Government efforts to stop the flow of guns from the United States to Mexico have suffered in recent years from having no clear plan to combat gunrunners affiliated with drug cartels, investigators have concluded.
The Government Accountability Office, which is delivering its findings to Congress on Thursday, noted that federal agencies only recently began coordinating with Mexican counterparts on ways to stop gunrunning along the border.
GAO investigators were critical of the two principal U.S. agencies — Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives — for not working together.
Until early June, the GAO says, "the U.S. government did not have a strategy that explicitly addressed arms trafficking to Mexico."
Investigators said that without a strategy, "individual U.S. agencies have undertaken a variety of activities and projects to combat arms trafficking to Mexico."
Citing ATF data, the investigator Jess T. Ford says that over the past three years, more than 90 percent of the firearms traced after being seized in Mexico have come from the U.S. The figure is slightly less over a five-year period.
"While it is impossible to know how many firearms are illegally trafficked into Mexico in a given year, over 20,000, or around 87 percent, of firearms seized by Mexican authorities and traced over the past 5 years originated in the United States," the GAO's Ford says in testimony prepared for a House subcommittee hearing on Thursday. The GAO is the investigative arm of Congress.
Rep. Eliot Engel, who chairs the subcommittee, said there should have been an anti-gunrunning strategy in place since October 2007 when the U.S. and Mexico agreed to the joint cartel-fighting Merida initiative.
"It is mind-boggling that for a year and a half, we have had no interagency strategy to address this major problem, but instead have relied on uncoordinated efforts by a variety of agencies," Engel, D-N.Y. said in a statement issued ahead of Thursday's hearing.
Engel said the firearms flowing illegally from the U.S. into Mexico have made the drug cartels' jobs easier.
In a draft of the report, the GAO cited several examples of the miscommunication between ICE and ATF, including:
- During one operation, an ICE agent unknowingly covertly kept watch on the activities of an undercover ATF agent who was investigating a suspected trafficker.
- ATF did not tell ICE about a covert operation where ATF agents delivered weapons across the border in an attempt to ferret out the Mexican organizations receiving illegal arms. ATF should have notified ICE about the controlled attempt to export weapons illegally, the GAO said. Not coordinating raised the chances that the weapons could end up in the wrong hands.
- In some cases, ICE and ATF refused to give each other required documentation for investigations.
The two agencies were working off of a 1978 agreement about dual investigations, which was cited by the GAO as a major obstacle to coordination. An updated agreement to address the coordination problem is in the works, the report said.