The Biden-Harris Administration continues to take significant and historic actions to disrupt the trafficking of illicit fentanyl and dismantle firearms trafficking networks. Drug traffickers’ supply of firearms enables them to grow their enterprises and move deadly drugs, including illicit fentanyl, into the United States. They use these weapons, which consist of everything from handguns to high caliber and assault weapons, against the Mexican people, including law enforcement and military personnel who try to stop their operations. That’s why discovering, disrupting, and dismantling firearms trafficking networks is critical to the Biden-Harris Administration’s efforts to combat illicit fentanyl.
On June 14, Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco, Deputy Homeland Security Secretary John Tien, U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Ken Salazar, Director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) Steve Dettelbach, and Deputy Homeland Security Advisor Josh Geltzer participated in the Southbound Firearms Trafficking Coordination Meeting at ATF Headquarters to discuss ongoing efforts to stem the trafficking of firearms from the United States into Mexico. They also identified near-term actions to scale up collaboration across the federal enterprise, including surging resources to support Operation Southbound, a multi-agency enforcement operation led by ATF that includes Department of Homeland Security (DHS) law enforcement partners.
The United States is committed to address firearms trafficking into Mexico that contributes to violence and the trafficking of illicit fentanyl by:
Expanding Firearms Trafficking Investigations
- The Department of Justice (DOJ) and DHS are working to stem firearms trafficking into Mexico through expanded investigatory initiatives.
- Through its signature firearms initiative, Operation Southbound, DOJ disrupts the trafficking of firearms from the United States to Mexico. Operation Southbound has deployed nine interagency Firearms Trafficking Task Forces to eight cities along the Southwest border. These teams focus on investigations that involve trafficking of firearms to Mexico – with participation from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), Customs and Border Protection (CBP), and state and local law enforcement, as well as prosecutors, U.S. Attorneys, and DOJ’s Criminal Division. As a result of these combined efforts, nearly 2,000 firearms were seized in the first half of FY23 – a 65.8% increase over the same period in FY22. Over 80,000 rounds of ammunition were seized in the first half of FY 23 – also a substantial increase over the same period in FY22.
- Through DHS’s Operation Without a Trace, ICE HSI and CBP, in partnership with ATF, identify, target, seize, and investigate the financing, transportation, and communications methods employed by firearms procurement and smuggling networks to disrupt and dismantle their illegal gun trafficking operations. Since its inception, Operation Without a Trace has led to over 700 arrests and the seizure of over 1,900 firearms and over 850,000 rounds of ammunition.
Holding Traffickers Accountable and Deploying New Authorities
- DOJ established a new anti-cartel weapons trafficking group along the Southwest border last year that already has proven effective at taking concerted action against firearm-trafficking networks. These cases include the prosecution in the District of Arizona of Jorge Zuniga-Aguilera, who was sentenced to 27 months in federal prison for trafficking at least 82 firearms, including one that was used to murder a Mexican citizen, and the prosecution in Laredo, Texas of Jaime Jesus Esquivel, who produced and illegally exported fully automatic weapons to Mexico for use by the cartels.
- DOJ is using new criminal authorities in the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act (BSCA) to identify and hold firearms traffickers accountable. These new legal authorities give DOJ critical tools to go after gun traffickers by, among other things, making it a federal crime to act as straw purchaser of firearms intended for unlawful use. DOJ has now charged over 100 defendants with violations of BSCA’s firearms-trafficking or straw-purchasing provisions (or both). The firearms-trafficking provision has proven particularly useful at the Southwest border, as more than half of all charges under that offense have been brought by border-state U.S. Attorneys’ Offices (USAOs).
- Using authorities under E.O. 14059 (“Imposing Sanctions on Foreign Persons Involved in the Global Illicit Drug Trade”), the Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has imposed multiple rounds of sanctions on individuals engaged in the trafficking of high-caliber firearms from the United States to Mexico’s powerful drug organizations.
Countering Rise of Ghost Guns and Other Dangerous Weapons
The rise of privately made firearms, aka “ghost guns,” has made the firearms trafficking challenge more acute. Last year, ATF issued a final rule to further rein in the proliferation of ghost guns.
To respond to emerging technologies that may pose a threat to public safety (i.e., privately made firearms, 3D printers, machinegun conversion devices, etc.), ATF created an Emerging Threats Unit (ETY) to conduct and coordinate multijurisdictional investigations. These cases are often undertaken in conjunction with other violent crime-related investigations – and represent a defined partnership with the respective USAOs.
- ATF is using all tools to stop the proliferation of illegal firearms, including partnering with USAOs to bring affirmative civil actions and obtain restraining orders to stop the sale of illegal machine gun conversion devices.
- In a March 14 Executive Order, President Biden also directed the independent Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to issue a public report analyzing how gun manufacturers market firearms to minors and how such manufacturers market firearms to all civilians, including through the use of military imagery.
Stemming the Supply of Illegal Guns
- In 2021, the Justice Department announced a new policy to underscore zero tolerance for willful violations of the law by federally licensed firearms dealers that put public safety at risk.
- The Administration is taking action to promote the safe storage of firearms, which can prevent thefts contributing to the flow of trafficked firearms. For example, ATF issued a final rule clarifying firearms dealers’ statutory obligations to make available for purchase compatible secure gun storage or safety devices. In a March 14 Executive Order, President Biden directed key members of his Cabinet to increase public awareness and use of safe storage of firearms. He also directed the Secretary of Transportation, in consultation with the Department of Justice, to work to reduce the loss or theft of firearms during shipment and to improve reporting of such losses or thefts, including by engaging with carriers and shippers.
Continuing to Focus on U.S. Outbound Operations and Enforcement
- CBP is committed to disrupting the smuggling of weapons and currency out of the United States. Through numerous robust outbound operations performed at ports of entry along the Southwest Border every day, CBP is uniquely postured to navigate the complexities associated with stemming the tide of international firearms trafficking. In Fiscal Year 2023 to date, CBP has seized over 1,500 firearms and firearm components and over 100,000 rounds of ammunition.
- ICE HSI is focused on disrupting the illicit flow of firearms, firearms components, and ammunition from the United States to other countries. HSI special agents investigate individuals and criminal organizations that are responsible for the financing, procurement, brokering, transportation, and dissemination of firearms in support of transnational criminal organizations. In Fiscal Year 2023 to date, ICE HSI has seized nearly 1,000 firearms and firearm components and more than 125,000 rounds of ammunition.
Deepening Collaboration with Mexico
- In partnership with the Government of Mexico, DOJ – in coordination with the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement (INL) – expanded access to the eTrace system in Mexico, enabling Mexican law enforcement to quickly track down the origin and purchaser of many of the guns used in crimes. To date, they have established accounts in the majority of Mexico’s states and have plans to complete implementation in the remaining states this year. INL and ATF have collectively trained 757 forensic experts and investigators from federal and state law enforcement agencies on firearms and explosives identification, as well as more than 118 forensics experts and investigators from federal and state law enforcement agencies on ATF’s eTrace system.
- As a result of these efforts, nearly 12,000 traces were submitted to ATF by Mexican government agencies in the first half of FY 23, and over a third of those were successfully traced to a purchaser. Successful eTrace hits have informed a number of U.S.-led firearms trafficking investigations and prosecutions, including the Villa Union case that resulted in the prosecution of 18 individuals. Eighteen states and the Federal Attorney General’s Office (FGR) have access to eTrace to date.
- Through INL, State works closely with the Mexican government to strengthen their counternarcotics efforts through capacity-building training, technical assistance, and provision of technical equipment, in addition to supporting police professionalization, criminal investigations, and interdiction at the U.S.-Mexico border and air, sea, and land ports of entry. In collaboration with DOJ, INL has supported the accreditation of 25 ballistics laboratories in 19 Mexican states and the FGR. As part of the accreditation process, INL provides material and equipment donations, including ballistics analysis equipment and mobile labs to facilitate firearms-related investigations, including firearms trafficking. INL aims to accredit one ballistics laboratory in all 32 Mexican states by 2025.
- Recently, Mexican Attorney General Gertz and his Deputy Attorney General Gallo established a vetted unit to work exclusively on firearms trafficking and to focus on strategic enforcement efforts.
Driving Ongoing Research
- ATF has assembled a team of subject matter experts from within the Bureau and from academic and related fields to produce the National Firearms in Commerce and Trafficking Assessment (NFCTA), a comprehensive examination of commerce in firearms and the diversion of firearms to illegal markets. Although ATF issues a variety of public and law enforcement reports and bulletins regarding firearm commerce, trafficking, and related issues every year, it has not undertaken a joint academic study on the scale of the NFCTA in more than 20 years. Recognizing that effective approaches to reducing gun violence are data-driven, grounded in research, and informed by multi-disciplinary input, the NFCTA will issue its initial assessment in a series of four separate reports. ATF has published NFCTA Volume I National Firearms Commerce and Trafficking Assessment: Firearms in Commerce (atf.gov) and Volume II, National Firearms Commerce and Trafficking Assessment (NFCTA) (atf.gov), with Volume III due later this year.