Center, have been relatively sparse. In 2008, authorities obtained a five-year sentence for a 25-year-old from Mission, Texas, who, with a relative, bought two Beretta 92FS 9mm pistols in McAllen, Texas—ground zero of the current border crisis—which were recovered in Zacapa, Guatemala, following a cartel drug battle in 2008. In 2009, a Guatemalan national who smuggled firearms and ammunition from the U.S. to Guatemala was accused of recruiting several straw buyers, including a Nashville police officer, to purchase guns for him at Tennessee gun stores. In 2010, four Honduran men were among eight defendants sentenced as part of “Operation Castaway,” a wide-ranging ATF investigation called into a gun-running ring that sent more than 1,000 guns—mostly semiautomatic handguns and short-barreled rifles—from Florida to Honduras and other countries in the region.

For every one of those traffickers caught sending firearms to the Northern Triangle, countless others succeeded in doing so, bringing even more firepower to a combustible, crime-ridden region. It’s something to keep in mind as we watch the crowds of women and children besieging our border. When it comes to unwanted traffic between the U.S. and Central America, it’s very much a two-way street.