A Few Surprising Numbers on Organized Crime in Mexico

After an extraordinarily stimulating and educative two day conference on Mexico, crime, drugs and governance, I can post only briefly despite some requests to document the conference at length because we were under the Chatham House rule. I will quote, Harper’s Index style, some surprising numbers that I learned and my reaction to them.

Number of gun shops at or near the 1,970 mile U.S.-Mexico Border: 7,600

Proportion of those gun shops that are on the U.S. side: 100%

This raises an intriguing policy thought experiment. U.S. border law enforcement agents, for political reasons, can do little to stem the southward flow of guns from the U.S. to Mexico. Mexican border law enforcement agents, for political reasons, are expected to make massive efforts to stop drugs from flowing northward into the U.S. What would happen if they made a deal: U.S. law enforcement agents near the border give up the gun chase and focus solely on drugs coming north from Mexico and their Mexican counterparts give up the drugs fight and focus solely on guns coming south from the U.S.?

Amount of money provided by the U.S. for the Merida initiative in Mexico: $1.4 Billion over 3 years

Amount of time it currently takes for the U.S. to spend this same amount of money in Afghanistan: 3 days.

Is the stability of Afghanistan truly 365 times more important to the U.S. than is the stability of Mexico? I think not.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

24 thoughts on “A Few Surprising Numbers on Organized Crime in Mexico”

  1. If we want Mexico stable (I think we do) there is nothing we could do that would be more helpful than legalizing drugs in the US, so there wouldn’t be enormous profits for the narcotics smugglers.

    1. Racial/ethnic slurs are not acceptable on this site. Thanks to “Anon” for pointing out the one in Brett’s comment and apologies to all for not catching and deleting it sooner.

  2. From a report in the New York Times: “Federal agents say about 90 percent of the 12,000 pistols and rifles the Mexican authorities recovered from drug dealers last year and asked to be traced came from dealers in the United States, most of them in Texas and Arizona.” So it’s clear where the drug dealer’s weapons are coming from.

    1. Well, that’s brilliant. Since you can look at a gun, and determine most of the time whether or not it was manufactured in the US based on it’s model, do you suppose that Mexican authorities really ask us to trace guns they know quite well came from someplace else? That’s not 90% of the total seizures, David, that’s 90% of the seizures they had reason to think originated in the US. It verges on tautological.

      Based on the information pried loose from the administration, (Which is still stonewalling for all they’re worth.) at least 20%, probably more, of those guns you mentioned, were deliberately sent south by our own government as a deliberate policy.

      1. A shill is a paid troll. Which are you? You provide no citations to support your contentions, and when someone supports theirs, it’s all hooey to you. Your word is worthless.

        1. What citation do I need? “Federal agents say about 90 percent of the 12,000 pistols and rifles the Mexican authorities recovered from drug dealers last year and asked to be traced came from dealers in the United States, most of them in Texas and Arizona.”

          90% of the guns they asked us to trace came from the US. Not 90% of the guns they recovered. Do you suppose that, when they recover a machine gun with Mexican army markings on it, they ask us to trace it, just so that the traces they ask of us will be a representative sample of their seizures?

        2. As well,

          GAO Report: U.S. Source For “Large Portion” of Mexican Crime Guns.

          “One important figure differs from what we had in our story, though it doesn’t change our conclusion about Obama’s statement. According to the GAO report, a total of 29,824 firearms were seized in Mexico in 2008. That number comes from CENAPI, the Spanish acronym for Mexico’s Planning, Analysis and Information Center for Combating Crime, GAO said. We had great difficulty pinning down the number of guns recovered, and eventually relied on an account citing Mexico’s attorney general, who reportedly said that nearly 30,000 guns had been recovered over the years 2007 and 2008 — a two-year period. The new data mean that Mexican officials are submitting an even smaller percentage of the firearms they seize for tracing by ATF than we had previously believed.

          But if the total number of guns seized in Mexico last year is greater than the figure we found, the bottom line remains the same: The 90 percent figure applies to the number of guns seized and submitted to the U.S. for tracing. It may also apply to all the guns seized, but there is no data to support that.

    2. For once, Bellmore is right. When you find drug/weapons seizures that include grenades and automatic weapons, you can be guaranteed that those did not come from the United States. The only thing the gun tracing data can actually tell you is what percentage of American-origin weapons come from what states (apparently mostly Arizona and Texas). The data can not tell you what percentage of seized weapons come from the United States.

      Mexican cartels have a lot of sources for guns other than the United States, and those sources can get them much better guns that American civilians can. Those sources include the same people they get cocaine from (Colombians), the Mexican army, and the Russian mob.

      1. What makes the reference in the post most obnoxious, of course, is that it comes while the details of Gunwalker, wherein the government deliberately fed American guns from those states to the cartels, are slowly being dragged out of the administration, in the teeth of massive stonewalling. The latest revelation being that Holder perjured himself before Congress, as the recent email dump proves he was being briefed on it at a time he denied all knowledge of it.

        Supposedly the point of this was to trace gun smuggling routes to Mexico, but in as much as no effort was made to actually follow the guns, they simply disappeared at the doors of the gun stores, (Which had been ordered by the ATF to allow the illegal sales.) and reappeared at the sites of murders. Over 200 to date.

        Leading many on my side to conclude that the real purpose of the exercise was to manufacture evidence for the claim then being advanced by the administration that the Mexican cartels were being armed by American gun stores.

        So, as I say, it’s pretty nervy to bring this PR op up at this time, as though it hadn’t been exposed.

  3. “Amount of money provided by the U.S. for the Merida initiative in Mexico: $1.4 Billion over 3 years

    Amount of time it currently takes for the U.S. to spend this same amount of money in Afghanistan: 3 days.”

    That’s an interesting comparison but it’s actually a lot worse than that because the 1.4 billion only refers to pledged money. The money has been actually released at a much slower rate. Also, it was been helicopter-heavy, which inflates the size of the package, but it’s a mistake to think that Mexico’s foremost problem is (or was in 2007) an aircraft shortfall.

  4. What would we spend 365 times as much money on in Mexico (assuming we had it – perhaps by getting out of Afghanistan)? Send troops over to Mexico like Rick Perry suggested? Right. Or maybe provide more money to the already corrupt police forces that’ll just get funneled to the DTO’s? Or increase the capability of the Mexican army to inflict more war on their citizens?

    Even with a lot more money, we’d be hard-pressed to compete with the DTO’s in financial compensation for soldiers.

    Part of the problem currently is the huge amount of money currently going from the U.S. to Mexico through non-official channels. Sending a lot more through official channels is just another way of escalating things.

  5. Keith,

    I haven’t seen recent figures,but as of the beginning of this year, probably not more than half of the appropriated funds for the Merida Initiative had actually been delivered to Mexican agencies. So the comparison with Afghanistan actually looks much worse in practice.

    Best regards.

    1. Alejandro and pc: Yes, I have heard this as well in terms of what was authorized and what has actually been appropriated and delivered. Disappointing.

  6. All available evidence overwhelmingly converges on the conclusion that the guns used by Mexican cartels do not come from the U.S., but instead come from Central America.

    Source: STRATFOR: “Mexico’s Gun Supply and the 90 Percent Myth,” Scott Stewart, February 16, 2011.

    “According to the GAO report, some 30,000 firearms were seized from criminals by Mexican authorities in 2008. Of these 30,000 firearms, information pertaining to 7,200 of them (24 percent) was submitted to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) for tracing. Of these 7,200 guns, only about 4,000 could be traced by the ATF, and of these 4,000, some 3,480 (87 percent) were shown to have come from the United States.

    “This means that the 87 percent figure relates to the number of weapons submitted by the Mexican government to the ATF that could be successfully traced and not from the total number of weapons seized by Mexican authorities or even from the total number of weapons submitted to the ATF for tracing. In fact, the 3,480 guns positively traced to the United States equals less than 12 percent of the total arms seized in Mexico in 2008 and less than 48 percent of all those submitted by the Mexican government to the ATF for tracing. This means that almost 90 percent of the guns seized in Mexico in 2008 were not traced back to the United States.”

    1. The gunsreport.com (clearly an unbiased outlet) story is guilty of precisely the same error they are criticizing in the story. We have one source of information that is at all reliable. We know what guns were submitted for tracing within the United States and what the results of those traces were. Some people have tried to suggest that the numbers resulting from these traces are representative of all guns seized in Mexico. Obviously this assumption is unwarranted and such criticism is entirely fair. On the other hand, this story implies that because only x% of guns were traced back to the United States, the other guns were not originating in the United States. This is precisely the same mistake. From the information provided, we just don’t know anything about those other guns. Is it plausible that the non-submitted guns were largely from other sources? Sure it is. Is it plausible that those guns weren’t submitted for other reasons? Sure it is. Efforts by either size to just make sweeping assumptions about these other guns are absurd.

      1. It’s hardly precisely the same error.

        The 90% fraudulent stat is designed to make it look like US gun dealers are supplying most of the Mexican cartels’ guns. In reality,

        The Mexicans submitted a fraction of the guns they seized to the US for tracing. Every reason to suppose it wasn’t a representative sample.

        Many of those could not be traced. Maybe because they didn’t actually come from the US?

        Of those submitted, and which could be traced, 90% were from the US, but not necessarily from private dealers rather than US sanctioned arms sales years ago.

        As I say, verging on a tautology: 90% of the guns the US could trace, which we could trace because they WERE from the US, came from the US.

        So, BIG mistake thinking, (Or rather, falsely implying… The source of the statistic was engaged in fraud, not a “mistake”.) that 90% of cartel weapons come from the US.

        Small mistake, which I don’t actually see anybody making, in thinking that 17% of said weapons proven to be from US means others weren’t too.

        Not at all comparable.

        1. It is precisely the same mistake. The quote is:

          “This means that almost 90 percent of the guns seized in Mexico in 2008 were not traced back to the United States.”

          Gunsreport.com is clearly implying that only the traced guns could possibly come from the United States. You are making a similar assumption.You say:

          “90% of the guns the US could trace, which we could trace because they WERE from the US, came from the US. ”

          Again, we don’t know how the guns sent to the United States for tracing were selected. You assume that all (or the vast majority) of available guns which they felt could be traced were submitted for tracing. I have yet to see any evidence that this is true. It is a perfectly plausible hypothesis but one which you argue on face validity alone. Your opposites have made the assumption that the guns submitted for tracing were in some way representative of all guns available. I doubt this is accurate but it isn’t absurd either. Both groups are making blind assertions about what the guns not submitted look like.

          Let me put this another way. Given the available evidence, which of eventual outcomes would shock me:

          a) that 80% of the guns seized originated from private sales in the United States
          b) that 50% of the guns seized originated from private sales in the United States
          c) that 20% of the guns seized originated from private sales in the United States

          None of them would.

          I am no expert on the composition of the market criminals in Mexico access to purchase arms. As evidence we have some anecdotes about Guatemalan guns and a sample about whose selection process I have seen zero details.

  7. I don’t get the impression Keith has any intention of acknowledging the fact that his post related a false propaganda talking point from the gun control movement. And at the most amazingly nervy time to be spreading it, too.

    1. Brett: I could make my usual statement about your tendency to twist arguments into straw men and attack people for things they did not say (e.g., No guns come from within Mexico), but I have something more important to say which is that if you ever post another racial or ethnic slur on this site you will be banned permanently from RBC.

      1. Alas, I’m an old fogy without a subscription to “What’s become a slur since you first learned English as a child” weekly. Fine, I’ll call them “IAWHS’s” (Illegal Aliens With Hispanic Surnames) or whatever Newspeak word is current. The iron law of euphemism guarantees that it will become a slur, in turn. The war to prevent people from expressing sentiments the left dislikes by pruning the language of the words used to express them is one the left will never win, but I suppose will never cease from fighting.

        The point remains that the determination to keep our southern border open to IAWHS’s guarantees that it’s going to be open to smuggling in both directions, drugs, guns, whatever. You want to stop guns from heading south, however few and fungible, you’re going to have to secure the border.

        In the meanwhile, do you care to acknowledge the fraudulent nature of that 90% statistic? “Same facts”, and all that BS, after all…

        Beats me how anyone can think that that supplying at least 3,480 firearms to Mexican drug gangs is trivial.

        I don’t know, maybe you’d like to ask the news outlets which aren’t reporting on the Obama administration feeding about that many guns to the Mexican cartels? They seem to have found SOME excuse.

        I don’t think it’s trivial as such. I just objected to the fraudulent statistic, invented as an excuse to infringe on Americans’ 2nd amendment rights.

        But a certain amount of smuggling across borders is inevitable, and if we really must do something about this, I prefer that something not be deliberately infringing on American’s rights. Even if that is the preferred approach of people who loathe the right in question.

        1. Yes, who could possibly have known that “wetback” was a racial slur. Sigh, it’s all the fault of those damn liberals. Did you know that you’re not even supposed to use the word “nigger” in polite company anymore? What’s the world coming to?

  8. Beats me how anyone can think that that supplying at least 3,480 firearms to Mexican drug gangs is trivial. That’s the traced seizures in 2008; the true annual number must be much higher, the cumulative total over a decade higher still – perhaps by two orders of magnitude. It’s an American responsibility to stop this evil trade, regardless of how big a share it is of the total supply.

    What about licensed exports of small arms by US manufacturers? If supplied to Mexico, the Federales would have the details of the guns anyway and would not need to ask for a trace.

    Worth remembering that criminals have a requirement for handguns as well as long guns, the latter more easily sourced from Central America. Guns are not perfect substitutes for each other, and crimping the supply of one type can introduce bottlenecks and operational problems for criminals. SFΙΚ automatic weapons do not flow northwards from Mexico across the US border. Why? Hard to get the ammo?

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