Alec MacGillis shines a light on US gun trafficking to Central America, making the argument that our loose gun regulations are contributing to these countries’ gang violence problem:
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.”
Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, tells Dylan Matthews that an effective US response to the crisis must address its root causes:
Of the $3.7 billion requested by the administration for dealing with the child migrant crisis, a very small percentage of it, about $295 million, goes to addressing root causes of the violence. I think that ever since the United States, starting with the end of the Bush administration, began to pay more attention to Central America as the drug violence was spilling over from Mexico to Central America, there’s been an overemphasis on security and controlling drug trafficking and also just not enough resources overall. …
There’s been a focus in the US and elsewhere in the region on capturing drug kingpins, but I think a lot of people who have looked at this, given the weakness of institutions, including police and law enforcement, including the judiciary, have said that a better approach is to try to reduce the violence connected with local illegal markets, and focus on providing citizen security to the general population. You can’t abandon the attempt to capture major traffickers, but you cannot do that without providing for safer communities and creating greater resilience at the individual and the community level.
(Photo: A member of the “18 street” gang takes part in an event to hand in weapons in Apopa, 14 Km north of San Salvador, El Salvador on March 9, 2013. Gang leaders surrendered about 267 weapons as part of the truce process between gangs in El Salvador. By Jose Cabezas/AFP/Getty Images)