by Brett Heinz, Center for Economic and Political Research (CEPR)
February 20, 2020
El Salvador has one of the highest homicide rates in the world. Bordering the country are the other two nations in Central America’s “Northern Triangle” region: Honduras, with the world’s fifth-highest homicide rate in 2017, and Guatemala, in sixteenth place. North of Guatemala is Mexico, where a homicide rate quintupling that of the United States puts it in nineteenth. But the United States isn’t just a bystander to this tragic violence; the majority of these homicides are firearm-related, and 70 percent of guns seized from criminals in Mexico traced by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) come from the US. Almost 41 percent of guns seized in the Northern Triangle originate in the US, including almost half the guns in El Salvador.
The astonishing violence in Central America is a major root cause of forced migration to the US from the region. US guns play a clear role in fueling the crisis. A few of these weapons originated from US military shipments to militaries and paramilitaries in the region during the Cold War. Most modern traffic to cartels and gangs occurs through the black market, with US residents legally purchasing firearms here and then illegally transporting them south. Harry Penate — at the time the only ATF official responsible for US arms tracing in all of Central America — gave one example of a gun bought at a licensed gun store in Baltimore being recovered from criminals in El Salvador less than a week later.
But not all US guns come through the black market. US gun manufacturers regularly export guns to foreign buyers legally through a weak and underenforced regulatory system, often allowing guns to wind up in the hands of organized crime. The Trump administration has recently published regulations that will make the system even weaker. This will not only put profits before lives in Central America, but is likely to worsen the drivers of the very migrant flows Trump viciously opposes.
The current system of arms exports was established by the Arms Export Control Act of 1976 and oversaw $45.4 billion in sales from 2013 to 2017. US gun sellers must register with the State Department and provide detailed information about their sales, including the ultimate recipients (“end users”) of the weapons. The State Department must approve any further transfer of the weapons to new end users, and US Embassies are responsible for ensuring the guns wind up in the correct hands. The State Department notifies Congress of any sales over a million dollars, and Congress has the ability to block deals through an informal process. In recent years, Congress has blocked large weapons sales to state security forces in the Philippines and Turkey over human rights concerns.
Though this system is tough in theory, insufficient enforcement has proven it to be weak in practice. When the State Department’s inspector general audited the process last year, examining 21 approved applications for arms sales, 95 percent were missing required information, including 62 percent that lacked sufficient end-use information.
In spite of this, the gun industry has long pushed for a further loosening of the system. Even the Obama administration (which itself sold twice as many arms to foreign governments as the Bush administration) bragged that they made steps toward deregulating private arms exports, but then abandoned plans for a full overhaul in the wake of the Sandy Hook mass shooting. The pressure to weaken the system likely grew under President Trump, as domestic gun sales have dropped significantly during his tenure due to collectors’ and enthusiasts’ reduced expectations of gun control laws. Thus, the Trump administration has decided to make up for gun companies’ losses at home through greater exports, issuing a rule in late January similar to the Obama administration’s original proposal to overhaul the current system for the worse.
Under the new rule, the regulatory system will be transferred from the State Department to Commerce with the aim of “reducing the procedural burdens and costs of export compliance on the U.S. firearms industry…” Under this system, US arms sellers will face far less scrutiny during the licensing process for most weapons, especially since the Commerce Department does not have access to the State Department lists of which arms dealers have been involved in suspicious or criminal transactions before. Worse, the number of countries with license exceptions for arms exports will expand from three close allies to 37 nations. Congress’s ability to review and block certain arms sales will also be eliminated.
Arms exports recipients will no longer be required to issue written certification that they won’t give the weapons to someone else without authorization, and the system for end-user verification will be gutted: rather than embassy staff, this will be export control officers’ (ECOs) responsibility. Despite that over 40 percent of all checks by the State Department are in the Western Hemisphere, there is not a single ECO responsible for verifying arms sales recipients in this half of the world, and there don’t appear to be any plans to hire any.
In other words, the new rules make it substantially easier to export arms abroad, and in Latin American countries where US guns already contribute to some of the highest murder rates in the world, there appear to be no US government staffers responsible for verifying weapons wind up in the right hands.
The consequences could be enormous. It would still be concerning if all private weapons sales went to state security forces in the region, seeing as such sales have already enabled human rights abuses: US gun companies have sold weapons to Mexico and Honduras that went on to be used in police massacres of civilians. But these new rules won’t just facilitate weapons sales to violent governments; they will make it much easier for cartels and gangs to get their hands on US guns as well.
Though weapons are sometimes stolen, the most common way that criminal organizations acquire legally exported weapons is more straightforward: they buy them from corrupt military or police officials. Salvadoran soldiers have been caught selling rocket launchers to the Milenio Cartel, and in a separate incident trying to sell off over 1,800 hand grenades. An illegal weapons cache en route to Colombia that was seized in Honduras in 2004 included rifles, grenade launchers, and anti-tank rocket launchers “as fresh as if they just left the factory, all US-made,” according to Honduras’ minister of security. The Honduran attorney general’s office estimates that 20 percent of the arms it seized from the Valle Valle criminal organization in 2014 were purchased from the military’s armory. From 2006 to 2017, more than 20,000 weapons belonging to the Mexican police were stolen or went missing. In Guerrero, the Mexican state estimated to have the second-highest number of “organized-crime-style homicides” in 2018, almost a fifth of the weapons acquired by state police from 2010 to 2016 vanished.
Some experts have alleged that Mexican state security forces intentionally fail to keep an accurate weapons inventory so that corrupt soldiers and officials can sell them off. In Honduras, the ATF has noted that Honduran law “is silent on pertinent inventory control provisions for the public security forces.” A former Honduran military official commented that stealing military ammunition at training sessions or shooting ranges for resale is easy: “You sign out with 10,000 rounds and use 5,000. Who is going to know what you do with the other 5,000?” Under a new regulatory regime in which end-use verification is even less viable, the amount of US arms and munitions going to organized crime could rise dramatically.
By making it easier for the gun industry to export arms, the US government is expanding access to those arms for both violent state security forces and criminal organizations in Mexico and Central America. In doing so, it will worsen violence in the region and contribute to the deteriorating humanitarian situation driving forced migration to the United States — the same refugee and migrant flows that Donald Trump has positioned his entire presidency around stopping. Alejandra Martínez, an activist in her early twenties who was shot at by police using American M4 rifles during a 2017 protest in Honduras, told the Miami Herald at the time: “We know that the guns come from the United States. These guns have no business in Honduras. They should stay in the United States. They are sending them to Honduras to kill us.” The next year, she joined a migrant caravan heading north toward the United States, saying, “If I return to Honduras they’ll kill me.”
The consequences of the new policy don’t seem to matter to the Trump administration (which did not consult arms trade experts about it), nor to American gun makers. The firearms industry lobby, which has estimated that the new system could increase their foreign gun sales by up to 20 percent, bragged that the Trump administration began moving on the rules the same day they flew in to Washington to meet with more than 70 members of Congress. When the new rules were posted, the group’s senior VP for government relations and public affairs said, “This is a tremendous achievement for the firearms and ammunition industry. We salute the Trump administration…” Likewise, the NRA complained that the old system involved “national and international security considerations trumping all other factors,” while the new one would give “American businesses who manufacture consumer products a larger footprint in international markets,” supposedly without harming national security. The US government seems to tacitly acknowledge the violence it is enabling abroad, however. It is notable that all of the weapons that the Trump administration is making easier to export will still remain on strict import control lists, meaning that the US considers the weapons dangerous when they’re coming here, but not when they’re going elsewhere.
The Trump administration’s new rules on arms exports are aimed at enriching the firearms industry at the expense of human lives around the world, especially in Mexico and Central America, where the likely absence of enforcement will put more weapons into the hands of both state security forces and criminal organizations known for massacring civilians. Congress should pass Rep. Norma Torres’ proposed Prevent Crime and Terrorism Act of 2019 to reverse the new deregulatory scheme before it takes effect on March 9, and indeed should take steps to strengthen the existing arms export control system to ensure that US guns don’t further destabilize what is already one of the most violent regions on Earth.
Brett Heinz is the Program Assistant for CEPR’s International Team.