The Mexican government in late July announced a major new joint operation with the United States to crack down on cross-border gun trafficking. But days after the agreement was announced, details are murky. In fact, the U.S. government won’t even confirm that it has signed on to the new effort.
Mexico’s foreign minister, Marcelo Ebrard, announced the joint policy on July 22 after a weekend visit from U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. In a read-out of the meeting, Ebrard highlighted five border crossings (San Diego-Tijuana; El Paso-Ciudad Juárez; Laredo-Nuevo Laredo; McAllen-Reynosa, and Brownsville-Matamoros) where the United States and Mexico would try to stem the flow of the estimated 200,000 firearms smuggled south every year.
But no additional details have emerged on what exactly the two countries are planning. Reached for comment about the contours of the new policy, the office of the Mexican Foreign Ministry only referred back to the publicly available meeting read-out. Notably, the State Department hasn’t said a word about any possible agreement and made no mention of a new joint crackdown on gun trafficking in its own read-out of the meeting. The State Department declined to comment to The Trace on whether Pompeo had actually committed the U.S. to a new policy. And the Customs and Border Patrol, which is charged with detecting flows of contraband in and out of the United States, declined to comment on whether it had been directed to undertake any new anti-gun trafficking operations.
Some experts say Ebrard’s announcement may be less than meets the eye.
“It is really short on specifics,” said Maureen Meyer of the Washington Office on Latin America. “I’m not sure if this is going to be a real commitment from the U.S. to do more on smuggling or not.”
The Mexican announcement “does not provide any specifics regarding a law enforcement strategic plan,” said Davy Aguilera, a former agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who has worked along the border in Texas and in Central America. “This will not resolve the problem.” But he added that if a policy akin to what Ebrard announced comes to fruition, it would be “the beginning of something that may help.”
For decades, Mexican governments have pleaded with the United States to crack down on the steady flow of firearms from the lightly regulated American consumer market over the border. The problem got worse after the federal assault weapons ban expired in 2004, which allowed gun buyers in America to easily get their hands on AK and AR-style rifles. While those guns are rarely used in crimes in the United States, they are favored by Mexican drug cartels who have helped make the country’s homicide rate one of the highest in the world in the last two decades, hitting a record high in 2018.
The Mexican Foreign Ministry said that the number of machine guns seized at crime scenes in the country jumped 63 percent in early 2019, and the number of assault weapons has surged 122 percent, according to a press release sent out after last weekend’s meeting.
The Obama administration made some efforts to reduce the flow of guns south. In 2010, it instituted a rule requiring that gun dealers in border states notify the ATF whenever a customer bought more than one military-style semiautomatic rifle at a time. But the effort was hobbled by the Fast and Furious scandal, when an ATF unit tasked with investigating straw purchasers acting on behalf of cartels lost track of weapons, one of which was used in the murder of a Border Patrol agent.
The Obama administration did not undertake any other major cross-border trafficking enforcement operations after Fast and Furious. If the coordinated effort described by the Mexican government materializes, it would be the first such large operation under the Trump administration.
Even if a joint operation does come into effect in the five border crossings announced by the Mexican Foreign Ministry, some experts doubt it would significantly reduce the flow of American guns into Mexico. “Operations to reduce gun trafficking at five border points seems reactive and not necessarily effective,” said Eugenio Weigand of the left-leaning Center for American Progress. After all, Weigand pointed out, there are dozens of crossings and shipping ports that will allow guns through to Mexico.