In January 2014, Mexican federal forces were ambushed in Tamaulipas while conducting a routine inspection near the border town of Reynosa by assailants armed with assault rifles. A few months later, another ambush of military forces in Jalisco perpetrated by a criminal organization again armed with semiautomatic rifles and grenades left a toll of four dead soldiers and two more seriously wounded. A year later in the neighboring state of Michoacan, four soldiers were killed in another ambush outside the city Ucacuaro, once again by a criminal organization armed with assault rifles.

ATF and other federal law enforcement agencies must have all available tools to ensure that dangerous weapons, such as the ones used in the series of ambush attacks against Mexican law enforcement, do not continue to pour into Mexico and fuel violence in both nations.  

— Eugenio Weigend

The use of these highly dangerous firearms by criminal organizations in Mexico has become all too common. And the bulk of these guns are illegally trafficked from the United States. In fact, approximately 70 percent of firearms recovered in crimes in Mexico originated in the United States, and the vast majority of those were illegally trafficked from the border states of California, New Mexico, Texas, and Arizona.

The traffic of illegal firearms into Mexico from the U.S. has been recognized as an urgent problem by both countries. In 2007, the Merida Initiative –a partnership agreement between the United States and Mexico to fight organized crime and associated violence --emphasized “a shared responsibility” with Mexico pledging to tackle crime and corruption within its borders and the United States committing to address domestic drug consumption, money laundering, and gun trafficking into Mexico.

While this was a promising approach to addressing violence on both sides of the border, as Merida Initiative evolved into Beyond Merida in 2010, emphasis and funding was mostly placed on its first pillar, which included equipment and training of Mexican officials. Other pillars included institutionalizing the rule of law, building a 21st century border, and building resilient communities, but no explicit commitment was made by either nation to address the illegal flow of firearms. Other factors, such as the tragically flawed Operation Fast and Furious in the U.S. and the change in discourse from violence to prevention in the Peña Nieto administration, have contributed to diminished attention given to illegal gun trafficking across the border.

Nonetheless, American firearms continue to fuel violence in Mexico. According to information from the Executive Secretary of the Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Publica, gun deaths in Mexico grew significantly in the past ten years from 2,858 in 2004 to 8,709 in 2014. In fact, recent reports have shown that enough illegal guns are recovered by law enforcement in Mexico to arm the entire Mexican military and the federal police. Increasingly, criminal organizations in Mexico are using semiautomatic assault rifles to perpetuate their violence. During the first four years of President Calderon’s administration, Mexican law enforcement officials seized more than 85,000 firearms from criminal organizations, 50,000 of which were either AK-47 or AR-15 assault rifles.

The Obama administration has taken an important step to address gun trafficking to Mexico by providing U.S. law enforcement with a crucial investigative tool. In 2011, the administration implemented a new regulation requiring licensed gun dealers in the four southwestern border states to report to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, or ATF, when an individual buys more than one semiautomatic rifle in a five-day period. This was a response to the increasing use of assault rifles by the cartels, who often buy these guns in bulk from U.S. dealers. One study of firearms trafficking by one cartel found that during a 15-month period, the cartel purchased 251 assault rifles from U.S. gun dealers, all but one of which was purchased as part of a multiple sale.

This has proven to be an effective regulation: during the first eight months after the reporting requirement went into effect, ATF initiated 120 investigations of multiple sales of assault rifles and recommended prosecution of more than 100 defendants in 25 separate cases.

Despite the positive impact of this reporting requirement, the U.S. House of Representatives voted last week to prevent ATF from continuing to require dealers in the border states to notify them when an individual buys assault rifles in bulk. Congressional allies of the gun lobby offer no reasonable explanation for doing so, and this action is part of a longstanding campaign to impose harmful restrictions on ATF that prevent it from successfully fulfilling its mission of enforcing gun laws and protecting public safety. As the Senate takes up legislation to fund ATF this week, it is incumbent on them to remove this harmful provision, as well as many others that hamper ATF’s ability to do its job.

In addition to keeping this reporting requirement intact, there are a number of other measures Congress should enact to combat illegal gun trafficking to Mexico, in particular closing the private sale loophole and requiring background checks for all gun sales. The U.S. should also consider other big ideas for improving enforcement of guns laws and regulation of the gun industry, such as merging ATF into the Federal Bureau of Investigation to create one strong federal agency charged with this mission, as was recommended in a recent report by the Center for American Progress.

Compromising the U.S. government’s ability to respond to illegal gun trafficking into Mexico has consequences on both sides of the border. ATF and other federal law enforcement agencies must have all available tools to ensure that dangerous weapons, such as the ones used in the series of ambush attacks against Mexican law enforcement, do not continue to pour into Mexico and fuel violence in both nations.