According to sources at the ATF, traffickers are smuggling some U.S.-purchased firearms to Central America through lesser-known shipping companies by land and sea -- often hiding firearms in shipments of older cars, clothes, and audio equipment. After a weather-related accident totaled a Guatemala-bound truck near the U.S. border with Mexico in 2009, for instance, U.S. authorities discovered that one of the boxes in the debris contained five U.S.-origin Glock pistols, among several other firearms hidden inside speakers. In Honduras, the ATF says, auto shops are even offering catalogues of various firearms to purchase that they will then smuggle into the country in old vehicles from the United States.
The new Woodrow Wilson Center report also reveals that Guatemalan authorities seized 46 U.S.-origin ordnance items in recent years, ranging from M-67 hand grenades to M-406 40mm grenades to an M-72 light anti-tank rocket. Except for the M-72 rocket, which the United States sold to Colombia, most of these items were part of U.S. Foreign Military Sales (FMS) to El Salvador in the late 1980s and early 1990s. According to ATF, MS-13 transnational gang members are smuggling these items from El Salvador into Guatemala, for sale to Los Zetas and other Mexican cartels.
In recent years, U.S. and Central American authorities have begun to address arms trafficking -- though much more could be done to combat the problem. Since the ATF placed its first firearms regional advisor in El Salvador in 2009, for instance, it has begun to sketch a better picture of U.S. trafficking there and in Guatemala. In February 2013, the ATF trained 56 Central American officials -- mostly from Guatemala's National Crime Laboratory -- and since then, Guatemala has sent more than 100 firearm-trace requests per month to the ATF. Likewise, El Salvador also recently allowed the ATF to evaluate and trace thousands of firearms it has seized over the last few years. Still, U.S. authorities are struggling to get a picture of firearm-trafficking patterns elsewhere in the region, as other governments -- Honduras and Nicaragua, in particular -- have been slower to submit firearms trace requests.
As President Obama meets with Central American leaders this weekend to discuss regional security issues, citizens of these countries may want to urge their governments to step up efforts to trace firearms to their origins. Timely tracing data not only provides the ATF with critical information needed to identify and stop traffickers in the United States, it also assists Central American governments in mapping how criminal networks in their countries operate and intersect.
Obama could also support efforts to establish a permanent ATF presence in the U.S. embassy in Guatemala and potentially other U.S. embassies across Central America. Since government-owned stockpiles of firearms and ordnance have been a major source of illicit arms transfers to organized crime here as well as in Mexico, Obama would do well to continue to fund efforts to destroy large surpluses of arms in these countries. According to a September 2012 U.N. study, both El Salvador and Guatemala have enough arms to provide each of their soldiers with seven firearms.
This weekend's summit in Costa Rica provides an ideal opportunity for the United States and its Central American partners to commit to addressing the scourge of arms trafficking. The region is already one of the most violent places on Earth and the U.S. arms have clearly contributed to that mounting death toll.