When President Barack Obama meets with various Central American leaders in Costa Rica this weekend, he will likely face criticism of U.S. domestic firearm laws. Like Mexico, where he met with President Enrique Peña Nieto on May 2, Central American countries have increasingly raised concerns about U.S. firearms trafficking. They have good reason to do so: more and more arms that originated in the United States are being used in violent crimes across the region. And given the recent death of background check legislation in the U.S. Senate, Obama may find it difficult to reassure his critics that the United States is effectively tackling the problem at home.
According to data compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) on U.S. firearms trafficking and an analysis of related U.S. prosecutions, thousands of U.S.-origin firearms (firearms that were either manufactured or imported into the United States) are finding their way to criminals in Central America in the last few years. The flow of U.S. weapons is heaviest to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras -- all among the top 10 most violent countries in the world.
According to a new Woodrow Wilson Center report focusing on Guatemala, ATF discovered that 2,687 (or 40 percent) of the 6,000 seized firearms it analyzed from just one Guatemalan military bunker in 2009 originated in the United States. In the past five years, there have also been at least 34 U.S. prosecutions related to American firearms trafficking to Guatemala involving a total of 604 U.S.-origin firearms.
U.S. entities opposing stricter gun control laws have often claimed that Central American countries -- and not the United States -- are the major source of firearms trafficked to Mexican organized crime. Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, made exactly that case on Fox News in 2011, claiming that drug cartels are getting their guns "largely through Central America." But it is clear that many U.S. firearms are also flowing illicitly in the opposite direction: from the United States through Mexico to Guatemala and other Central American countries. (For accurate information on the magnitude of U.S.-origin firearms seizures in Mexico, see ATF's data from 2007 to 2012.)
Examples of north-south arms trafficking abound. As Los Zetas, a notorious Mexican drug cartel, has pushed into Guatemala in recent years to secure narco-trafficking routes, they have brought with them their U.S.-purchased weapons. After an apparent Zeta killing of 11 members of the Guatemalan Leon organized crime group in Zacapa in 2008, for instance, U.S. authorities traced two Beretta 92FS 9mm pistols found on the perpetrators to a McAllen, Texas gun store. In another case in May 2011, Zetas reportedly killed 27 farm workers, including two women and three teenagers, in Los Cocos, Guatemala,
At the same time, organized crime groups and common criminals from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras are also accessing U.S. firearms purchased at gun stores and gun shows throughout the United States. In September 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice revealed that Honduran nationals had purchased hundreds of firearms -- including Glock and FN Five-Seven semi-automatic pistols, and AR-15-style rifles -- at gun shows in Florida for the eventual illicit transfer to Honduras and other Latin American destinations.