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Neighbors in Arms

How U.S. guns are turning Central America into one of the most dangerous places in the world.


When President Barack Obama meets with various Central American leaders in Costa Rica this weekend, he will likely face criticism of U.S. domestic firearm laws. Like Mexico, where he met with President Enrique Peña Nieto on May 2, Central American countries have increasingly raised concerns about U.S. firearms trafficking. They have good reason to do so: more and more arms that originated in the United States are being used in violent crimes across the region. And given the recent death of background check legislation in the U.S. Senate, Obama may find it difficult to reassure his critics that the United States is effectively tackling the problem at home.

According to data compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) on U.S. firearms trafficking and an analysis of related U.S. prosecutions, thousands of U.S.-origin firearms (firearms that were either manufactured or imported into the United States) are finding their way to criminals in Central America in the last few years. The flow of U.S. weapons is heaviest to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras — all among the top 10 most violent countries in the world.

According to a new Woodrow Wilson Center report focusing on Guatemala, ATF discovered that 2,687 (or 40 percent) of the 6,000 seized firearms it analyzed from just one Guatemalan military bunker in 2009 originated in the United States. In the past five years, there have also been at least 34 U.S. prosecutions related to American firearms trafficking to Guatemala involving a total of 604 U.S.-origin firearms.

U.S. entities opposing stricter gun control laws have often claimed that Central American countries — and not the United States — are the major source of firearms trafficked to Mexican organized crime. Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, made exactly that case on Fox News in 2011, claiming that drug cartels are getting their guns "largely through Central America." But it is clear that many U.S. firearms are also flowing illicitly in the opposite direction: from the United States through Mexico to Guatemala and other Central American countries. (For accurate information on the magnitude of U.S.-origin firearms seizures in Mexico, see ATF’s data from 2007 to 2012.)    

Examples of north-south arms trafficking abound. As Los Zetas, a notorious Mexican drug cartel, has pushed into Guatemala in recent years to secure narco-trafficking routes, they have brought with them their U.S.-purchased weapons. After an apparent Zeta killing of 11 members of the Guatemalan Leon organized crime group in Zacapa in 2008, for instance, U.S. authorities traced two Beretta 92FS 9mm pistols found on the perpetrators to a McAllen, Texas gun store.  In another case in May 2011, Zetas reportedly killed 27 farm workers, including two women and three teenagers, in Los Cocos, Guatemala,   

At the same time, organized crime groups and common criminals from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras are also accessing U.S. firearms purchased at gun stores and gun shows throughout the United States. In September 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice revealed that Honduran nationals had purchased hundreds of firearms — including Glock and FN Five-Seven semi-automatic pistols, and AR-15-style rifles at gun shows in Florida for the eventual illicit transfer to Honduras and other Latin American destinations. 

According to sources at the ATF, traffickers are smuggling some U.S.-purchased firearms to Central America through lesser-known shipping companies by land and sea — often hiding firearms in shipments of older cars, clothes, and audio equipment. After a weather-related accident totaled a Guatemala-bound truck near the U.S. border with Mexico in 2009, for instance, U.S. authorities discovered that one of the boxes in the debris contained five U.S.-origin Glock pistols, among several other firearms hidden inside speakers. In Honduras, the ATF says, auto shops are even offering catalogues of various firearms to purchase that they will then smuggle into the country in old vehicles from the United States.

The new Woodrow Wilson Center report also reveals that Guatemalan authorities seized 46 U.S.-origin ordnance items in recent years, ranging from M-67 hand grenades to M-406 40mm grenades to an M-72 light anti-tank rocket. Except for the M-72 rocket, which the United States sold to Colombia, most of these items were part of U.S. Foreign Military Sales (FMS) to El Salvador in the late 1980s and early 1990s. According to ATF, MS-13 transnational gang members are smuggling these items from El Salvador into Guatemala, for sale to Los Zetas and other Mexican cartels.  

In recent years, U.S. and Central American authorities have begun to address arms trafficking — though much more could be done to combat the problem. Since the ATF placed its first firearms regional advisor in El Salvador in 2009, for instance, it has begun to sketch a better picture of U.S. trafficking there and in Guatemala. In February 2013, the ATF trained 56 Central American officials — mostly from Guatemala’s National Crime Laboratory — and since then, Guatemala has sent more than 100 firearm-trace requests per month to the ATF. Likewise, El Salvador also recently allowed the ATF to evaluate and trace thousands of firearms it has seized over the last few years. Still, U.S. authorities are struggling to get a picture of firearm-trafficking patterns elsewhere in the region, as other governments — Honduras and Nicaragua, in particular — have been slower to submit firearms trace requests. 

As President Obama meets with Central American leaders this weekend to discuss regional security issues, citizens of these countries may want to urge their governments to step up efforts to trace firearms to their origins. Timely tracing data not only provides the ATF with critical information needed to identify and stop traffickers in the United States, it also assists Central American governments in mapping how criminal networks in their countries operate and intersect.

Obama could also support efforts to establish a permanent ATF presence in the U.S. embassy in Guatemala and potentially other U.S. embassies across Central America. Since government-owned stockpiles of firearms and ordnance have been a major source of illicit arms transfers to organized crime here as well as in Mexico, Obama would do well to continue to fund efforts to destroy large surpluses of arms in these countries. According to a September 2012 U.N. study, both El Salvador and Guatemala have enough arms to provide each of their soldiers with seven firearms.

This weekend’s summit in Costa Rica provides an ideal opportunity for the United States and its Central American partners to commit to addressing the scourge of arms trafficking. The region is already one of the most violent places on Earth and the U.S. arms have clearly contributed to that mounting death toll.

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