Wikileaks Cables Show U.S. Had Little Idea How Many Weapons Were Being Trafficked into Mexico

April 21, 2011

The Mexican government began battling the drug cartels in that country five years ago. According to recently released Wikileaks cables, the Mexican government was denying access to U.S. law enforcement agencies to the weapons seized in Mexico.

The Wikileaks cable says that by 2009, the Mexican government under Pres. Felipe Calderón had seized nearly 65,000 weapons in its battles with the cartels. The leaked memo says Mexican authorities were denying access to those weapons. The cable says there were questions about who actually had custody of the guns.

At the time, claims were made in the U.S. that 90 percent of guns used in crimes in Mexico came from the U.S. The statistic originated with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms and was picked up by the media and members of Congress. The ATF later massaged it to say 90 percent of the seized weapons they had been able to check came from the U.S. But the analyst who wrote the leaked memo said there was no way of verifying that.

"Claims by Mexican and U.S. officials that upwards of 90 percent of illegal recovered weapons can be traced back to the U.S. is based on an incomplete survey of confiscated weapons," the analyst wrote.

Colby Goodman is an arms trafficking expert and security consultant in Washington. He says the information on seized guns was inconsistent.

"Duplicates, multiple duplicates or it was lacking a lot of basic information that ATF would need to trace it back to the purchaser in the United States," Goodman said.

Scott Thomason is spokesman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. He says things have changed since that cable was written. 
Since then, ATF translated its seized firearms database into Spanish for Mexican agents to use and now works more closely with its Mexican counterparts.

"Utilizing ATF personnel both in the United States and in Mexico, we will assist with identifying certain types of firearms and their origins for the purposes of tracing," he said.

Tracking the weapons used in Mexico’s cartel wars remains a controversy today. The State Department declined to be interviewed for this story.