Legal U.S. Gun Sales Arm Mexican Cartels

By Stephanie Rabiner, Esq. on March 16, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Recent focus on the relationship between U.S. guns and Mexican cartels has been limited to the ATF's "Fast and the Furious." That plan had agents selling assault rifles to Mexican gun runners so that they could track high-ranking cartel members.

Though the ATF's actions are a bit questionable, there's actually a completely legal -- and perhaps more harmful -- way the U.S. is arming Mexican cartels. It's called "direct commercial sales" and it's operated by the State Department's Directorate of Defense Trade Controls (DDTC).

So how is taxpayer money paying to arm drug dealers? 

Under the direct commercial sales program, foreign governments can submit an application to the DDTC. When approved, they are free to purchase weapons made by private U.S. manufacturers.

In 2009 alone, U.S. manufacturers sold 18,709 guns to the Mexican military, reports CBS News. About 26% of those guns were "diverted" into the wrong hands.

This is because an estimated 150,000 Mexican soldiers have defected and now work for cartels. They take their military-issued guns with them.

Between "Fast and the Furious," the direct commercial sales program, and other channels, a significant number of U.S. guns go to Mexican cartels. Some estimate that 90% of all cartel guns seized by ATF can be traced to the U.S.

"Fast and the Furious" will likely never happen again, and gun trafficking is notoriously difficult to stop. But what can the government do about the direct commercial sales program? Can it prevent legally sold guns from being used by cartels?

The U.S. can't monitor Mexico's military and prevent defections. Thus the only way to curtail the number of U.S. guns used by Mexican cartels is to stop selling guns to Mexico. Either the State Department must choose to stop the sales, or Congress must pass a law prohibiting it. Until then, such sales will continue to occur.

Meanwhile, Mexican authorities have arrested a top figure of the Sinaloa drug cartel who has been linked to "Fast and Furious" weapons. Jose Antonio Torres Marrufo, 33, had been a top lieutenant to Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman. He was arrested last month.

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