The current ‘drug war’ taking place in Mexico has left over 35,000 dead people to this day. One of the main strategies that the Mexican government has supported to curb violence is the disruption of weapons smuggling that, they assure, comes mainly from the US (El Universal, 2009). Yet the strategy has focused more on political changes within the US, like pressuring for the renewal of an assault weapons ban that expired in 2004 and similar actions that are sensitive to American citizens in relation to their right to bear arms. It has also largely ignored alternative sources of weapons, as well as other entry points that are exploited to smuggle firearms.

Analyzing the cross-border smuggling of weapons can be done using preventive methods like Situational Crime Prevention and related techniques, which try to identify practical methods to reduce opportunities for crimes (Bullock, Clarke, and Tilley, 2010).  While most research on SCP focuses on ‘common’ crimes such as theft or street crime (Kleemans, Soudijn, and Weenink, 2010), recent studies have applied this analysis to different types of organized crimes with positive results, like contraband cigarettes (Von Lampe, 2010) and organized timber theft (Graycar and Felson, 2010). The case of cross-border arms smuggling has received little attention from academia. In the case of Mexico, the focus has been largely on weapons smuggled from the US-Mexico border. Alternative sources of weapons and the crime processes involved in trafficking from Mexico’s southern border will therefore be discussed.

This paper argues that SCP measures could be used to curb arms cross-border smuggling at Mexico’s southern border by manipulating the conditions to increase the risk and effort of arms traffickers at the smuggling process through customs control. It also analyses the processes before the smuggling process, offerings some preventive measures. It further argues that these measures can only be successfully implemented if broader societal contexts are taken into account.

This essay will first present an overview of the arms trafficking phenomenon within the context of Mexican organized crime and its current state of affairs, focusing on the illegal trafficking business from Guatemala. The second section discusses the conceptual frameworks of SCP and its relevance to cross-border arms smuggling into Mexico. The final section offers possible preventive measures to tackle this specific issue.

Arms trafficking in Mexican organized crime

Several illegal arms trafficking processes into Mexico have been identified (Aguilar and Castañeda, 2006; UNODC, 2010; Stewart and Burton, 2009). These include the smuggling of weapons from: 1) Mexican military arsenals, especially military grade firearms, diverted by corrupt soldiers or deserters that take their weapons with them; 2) the international black market, like that in the South American ‘tri-border’ region or in Central America; and 3) the lightly regulated US gun market. Of these three, the latter is considered to be the main source, and thus, has been the most extensively reviewed.

The US arms market, with its lax laws, no background checks, and inexpensive weapons, is deemed the best place for DTOs to get hold of semi-automatic and conventional weapons (UNODC, 2010). With the US and Mexican authorities concentrating on curbing arms smuggling from the US, DTOs have managed to exploit the international black market of small arms which offers a greater variety of high-caliber weapons. Most resources dedicated to curbing arms smuggling are therefore concentrated on US-Mexico bilateral cooperation that focus mainly on the US-Mexico border, where, US officials claim, indeed is the main entry point for semi-automatic and conventional firearms (La Jornada, 2011). Yet, official statistics are less than clear regarding the sources of many of the weapons, leaving a number of options unexplored.

The Mexican government has paid little attention to alternative sources of weapons that could be supplying the DTOs. The Mexican military, the only institution that can legally sell firearms within the country, has had approximately 100,000 desertions in the last ten years, almost half the total number of personnel in the armed forces, many who take their weapons with them and join the DTOs (Aristegui, 2010). Central America represents another important source of weapons for a number of reasons: 1) its proximity and its lengthy/porous border with Mexico, and 2) the region is full of weapons that were smuggled to arm the civil wars in the 1970’s and 1980’s as part of the Cold War (Stewart and Burton, 2009; Burton 2009). US authorities have claimed that the vast majority of high-caliber, non-conventional weapons seized in Mexico come not from the US, but from Central America where they are acquired from military arsenals (Petrich, 2011). While a recent report by the US Government Accountability Office (2009) claims that 90% of weapons used by DTOs in Mexico come from the US, this number actually represents the number of firearms that were seized in Mexico, submitted to the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) for tracing, and successfully traced back to back to the US, which would account for only about 20% of the total (Burton, 2009; Stewart and Burton, 2009; Stewart 2011; Aguilar and Castañeda, 2006). Little is known about the rest of the weapons, which are untraceable and account for about two thirds of the weapons seized by the Mexican federal authorities (UNODC, 2010). Data regarding the source of some of these and the processes involved in smuggling them point to Central America as a major supplier of weapons.

Situational Crime Prevention

SCP offers an alternative theory to explain crime, focusing on the crime itself and not on the criminal. The main goal of SCP is to reduce opportunities for crime, paying particular attention to the crime setting instead of the offender and on prevention rather than detecting and punishing offenders (Clarke, 1997). To do this, it tries to manipulate the environment in order to increase the risks and efforts of offending, and reducing the rewards of offending. It also requires being crime specific and familiar with the specific crime procedure, since different kinds of crime are influenced by different sets of opportunity structures (Clarke, 1997).

The purpose of applying SCP to organized crime is to specify the methods used by these groups instead of focusing on the organizations themselves, and to identify specific points to target with preventative measures (Bullock, Clarke, and Tilley, 2010). This involves identifying the opportunity structures, or the immediate physical and social conditions needed for the crime as well as the wider social conditions that make the crime possible (Bullock, Clarke, and Tilley, 2010). The facilitating conditions refer to the broad context that facilitates the offense, in this case the trafficking of arms, as shown in Table 1. The immediate conditions refer to the series of steps and procedures needed to commit a crime, namely the crime script (Cornish, 1994). Addressing these parts of the opportunity structure would enable finding pinch-points to intervene.

Linked to the idea of organized criminal events is the concept of crime scripts, developed to analyze the commission of crimes as routine behaviors shaped by rational choices (Cornish, 1994). This systematic approach provided a framework for mapping the steps of certain crimes. Scripts can be general, or broken down into more specific forms of crime. For this paper, for example, a crime script on cross-border smuggling would be too general since smuggling could be of humans, drugs, or weapons. Specificity is needed because each crime varies in the steps and methods used. Hancock and Laycock (2010) go further and adapt the script concept to organized crime, breaking it down into criminal networks, criminal acts, and criminal lifestyle, which they argue offer opportunities for preventative measures. Still, this is another area where organized crime could pose difficulties, since many types of organized crime processes are much more dynamic and adaptable to environmental changes (Bullock, Clarke, and Tilley, 2010).

Organized crime presents a new set of challenges concerning some of the assumptions underpinning SCP. The limited amount of literature concerning the application of SCP to organized crime has been focused on so-called industrialized societies, with solid institutions and where organized criminal groups lack the means to undermine the state’s control. Countries such as Netherlands, Britain, and the US, which have successfully applied SCP to a number of organized crimes, differ a lot from developing countries like Mexico, which have weak, dysfunctional, and corrupt institutions. As von Lampe (2011) mentions, broader societal contexts are crucial when addressing preventative strategies against organized crime in developing countries. He further argues that the situational model and its mention of offenders, targets, and crime settings do not apply properly to organized crime, since offenders are supposedly more resourceful and employ more strategic planning than common criminals who are more opportunistic (2011: 153). Social conditions are also influential, where weak and corrupt state institutions along with motivated, resourceful criminals can be linked to the lack of capable of guardians (Edwards and Levi, 2008, in von Lampe, 2011: 154; von Lampe, 2010). These challenges limit the applicability of SCP to the cross-border smuggling of arms into Mexico.

Table 1: Facilitating conditions for arms smuggling

  • Strong demand for weapons by Mexican DTOs
  • High purchasing power of DTOs as a result of lucrative illicit drugs trade
  • Extensive/porous southern border, lacking technological infrastructure and efficient control
  • Numerous international customs with severe institutional problems like rampant corruption and poor regulation
  • Need to keep a balance between commercial flow and cross-border security
  • Lack of investment in Mexico’s south border with Guatemala and Belize
  • Lack of intelligence cooperation on arms smuggling with Guatemala, who shares the longest border in the south
  • US highest arms exporter, selling to Guatemala legally with little regulation
  • Lack of intelligence work on international black markets for arms and their presence in Mexico
  • Weak inter-agency links between Mexico and Guatemala
  • Easy access to high caliber weapons in Central America because of weak institutions, old stash of high caliber guns left over from civil wars, weak border controls within Central America and between Mexico and Central America
  • Military-grade weapons stolen or diverted from Guatemala military caches and sold to black market

Arms trafficking from Guatemala

The illegal arms trade is a complex problem to tackle for a number of reasons. First, it is intertwined with the legal arms trade, a profitable legal business, which makes it hard to control given the financial interests involved. Also, regulations concerning the commercialization of weapons vary across borders, making the illegal trade more profitable for those selling to criminal groups in countries with tougher regulations. Another complexity is the tracking of illegal weapons, which as durable commodities can be transported and reused without difficulty, and which can be easily hidden among licit trade. The illegal smuggling of weapons from Guatemala and Mexico presents some of the challenges mentioned. The process can be separated in three main phases: importation of weapons, diversion to black market, and cross-border smuggling, as presented by anecdotal evidence put forward by a former officer from the Guatemalan military (Noticieros Televisa, 2011).


The Guatemalan government imports its weapons mainly from the US through private institutions linked to the government. Small amounts of weapons are imported from US warehouses both for selling to the government and for arming their security personnel, so they argue. Prices are bought at range between US$ 700 and US$ 1,000, and are sold at US$ 2,200 to US$ 2,500. There is no control on the amount of weapons they import, so for example, if the government makes an order of 5,000 weapons, the company can legally purchase a greater amount, say 10,000, doing what they wish with the surplus. Many of these end up in the black market. Given the high demand by Mexico DTOs, these have become the most active buyers of weapons in Central America.

Diverting weapons to black market

Once inside, weapons orders are lightly regulated, meaning that these can be sold without leaving a paper trail. Since the importation process is done by businesses linked to the government, the imported weapons are not registered to the General Directive for the Control of Weapons and Munitions (DIGECAM). A middleman facilitates these business transactions through a number of front companies for armored clothing and lease/purchase of armored vehicles, and handles the paper work for imports. Besides the lack of legal frameworks for the import of weapons, the middleman also engages in corruption by offering bribed to state officials, who permit or turn a blind eye to transactions to third parties, like organized criminals. The illegal sale to organized criminal groups is what makes the business profitable, giving these businesses a lot of corrupting power.

Cross-border smuggling

Finally, the weapons are smuggled in either two ways: 1) sellers smuggle the weapons through the main customs border crossings and deliver them directly to the buyers, or 2) the seller delivers the weapons to the buyer at the border crossing, where the latter takes care of the smuggling process. Alternative routes are also used, like maritime or through unofficial entry points along the border. For the purpose of this paper, only cross- border smuggling through customs will be considered.

Applying SCP to arms trafficking in southern Mexico

A number of situational measures are explored next. A script outlining both the import and diversion of weapons is shown in Table 2, along with possible preventative measures. Following that are some measures for reducing opportunities for cross-border smuggling focused on border control.

Table 2: Crime script for weapons import and diversion to black market

Script Action Preventative Measure
Government makes weapons order to institution
  • Create body to oversee domestic transactions on weapons sales
Institution makes order to US warehouse
  • Implement limit to weapons purchases
  • Create body to oversee foreign transactions on weapons sales
Institution contacts middleman for legal arrangements
  • Impose strict rules on the management of legal weapons purchases from abroad
Weapons are delivered to Guatemala
  • Register detailed entry at customs (buyer, seller, number of weapons and their serial numbers)
  • Create a national database with all information on weapons trade
Institution delivers government order
  • Include invoice with government order AND total order made by institution
  • Include detailed information on the destination of all weapons
Surplus weapons are diverted to criminal groups
  • Enforce strict bookkeeping practices in the import of weapons
  • Implement periodic, compulsory inventory checks to account for weapons orders
Revenues from illegal sales are laundered in front businesses
  • Increase regulations on private businesses associated with government institutions

Opportunity-reducing measures in border control

An obvious preventative measure, and the most relevant to Mexico given the low rate of weapons confiscation, is improving border control. This task is especially daunting given the need of facilitating trade while controlling border regulation (Widdowson, 2004). This issue shows a limit to the use of SCP to organized crime, where failing institutions affect the way in which situational measures are successfully applied for reducing crime, something that is common in developing countries. Mexico’s institutional weaknesses present a challenge to efficient implementation of opportunity-reducing measures in border control.

Customs regulation is the most relevant strategy for curbing cross-border smuggling of weapons into Mexico. The country has a total 38 international customs making up the main entry and exit points for both licit and illicit goods. The north border with the US has nineteen customs, while the south border has two, one with Belize and one with Guatemala, with the remaining seventeen being maritime customs (Aduana Mexico, 2011). Most of the investment on border control to counter organized crime has gone to the northern border with the US, with an investment of about 287.5 million in the year 2009 as part of US-Mexico bilateral plan (El Economista, 2009), while the southern border received only US$ 3 million in 2009 of US aid for the same purpose (El Informador, 2011). A recent study by a special governmental commission tasked with diagnosing the current state of the customs service in Mexico found that customs operations are porous and permissive, are run as a closed system and managed by various interests, and are without a proper institutional design (in Cervantes, 2011). The report says that that illicit smuggling happens because of incompetence, corruption, and lack of technological infrastructure, and goes on saying that in the years 2006 and 2007, only 2% of illegal weapons, or 900, were confiscated in customs, while the rest, 38,404 weapons, were confiscated inside the country after military raids. In addition to customs, other formal access points exist along the borders. In the southern border with Guatemala, about 15 formal points of entry exist, nine of which are located in one Mexican state, Chiapas, while maritime entry points are also numerous and exploited by smugglers (InfoChiapas, 2010), adding to a total of about 200 legal and illegal crossings (Thompson, 2006). This shows a very poor performance in terms of preventing arms trafficking, and points to a promising pinch-point for intervention.

In relation to customs three issues have been identified as the main obstacles for efficient border control: corruption, incompetence, and lack of infrastructure. Corruption has been identified as a main problem affecting border management (Seniora and Poitevin, 2010). The commission said there was a significant rise in the perception of corruption in the customs service, mentioned bribes and threats to customs agents by DTOs as the main forms of corruption (Cervantes, 2011). A variety of situational methods could be applied to improve border control. Since threats and bribes are directed at individuals, a rotating system could be devised in which customs agents would not be assigned to fix posts. A management system can be implemented for controlling the assignments of customs agents. This would make it more difficult for DTOs to know which agents are in which border entries in a specific time. These measures, though, can only be implemented in conjunction with broader changes like an overhauling of the customs service.

Increasing awareness and attention to the illegal arms trade issue in the southern border can also increase the risks for arms traffickers. Active campaigns directed at border communities can affect smugglers’ perception of the risks involved. Yet again, this could only be successfully tackled if efficient customs controls are developed. Only implementing situational measures would prove useless if the strategy is not backed by efficient enforcement measures. Even if so, displacement is likely to happen, leading smugglers to shift to the less formal and less guarded border crossings. Displacement to maritime entry points is likely. Yet, if customs control is reformed, diffusion of benefits could take place where smugglers would need to shift to less sophisticated smuggling techniques, like using small boats that can carry less cargo, to avert attention instead of using main ports. Another form of displacement is the increasing use of airstrips. Improvements in technological infrastructure could increase the risks and efforts, but these kinds of developments would also need to be part of a broader reform agenda.


This paper looked at how situational measures could be applied to the cross-border smuggling of arms into Mexico from its southern border. This was discussed taking into account the broader contextual settings for this specific case, like the institutional failings that plague Mexico’s customs service as well as other developing countries. More thorough and reliable data would also be needed to properly assess cross-border smuggling of arms from Central America, and thus devise proper measures. The complex nature of the problem, a cross-border organized criminal activity, posed certain challenges that need to be addressed empirically in more detail. Further research needs to be conducted on specific criminal events of cross-border arms smuggling, but this must be accompanied by greater data collection capabilities on arms smuggling processes. Especially important is the task of looking at the application of situational measures across countries, considering the importance of context when implementing innovative measures such as Situational Crime Prevention. 

* Originally written in 2011


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