The investigations into Operation Fast and Furious have sparked an underlying debate: Are Americans really the main source of weapons used by Mexico's mafias?
Since President Obama took office in 2009, the U.S. government has intensified efforts to cut gun trafficking to Mexico from border states like Arizona. The government noted that 90 percent of guns seized in Mexico and successfully traced by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were from the United States.
But increasingly, Republicans and gun-rights advocates are questioning that figure and how big the U.S. trafficking problem really is - and they're pointing to other possible sources of armaments in Mexico's drug war.
"At the root of Fast and Furious, and a lot of rhetoric surrounding gun control legislation, has been the gun-trafficking statistics provided by ATF," Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said in a Nov. 15 congressional hearing. "These unclear statistics have fueled the debate and contributed to undertaking such a reckless operation as Fast and Furious."
In that 2009-2010 operation, ATF agents facilitated firearms sales from Phoenix-area dealers to suspected smugglers, and about 2,000 guns were loosed on the community.
But critics of Grassley and the American firearms industry say his argument is a smoke screen to protect U.S. manufacturers from scrutiny. Yes, they say, the exact proportion and number of U.S. firearms seized in Mexico is unknown, but that doesn't mean it's insignificant.
Tom Diaz, senior policy analyst at the Violence Policy Center, has described the U.S. civilian gun market as "an ideal system for smuggling." That's because a vast, loosely regulated firearms industry, increasingly selling military-style weapons, sits next to a country with a huge demand and a limited supply of those weapons .
What we supply
It was the "90 percent myth" that galvanized some gun-rights advocates, who felt the Obama administration was manipulating statistics to justify a crackdown. Some administration officials, especially in 2009, misstated ATF statistics by saying they showed that 90 percent of all firearms seized by the Mexican government in 2008 came from the United States.
The truth was, Mexico seized about 30,000 firearms that year, and of those, the ATF successfully traced about 4,000. Of that subset, 87 percent came from the United States. Mexico asks U.S. officials to trace only those guns likely to have a U.S. nexus.
The 90 percent figure was misleading, said Scott Stewart, a vice president at Stratfor Global Intelligence, who wrote a report this year titled "Mexico's Gun Supply and the 90 Percent Myth."
Still, Stewart said in an interview, the U.S. is a key supplier - especially of the assault rifles often used in drug-war battles.
"Clearly, there are certain classes of guns that it's probably true for," said Stewart, a former special agent for the State Department. "If you have an AK-47 variant that was semiautomatic then converted (to fully automatic), or an AR-15 that was semiauto and converted, it probably did come from the U.S."
You shouldn't imagine truckloads of guns moving south, though, Stewart said. A July 2010 cable from the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City described it this way: Rather than an "iron river" of weapons flowing south, the flow is more like "thousands of small streams."
That cable, along with others released by WikiLeaks earlier this year, shows U.S. diplomats grappling with the issue of firearms traffic to Mexico, not all of it from the north. A cable dated March 25, 2009, says "at least 90 percent of military origin weapons (such as grenades and light anti-tank weapons) are traced to Central American military stocks."
Rocket-propelled grenades, heavy machine guns and hand grenades likely come from other countries, especially in Central America, Stewart said. The grenades seized from criminal groups in Mexico are typically made in South Korea, he said.
A Jan. 25, 2010, cable from the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City described an international meeting on gun-trafficking in Mexico's southernmost state, Chiapas. During the meeting, attendees heard about the countries' gun laws and visited three ports of entry at the Guatemala border, witnessing unfettered illegal crossings at two of them.
"Our visit to three border crossings between Guatemala and Mexico in Chiapas revealed neither country presently works seriously to enforce these laws," the cable said.
Why couldn't Mexico's organized criminal groups, which are multibillion-dollar enterprises, easily import large loads of weapons from corrupt officials or businesses in Latin America or Asia, asked Todd Rathner, a Tucsonan who is on the board of the National Rifle Association.
Another source of weapons is Mexico's military. Mafias in Mexico have recruited soldiers and otherwise got hold of some of the army's arsenal.
American gun dealers
Grassley and others point out that relatively few guns seized in Mexico have been traced to federally licensed firearms dealers in the United States. In the years 2009 and 2010, he wrote in a June letter to the acting director of the ATF, 8,976 of the 36,256 firearms recovered in Mexico were traced to licensed dealers in the United States.
That's 25 percent of the total, but Grassley didn't note that some of the other 75 percent may have been manufactured in the United States or transferred by an American who was not a federally licensed dealer.
Rathner, the NRA board member from Tucson, said two factors discourage licensed firearms dealers from selling weapons intended for trafficking to Mexico. One is that most dealers want to do the right thing, he said. The other is that if caught, they could lose their license, or worse.
"There are scrupulous and unscrupulous people in each industry," Rathner said. "If they (gun dealers) are unscrupulous, they risk prison."
But Robert Spitzer, author of "The Politics of Gun Control," said Grassley and others are just trying to limit scrutiny of gun dealers.
"Following gun-trafficking patterns is invariably complicated," said Spitzer, a State University of New York-Cortland political science professor, via email. "And while the Mexican drug gangs get guns from multiple sources, including the Mexican military, it is pretty well beyond dispute that U.S. gun dealers, especially the nearly 10,000 or so found along the US-Mexican border, are a major source."
Stewart, of Stratfor, said whatever the proportion of firearms in Mexico coming from the United States, the problem is undeniable.
"Absolutely, it is a problem and it does need to be addressed," he said, adding: "The sad reality is even if we were to close the border, they would still get weapons. It's just going to increase their cost."
On StarNet: Find extensive coverage of immigration issues at azstarnet.com/border
How you slice the statistics
Opposing sides in the debate over gun trafficking to Mexico use the same statistics in contrasting ways to bolster their arguments.
Democrats and Republicans both use data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which regularly traces a portion of the guns seized by the Mexican government.
Republican U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley says bureau data show a minority of the traced weapons come from U.S. dealers. He noted that of 36,256 firearms recovered in Mexico and traced by the ATF in 2009 and 2010, 25 percent had been sold by U.S.-licensed dealers. In other words, he argued, Americans may not be responsible for much of the problem.
Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein parsed the same data differently: During the 5 3/4 years ending Sept. 30, she said, ATF traced the origins of 93,895 firearms recovered in Mexico. Of those, 64,112, or 68 percent, were manufactured in or imported into the United States. In other words, she concluded, Americans are a major source of Mexico's smuggled guns.
Contact reporter Tim Steller at 807-8427 or at firstname.lastname@example.org