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[Kevin Whipple for The Trace]

Gun Trafficking

American Guns Drive the Migrant Crisis That Trump Wants to Fix With a Wall

Tens of thousands of firearms smuggled from the United States help to fuel extreme rates of violence south of the border.

This story was published in partnership with Fusion.

When José Luis Hernández was a boy, his hometown of San Pedro Sula, Honduras, had its share of gangs, neighborhood toughs who used knives to claim turf and settle scores. As he came of age, a new generation of criminals took over. These crews worked with international organized crime rings, and they carried guns.

“I started seeing guys around town that weren’t just local gangs,” Hernández says. “They were sicarios” — professional killers working for the drug cartels — “armed better than the police. They’d have AK-47s.”

As Honduran gangs grew ever more well-armed and difficult to police, they gave young men like Hernández an impossible decision: join up, or be marked for death. In a single month, one gang in San Pedro Sula tortured and murdered as many as eight minors who refused to enlist. Across the small country, according to official counts, nearly 50,000 people were murdered between 2008 and 2015. In several of those years, civilian homicides reached a rate of 80 per 100,000 residents — a higher rate than recorded at the height of the Iraqi insurgency. Eighty percent of Honduran homicide victims were shot.

“With all the violence” Hernández says, “I didn’t have a choice” but to flee north to the United States. “I call it a forced migration.”

He made one unsuccessful attempt to get to the United States in 2005, then journeyed north a second time the next year, hopping a Mexican freight train line known to migrants as La Bestia (The Beast) for the tendency of riders to be maimed or killed while riding it. Clinging to the train in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua, Hernández fainted and fell. The train severed a leg, an arm, and half of one of his hands as it rolled on without him. He was hospitalized for more than a year in Mexico before being deported back to his home country.

Jose Luis Hernandez poses for a portrait in Mexico City in 2014. [ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP/Getty Images]

Hernández again braved the trip to the United States in 2015, as part of a larger group of disabled Hondurans calling themselves themselves the Caravan of the Mutilated. This time, they reached the border crossing at Eagle Pass, Texas, where they sought and received asylum.

“We had nothing to lose,” Hernandez says of his reason for undertaking the arduous passage, “and a lot of hope to achieve something” by escaping Honduras.

Federal immigration statistics show that Hernández and his caravan are part of a tidal wave of Central Americans driven north by violence in their home countries. The flow became a humanitarian and political crisis in 2014, when the Department of Homeland Security apprehended nearly 480,000 people at the southern border, including tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors. In 2016, another 400,000 people were captured by the Border Patrol in southwestern states.

Dramatically reducing immigration to the United States is a pillar of President Donald Trump’s agenda. He announced his candidacy with warnings about undocumented Latino migrants bringing drugs, violence, and rape. He has secured $341 million in federal spending for the first phase of a promised 20-foot-high wall to keep them out, and requested $1.6 billion more to extend the barrier. Arrests of undocumented immigrants, the majority of whom lack records of other criminal offenses, are up 38 percent during the first three months of the Trump administration, a crackdown designed to deter would-be migrants from entering the country. Recent reports say the Border Patrol is refusing to admit asylum seekers like Hernández, in violation of international law.

But experts say Trump’s tactics could amount to a finger plugged into the dike, halting people at the border without addressing the reasons why they flee to America.

To actually relieve that pressure driving people to seek refuge, they add, means slowing the flow of American firearms that are destabilizing its southern neighbors. On May 25, Congressman Raúl Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat who represents a border district, will host a briefing on Capitol Hill meant to highlight the overlooked role that American guns play in the migrant crisis.

“You cannot deal with the problem of violence in the region without talking about the influx of weapons,” says José Miguel Cruz, a political scientist at Florida International University who studies crime in Central America.

Central American migrants sit atop a freight train — known as “La Bestia” — as it passes through Arriaga, Mexico, in 2013. [John Moore/Getty Images]

Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador each tightly restricts civilian gun ownership. The smaller Central American nations have no domestic firearms industries to speak of. But over the past few decades, guns have poured into the region, sourced from the vast civilian gun market in the United States and smuggled to Central America in the trunks of cars or sneaked into packages alongside common household items. In one recent bust, an Ohio gun shop owner was caught selling dozens of guns — including 62 Barrett .50 caliber rifles, the same weapons used by Navy SEAL snipers, at approximately $8,000 apiece — to a group who drove them down to McAllen, Texas, and across the Rio Grande.

Played out by hundreds of similar trafficking syndicates, such schemes form a trans-border, southbound equivalent to the “Iron Pipeline,” the busy smuggling route from states in the American South with loose gun laws to states like New York that more strictly regulate firearms.

As many as a quarter to half of all guns seized by police in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador and submitted for tracing by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are sourced to the United States — a total of 5,928 firearms in 2014 and 2015 alone, easily making America the single largest source of weapons in these countries.

Between 2009 and 2014, Mexican authorities confiscated 73,000 guns traced back to the United States. The Mexican government estimates as many as 2,000 guns cross the border from America every day.

“On one trip to Mexico City, I watched officials load up all the illegal American guns captured in a week or so,” says Congressman Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat who became aware of the issue through his past chairmanship of a House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee. “It filled up an entire room.”

There’s evidence that the flow of guns from the United States onto the streets of San Pedro Sula and other violent hotspots has only increased. The Honduran newspaper La Tribuna reported that the country’s customs officials last year seized an average of 35 to 40 contraband gun or ammunition shipments per month, up from an average of 2.5 seizures per month in 2011. In El Salvador, the gun trade has become so lucrative that after years of buying guns for its own use, the notorious gang Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13, has started selling weapons to the public.

In a vicious cycle, the same nation that millions of Central Americans have sought as a safe haven — the United States — is supplying the firearms that make their homelands too dangerous to live in.  

When it comes to reducing violent crime, America’s Latin neighbors “are limited by the thousands of illegal weapons that arrive in our country every year from our northern border,” Mexico’s then-Foreign Minister Claudia Ruiz Massieu said last August. “This gives transnational criminal organizations enormous firepower.”

Since the late 1990s, the American government has made halting efforts to reduce criminal violence in neighboring countries through diplomacy, foreign aid, and law enforcement. No element of those interventions has aroused as much controversy as the attempt to stamp out cross-border gun trafficking.

The failed sting operation known as “Fast and Furious” became one of the biggest firestorms of the Obama era after an ATF group in Arizona trying to track gun purchases by Mexican drug cartels lost weapons, some of which were used to kill an American Border Patrol agent. More recently, the Justice Department’s inspector general excoriated the ATF and the Drug Enforcement Administration for failing to interdict guns smuggled from Texas to Mexico, where members of the Zetas cartel used them to murder an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent named Jaime Zapata.

Republicans in Congress, egged on by the National Rifle Association, have made the most of those missteps, citing them as a reason to freeze ATF funding and block the appointment of a permanent director for the bureau.

The NRA has also consistently opposed measures that might reduce cross-border gun trafficking, successfully lobbying to prevent passage of legislation that would create new anti-trafficking statutes or enter the United States into small-arms control treaties.

Policymakers active in migrant issues see few reasons for optimism.

“In a bigger structural way, you’re never going to move the needle on this until you address domestic gun laws,” says a congressional aide who has worked on Central American immigration for the past decade. “There’s barely been any willingness to do that before, and there’s even less willingness now.”

Frank Longoria is the assistant director for the federal Customs and Border Protection agency. He oversees the border crossing in Laredo, Texas, the fourth-busiest in the United States for passenger vehicles. His officers spend their days taking the measure of drivers who spend as long as 45 minutes waiting to cross the Rio Grande. Identifying gun smugglers is a core task, one that relies heavily on intuition.

“They’ll just try to read people,” Longoria says. “See if they’re acting fidgety, not making eye contact, looking around nervously.”  

If a driver arouses suspicion, Longoria’s officers will run a canine unit through the car, scan it with a device known as a electronic density meter, or use an X-ray van.

The haul of weapons seized at the crossings Longoria supervises fluctuates widely, but in 2016 his agents seized 70 firearms and more than 25,000 rounds of ammunition. From Longoria’s vantage point, the busts have had scant deterrent effect.

“We’ve seen increases almost every year,” he says.

Soldiers stand guard during a presentation of weapons seized from a cartel in Mexico City in 2008. [AP Photo/Gregory Bull]

It doesn’t take a master supervillain to smuggle American guns out of the country. Weapons seep southward in “dribs and drabs,” hidden in cars, clothes, food, and electronics, according to the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey.

Take the case of another native son of San Pedro Sula. After emigrating to the United States, Wilmer Meija-Fuentes married and started a small construction business outside Indianapolis. The entrepreneurial Meija-Fuentes also had a sideline in trafficking guns to his home country.

In many ways, Meija-Fuentes resembled a typical American gun buyer. He didn’t have a criminal history. He liked to shop for guns with his wife, Starlene, and friend Alex Martinez-Banegas. He was comfortable and familiar in local firearms stores.

So comfortable, in fact, that in 2010 he told a clerk at the Family Indoor Shooting Range that he was going to mail several identical Beretta Model 92 semiautomatic pistols he was purchasing to Honduras. Buying multiple identical weapons is a red flag for trafficking, and the clerk asked his customer if what he intended to do was OK. Meija-Fuentes produced what he said was a Honduran concealed-carry permit, and assured the clerk that exporting the guns was, in fact, legal.

There is no such thing as a Honduran concealed-carry permit — the country banned the practice in 2007 — and the piece of paper Meija-Fuentes actually needed was an export license. He didn’t have one. The clerk sold him the weapons anyway.

A sign warns motorists not to smuggle weapons into Mexico as they approach the international border in Laredo, Texas. [Gilles Mingasson/Getty Images]

The clerk also sold additional weapons to Meija-Feuntes’s wife, even though she was clearly acting under her husband’s direction — and had therefore lied on her federal gun background-check form, which asks, “Are you the actual buyer/transferee?”

Once Meija-Fuentes and his accomplices bought their weapons, they employed a variety of low-tech means to get them out of the country, often tapping shipping companies based in Brownsville, Texas, or Miami, a tactic smugglers have employed since at least the early 1990s.

One member of the ring stashed pistols inside a stereo. Into the same shipping container went two Coleman beverage coolers, each filled with green paint and hiding a handgun. Meija-Fuentes bought used cars, tucked guns into their doors or other internal compartments, and sent them off to Honduras. Sometimes, Meija-Fuentes told investigators, he simply put the weapons in his luggage when flying home to San Pedro Sula.

The Meija-Fuentes ring operated without detection for at least two years until 2010, when a routine scan of a shipping container by Honduran customs officials revealed guns inside the Coleman coolers. As its leader, Meija-Fuentes was later sentenced to three years in federal prison.

There are 60,000 licensed gun dealers in the United States, an estimated 265 million civilian firearms, and countless private sellers offloading pistols and assault-style rifles from their private collections without any government oversight. Limiting gun trafficking would be an enormous challenge even if there were broad political agreement on what should be done. As it stands, the issue — like all things involving guns in the United States — is hugely divisive, with the powerful gun lobby working to oppose any intervention that could be interpreted as implying that American gun owners and gun businesses are complicit in bloodshed.

In 1997, President Bill Clinton’s administration helped draft the first international small-arms control treaty, known by the acronym CIFTA, which mandates strict monitoring of gun businesses and export controls. It has since been signed and ratified by all but three countries in the Western Hemisphere — one of which is the United States, the largest gunmaker and the largest retail gun market in the world, severely hindering the pact’s effectiveness. Though Obama urged its ratification soon after his first inauguration, CIFTA hasn’t been mentioned in Congress since 2009, when then-Senator John Kerry made one statement calling for its ratification.

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Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s executive vice president, responded to the Obama administration’s wan pro-CIFTA push by warning  “that anti-gun advocates will … try to use this treaty to attack gun ownership,” even though the State Department sought the NRA’s input when drafting the treaty.

As LaPierre was attacking one transnational effort to reduce gun violence in Central America, his colleague, the top NRA lobbyist Chris Cox, worked to derail another, giving House testimony against the Merida Initiative, a multi-billion dollar program launched under the George W. Bush administration to aid law enforcement in Mexico.

Part of the Merida Initiative included funding for Mexico to work with the ATF to trace American firearms back to their source. Cox pushed back against suggestions that American gun sellers and buyers had anything to do with cartel violence.

“The crisis in Mexico is being used as yet another pretext to restrict the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding Americans,” Cox said.

In late 2010, the Obama administration proposed a rule change that required licensed gun dealers in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California to report to the ATF any purchases of multiple semiautomatic rifles designed to fire rounds larger than the tiny .22 caliber, since cartels favor military-style weapons like the AR-15 or AK-47. The rule was modeled on a provision of the 1968 Gun Control Act, which already mandated that all licensed gun dealers report bulk sales of handguns.

This administration does not have the guts to build a [border] wall, but they do have the audacity to blame and register gun owners for Mexico’s problems,” Cox said.

After the rule was instituted in 2011, the NRA fought unsuccessfully to have it overturned in court.

ATF agent Bill Newell speaks behind a cache of seized weapons at the bureau’s Phoenix field office, which was embroiled in the “Fast and Furious” scandal. [AP Photo/Matt York]

The contretemps over the rifle-sale reporting rule came as the ill-fated “Fast and Furious” operation was blazing away as a full-scale political conflagration. The affair shook Mexican confidence in the United States as a law enforcement partner, says Eric Olson, the associate director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a foreign policy think tank.

“People in Mexico said, ‘What are you guys doing?’” Olson says. “‘You’re putting firearms into the hands of traffickers?’”

The scandal led Mexico’s president, Enrique Peña Nieto, to temporarily halt cooperation with the ATF after he was inaugurated in 2012.

With the ATF’s domestic critics also lobbing barbed questions about the bureau’s anti-smuggling efforts, federal law enforcement has taken a less aggressive approach in subsequent years. In 2016, there were just 71 federal prosecutions of cross-border firearms traffickers, fewer than half as many as four years before.

Last year, a Government Accountability Office report determined that even after “Fast and Furious,” ATF and the various border security agencies have failed to adequately coordinate their anti-gun-trafficking efforts, finding a lack of understanding as to exactly where responsibility lies for keeping guns from illegally leaving the country.

For all his preoccupation with the threats he says immigrants pose, Trump has proposed no policies that might halt the hundreds of thousands of guns that drive refugees to the border.

Instead, the president is seeking to drastically reduce American support to the Latin American nations most affected by gun violence. His White House has proposed slashing $200 million from the State Department office that administers ongoing programs from the Bush and Obama eras that finance law enforcement and violence-prevention efforts in Mexico and Central America. According to a separate document obtained by Foreign Policy in late April, Trump wants to cut foreign aid to Mexico by 50 percent, to Guatemala by 36 percent, to El Salvador by 30 percent, and to Honduras by 28 percent.

The president has also proposed gutting the White House office that reviews a wide range of cross-border smuggling issues.

The ATF, Department of Justice, and Department of Homeland Security all said in statements that the Trump administration had not directed them to change their approach to firearms trafficking. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has hosted his counterparts from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, but his office declined to comment on specifics of the meeting, or whether firearms trafficking was on the agenda.

The White House declined to comment for this story, instead providing a press release, sent out after Trump and his Mexican counterpart, Peña Nieto, spoke by phone in January, that affirmed the two countries’ commitment to combating arms trafficking. On May 18, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson hosted Mexico’s foreign minister, Luis Videgaray Caso, in Washington for the second time, saying at a joint press conference that the two diplomats had “identified fresh strategies to attack the business model of these multi-billion dollar criminal organizations with particular emphasis on cash flow and the flow of weapons.” A spokeswoman for the State Department would not specify what those fresh strategies might be.

The body of the administrator of San Pedro Sula’s penitentiary lies on the road alongside the bullet-riddled truck in which he was traveling in November 2016. [ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP/Getty Images]

The public statements of Trump and his cabinet secretaries notwithstanding, the president’s unprecedented ties to the gun lobby are a strong signal he is unlikely to support new measures to crack down on cross-border firearms smuggling — and may in fact support efforts to roll back restrictions the NRA has long hoped to wipe from the books.

The group may see an opportunity in the Trump administration to undo the Obama-era rule requiring gun dealers in southwest border states to report to the ATF the sales of multiple rifles, one of the few enforcement tools that directly addresses trafficking of weapons to Central America.  The NRA applauded a bill submitted this spring by Congressman Evan Jenkins, a West Virginia Republican, that would ban the ATF from imposing reporting requirements on gun dealers based on their geographic location. The legislation is under review by the House Judiciary Committee.

The rifle-reporting rule could also be reversed through executive action, an option floated in a January white paper by Ronald Turk, the deputy ATF director, which was widely viewed as a blueprint for a more NRA-friendly bureau.

Some Washington insiders with knowledge of Central America are incensed about the administration’s positions on the border, guns, and foreign assistance.

“Given that violence is a driving factor for migration,” says one Democratic Senate staffer with more than a decade of experience in the region’s affairs, the Trump team’s preferred remedies “fly in the face of logic.”

From his adopted home in Los Angeles, José Luis Hernández has tried fitfully to keep his network of disabled migrants together. It’s a difficult task, with his compatriots spread from the West Coast to suburban Maryland. He hopes the Trump administration will reconsider its policies. He wants someday to return to Honduras, but cannot if violent crime remains a menace there.

“The U.S.A. is a pretty place to come for a week as a tourist,” Hernández says. “But I miss my country.

“The promised land we’re looking for isn’t the U.S. It’s our own country,” he adds. “We don’t want to leave and risk our lives.”

Though the homicide rate in Honduras has ebbed somewhat, shootings remain rampant. On the morning this article was being prepared for publication, a 46-year-old woman in San Pedro Sula was shot repeatedly by a stranger while riding a bus. Four days earlier, in an area near the Caribbean coast, an unidentified family of three was ambushed and murdered with what police said were several high-caliber weapons. Victims of other recent gun killings include bus drivers, security guards, bricklayers, activists, and engineers. The pervasiveness of the violence leaves few people safe.  

A radical retreat from past efforts to reduce violence and the flow of American firearms to Central America could have dire ramifications. Should security in the region buckle further, the United States could find itself confronted with another massive surge of migrants like the one that dominated headlines three years ago.

“If the violence increases further, this has the potential to become a really serious refugee crisis,” says Larry Ladutke, who manages Amnesty International USA’s Central America and Mexico program. “Something along the lines of a failed state.”