Thousands of firearms manufactured or bought in the U.S. end up being used in crimes in Central America, according to an audit released last week that found about half of the weapons are smuggled into the region and the others are exported legally and “diverted” into criminals’ hands.
Florida, Texas and California were the most frequent sources of U.S.-purchased weapons that ended up in Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, according to the Government Accountability Office, Congress’ chief watchdog.
GAO investigators examined 27,240 requests that those countries submitted to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives for tracing from 2015 to 2019.
ATF found about 40% of the weapons were manufactured in the U.S. and the rest came from 39 other countries, the GAO said. A much smaller fraction were traced to a U.S. purchase.
Most were handguns, but there were some rifles and a small number of machine guns — about 1.7% of the total.
Pistols are the pick of street gangs such as MS-13 and 18th Street, which carry out killings and extortion in urban areas of the Central American countries. Rifles are more popular with drug traffickers, who use AR-15 or AK-47-style weapons to protect drug shipments, the GAO said.
Some neighboring countries say the U.S. is the source of many of the illegal firearms they find.
Central American nations are a particular focus right now. Vice President Kamala Harris is trying to figure out ways to stem the surge of illegal immigrants from that area.
While the migrants travel north, the administration says, U.S.-sourced weapons stream south. Central Americans head north to flee the subsequent violence.
Despite Ms. Harris’ focus, GAO investigators said, government agencies don’t prioritize U.S. guns sent to the region.
“In the course of our review, we found that information that could assist State with planning and implementing firearms-focused projects in the four countries is available from other U.S. agencies and from partner governments,” investigators said. “State officials told us they had not yet obtained this information because they had not focused on firearms trafficking in these countries.”
The State Department does pay to clean up the mess. From 2015 to 2019, American taxpayers sent $3 million to the four countries to help destroy weapons stockpiles.
With that money, Guatemala destroyed nearly 2,500 firearms and El Salvador wrecked about 2,000.
With the vice president’s prodding, the State Department is preparing to do more. The Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs plans to “elevate” gun trafficking as a “focus,” but the department acknowledges that it doesn’t have enough information about conditions in the countries to inform those efforts.
GAO recommended that the State Department coordinate with embassies and other government entities in the key countries to get a better sense of firearms trafficking. The department agreed.
The Central American nations don’t have exact data about firearms smuggling methods but believe most of them come across the land borders in the opposite direction of migrants.
Weapons smuggled through ports of entry generally come in small loads — one or two guns — according to U.S. and Central American officials. Indeed, the largest single shipment of weapons seized by border authorities en route to one of the four countries was just 10 firearms.
Weapons are also dismantled and shipped in pieces, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
ATF tracing showed that authorities found firearms from 39 other countries, including the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia, which no longer exist.
Central American nations aren’t the only ones reporting problems.
GAO looked at U.S.-sourced weapons flowing to Mexico last year. Investigators found that 70% of firearms recovered by Mexican authorities and submitted for ATF traces from 2014 to 2018 came from the U.S.
Mexico has filed a $10 billion lawsuit claiming American manufacturers knowingly facilitate the trafficking of weapons that end up in the hands of warring cartels, fueling violence that has seeped through the country in the past decade.
U.S. weapons are also fueling gang violence in Haiti, according to a November report by InSight Crime, which tracks organized crime in the Americas.
Federal prosecutors charged a Rhode Island man this month with trafficking “ghost guns” to the Dominican Republic.
Authorities said they spotted Robert Alcantara buying dozens of partially constructed firearms at a gun show in Pennsylvania in November. They tracked Mr. Alcantara and had him stopped on his way home. A search of his phone revealed images of tools to machine-complete firearms at home.
Mr. Alcantara denied selling weapons and denied having transported any to the Dominican Republic.
Law enforcement said agents found messages sent from his phone using the Signal app to arrange sales of weapons in the U.S. and the Dominican Republic.
In one message, Mr. Alcantara offered to use his mother as a mule to carry weapons, the ATF told a judge.
Agents also found a message in which Mr. Alcantara laid out his prices to assemble and transport one shipment of 15 ghost guns, worth a total of $9,624.