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Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives

February 7, 2008

Statement of William Hoover, Assistant Director for Field Operations Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Before the United States House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere

Chairman Engel, Ranking Member Burton, and distinguished Members of the Subcommittee: I am William Hoover, Assistant Director for Field Operations of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). I have been an agent with ATF since 1987, and in my current position I oversee the operations of all of the Bureau’s field offices, including those along the Southwest Border. It is an honor to appear before you today to discuss ATF’s current role in the suppression and interdiction of U.S. sourced firearms illegally trafficked into Mexico. The violence fueled by Mexico’s drug cartels poses a serious challenge for both U.S. and Mexican Law Enforcement in that the drug trafficking related violence is threatening the well being and safety of citizens on both sides of the border.

Before I discuss the issue of firearms trafficking along the Southwest border, I want to provide you with background information about ATF. ATF is a law enforcement agency within the Department of Justice dedicated to reducing violent crime, preventing terrorism and protecting our Nation. The men and women of ATF perform the dual responsibilities of enforcing Federal firearms and explosives laws and regulating the firearms and explosives industries. We are committed to working directly, and through partnerships, to investigate and reduce violent crime involving firearms and explosives, acts of arson, and illegal trafficking of alcohol and tobacco products.

ATF has a strategic role in investigating violent crime along the Southwest border. ATF has statutory authorities to address violent crime and firearms trafficking in the region as we have regulatory oversight over Federal Firearms Licensees (FFL), from whom all new guns are purchased.

ATF is engaged in the interdiction and abatement of the flow of U.S sourced firearms into Mexico for use by major drug trafficking organizations (DTO). ATF’s expertise and involvement in identifying, disrupting, and dismantling illegal sources of firearms to Mexico is not a new development. We have been engaged in utilizing our crime-fighting expertise, assets, and regulatory inspection authority to stem the flow of U.S. sourced firearms to DTOs. Further, ATF’s partnerships and participation in task forces, such as the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force, enable ATF to gain the benefits of each partner’s expertise and specific authorities and engage in real-time communication to effectively and efficiently combat the illicit trafficking of firearms and consequent violent crime.

ATF has long been committed to investigating and disrupting groups and individuals who utilize firearms trafficking as a means to facilitate the drug trade on both sides of the border through the use of firearms illegally obtained in the U.S. and subsequently smuggled into Mexico. As you know, President Calderon and Attorney General Medina Mora have identified the cartel-related violence as a top priority and recently proclaimed the illegal trafficking of U.S.-sourced firearms the “number one” crime problem affecting the security of Mexico today.

Public safety along the U.S.-Mexico border has deteriorated considerably and Mexico has seen nearly four years of intensified turf battles between the three major DTOs operating within Mexico. Ironically, these battles for control over lucrative narco-corridors into the U.S. from Mexico are the result of intense U.S. and Mexican law enforcement and military counter-narcotics operations and extraditions that commenced in late 2003 targeting the leaders of the most prolific Mexican DTOs. In seeking to gain control of the disputed corridors, namely the Baja/Tijuana, Sonora/Nogales and Nuevo Laredo corridors, DTOs and their enforcers have more aggressively turned to the U.S. as a source of firearms. The weapons are then used against other DTOs, the Mexican Military, Mexican and U.S. law enforcement officials, as well as innocent civilians on both sides of the border.

Intelligence gathered by ATF and other domestic Federal law enforcement entities strongly suggests that the DTOs have tasked their money laundering, distribution and transportation apparatuses, all of which reach across the border into the United States, to acquire firearms for illegal transfer back to Mexico for use in facilitating narco-trafficking and other criminal activities. These DTOs are comprised of loosely affiliated individuals and/or groups used to facilitate all aspects of the illicit drug and gun trade between Mexico and the U.S. We know that these same groups are employed by DTOs to transport narcotics and firearms and to launder narcotics-related proceeds, are highly functional in every major city - on both sides of the border - where the DTOs conduct drug trafficking operations. The major challenge for both U.S. and Mexican law enforcement is to identify, disrupt and to ultimately dismantle these DTO infrastructures as a means to decrease the demand for U.S. sourced firearms.

The increased incidence of firearms trafficking to Mexico (from the U.S.) is influenced by numerous factors, including:

  • The strict prohibition and regulation of firearms in Mexico; coupled with the increased enforcement efforts by the Mexican government and the increased demand for firearms by the DTOs;
  • A readily accessible source of firearms and ammunition originating in mostly the secondary market such as gun shows, flea markets and private sales;
  • Illegal “straw purchases” of firearms from FFLs who are often unwitting participants in these schemes.

In analyzing the data collected through ATF’s investigative and regulatory operations that have been focused on the abatement of illegal firearms trafficking to Mexico, there is more than enough evidence to indicate that over 90 percent of the firearms that have either been recovered in, or interdicted in transport to Mexico, originated from various sources within the United States. An in-depth, comprehensive analysis of firearms trace data over the past three years shows that Texas, Arizona and California are the three most prolific source states, respectively, for firearms illegally trafficked to Mexico. In FY 2007 alone, approximately 1,112 guns which originated in Texas, Arizona and California were submitted for tracing from Mexico. For all other U.S. States in FY 2007, approximately 435 guns were submitted for tracing from Mexico. It should be noted, however, that although the greatest proportion of firearms trafficked to Mexico are originating out of the U.S. States along the Southwest border (namely Texas, Arizona and California), ATF trace data has established that cartels are also acquiring firearms from other States as far east as Florida and as far north and west as Washington State.

Another challenge ATF faces is the DTOs’ use of “straw purchasers”. The “straw purchaser” is someone who is not prohibited from purchasing firearms but who illegally purchases firearms by posing as the actual buyer when really the guns are being purchased for firearms traffickers employed by the drug cartels. Although “straw purchasing” is a tactic used by cartels to acquire firearms through the U.S. market, straw purchasers and schemes can be exceptionally difficult to identify.

In addition to straw purchases, DTOs understand the ease with which used firearms can be purchased from individuals without records or background checks.

Until recently, the DTO’s “weapons of choice” had been .38 caliber handguns. However, recent trace data of firearms seized in Mexico and “Stateside” interdictions of firearms bound for Mexico shows that cartel members and enforcers have now developed a preference for higher quality, more powerful weapons. The most common of these firearms now includes the Colt AR-15 .223 caliber assault rifle, the AK-47 “type/variant” 7.62 caliber assault rifle, FN 5.57 caliber pistols (better known in Mexico as the “Cop Killer”. or “Asesino de la Policia”). In conjunction with the dramatic increase in U.S. source firearms that have either been recovered in Mexico, or interdicted prior to reaching Mexico, ATF also routinely seizes small arms and assault rifle ammunition destined for Mexico. ATF has also seized large quantities of .50 caliber ammunition for use in high-caliber weapons.

A recent seizure that occurred in connection with an ATF case in the Phoenix Arizona area culminated in the arrest of 16 individuals, the recovery of 16 “weapons of choice” rifles, 19 handguns, $13,000 in cash, a vehicle, 60 high-capacity magazines for AK-47 variants, and nearly 10,000 rounds of ammunition. In addition to the physical acquisitions, a significant amount of intelligence was gathered on firearms trafficking in Mexico, which will assist ATF in current and future investigations.

Often, ATF is asked what can be done to significantly decrease the number of firearms originating in the U.S. that ultimately make their way into the hands of DTOs in Mexico. ATF has developed and continues to enhance an extremely effective real-time intelligence and evidence sharing network with the Mexican Government. Given current circumstances and increasing volume, however, the system has been overwhelmed on both sides of the border. ATF has found that merely seizing firearms through interdiction without thoroughly investigating the supply and trafficking infrastructure accomplishes little in terms of ‘tangibly’ affecting the flow of firearms to Mexico. It is imperative to trace each and every firearm intercepted before it reaches Mexico or to trace the weapon once it is recovered in Mexico

Thus, an essential component of ATF’s firearms trafficking investigations is the tracing of firearms seized in both countries. Each seized firearm is entered into the ATF Firearms Tracing System database, which records specific identifying information, i.e., serial number, manufacturer, importer and caliber, for each weapon seized. Using this information, ATF can work backwards from the point of seizure to the first retail sale, to determine the original purchaser information and possibly learn additional pertinent information such as whether other seized guns were purchased at the same time. Using all of this information, ATF is able to reconstruct the flow of weapons along the border, how and where they are being purchased, and who is purchasing them. Without such information, ATF has no way to trace the source of such firearms. Further, without being able to trace these firearms, there is no way to tell whether or not the firearms actually originated within the U.S., nor can we come to know by what means such weapons were procured and transported to Mexico. Firearms tracing is an essential starting point for identifying and eliminating illicit sources of firearms in the U.S.

As such, ATF is working with Mexican officials to increase their current usage of ATF’s eTrace system. eTrace provides web based access to ATF’s Firearms Tracing System to allow law enforcement both domestically and internationally the ability to trace data from firearms seized in connection with a criminal investigation. eTrace allows law enforcement to access their trace results directly and offers the ability to generate statistical reports to analyze their trace data to determine firearms trafficking trends or patterns. In addition, ATF is developing Memorandums of Understanding with Mexico to provide e Trace training to nine consulates in Mexico. This initiative should increase the amount of trace information Mexico provides to ATF each year.

From FY 2006 to FY 2007, we experienced almost 100 percent increase in the number of trace requests from Mexico. With the deployment of eTrace to the nine consulates and the eventual implementation of Spanish eTrace, these numbers should continue to increase in the coming years.

ATF is also part of the Administration’s recently announced “Merida initiative.” This initiative is a comprehensive U.S. strategy to address drug smuggling, firearms trafficking, and increasing violence in Mexico and Central America. If the FY 2008 supplemental is enacted, ATF would receive $2 million through the initiative to assist in the expansion of Spanish eTrace to countries in the Central America region. Funding would also be used to deploy an ATF regional advisor to Central American countries to assist them with firearms trafficking issues. As part of the proposed Spanish eTrace expansion, ATF would provide training to Mexican and Central American countries to ensure that the technology is utilized to the greatest extent possible.

ATF’s goal is to deploy eTrace software to all thirty-one states within the Republic of Mexico. Without the expanded use of eTrace, Mexico will continue to provide only limited information and intelligence related to firearms seizures in Mexico. Without that information, ATF faces greater challenges in reducing the amount of firearms trafficked across the border.

It is clear that one of the greatest challenges facing law enforcement officials today, both on the border and throughout the country, is the increased incidence of gun-related violence. To address the overwhelming increase of violence and firearms trafficking along the Southwest border ATF has initiated “Project Gunrunner”, a comprehensive strategy that incorporates ATF’s expertise and resources to attack the problem both domestically and internationally.

Currently, under “Project Gunrunner”, ATF has approximately 100 special agents dedicated to investigating firearms trafficking on a full-time basis and 25 Industry Operations Investigators (IOI) responsible for conducting regulatory inspections of FFLs. We are expanding our overall presence at the El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC) as the central repository and “clearinghouse” for all weapons related intelligence collected and developed not only by all of our ATF field and Mexico offices and attaches, but also by all of the other Federal, State and local law enforcement entities involved in narcotics interdiction and investigation along the U.S./Mexico border.

Our increased staffing levels at EPIC, will allow ATF to increase its intelligence activities with other EPIC law enforcement partners stationed there, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) and the Texas Department of Public Safety. ATF also works closely with these agencies’ task forces which operate along the Southwest border, sharing intelligence, and conducting joint investigations.

ATF is also focusing our limited industry operations resources on and near the border region to identify FFLs who may be involved, directly or indirectly, in supplying firearms to known traffickers. As part of “Project Gunrunner” we will seek to expand inspection and compliance activities to include focused forward traces of firearms that, through historical firearms recovery and trace data have been identified as “weapons of choice” for the cartels and their enforcers.

These inspections will also seek to use firearms tracing and proactive investigative measures to identify and interdict those who pose as legitimate buyers while they are actually straw purchasing firearms for cartel members and associates who otherwise are prohibited from purchasing firearms in the U.S.

ATF is also intensifying our education and liaison efforts with the firearms industry and other law enforcement agencies to reinforce the importance of collaboration to identify and report suspected straw purchasers and other illicit sources of firearms intended for Mexico.

Internationally, we have enjoyed a strong collaborative relationship with Mexican law enforcement and other government agencies in Mexico. Over the last 15 years, ATF has had special agents permanently assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City. The agents are engaged in full time intelligence sharing with the Mexican Government as a means to gather real time information on significant seizures of firearms that originated from within U.S. Within the past year, ATF assigned additional agents to Monterrey, Mexico. Having agents permanently assigned and working side by side with Mexican law enforcement and military officials, has helped us develop and foster relationships in all corners of Mexico as a way to provide technical and investigative assistance to police and prosecutors.

In the future ATF will look to assign additional special agents and intelligence research specialists to ATF offices in Mexico, coupled with the deployment of additional agents and analysts to EPIC who will act as liaison partners with/to the other U.S. law enforcement entities operating within the Republic of Mexico. ATF is also looking to establish more pre-identified, specially vetted Mexican police officials that will allow Special Agents from the ATF field offices in U.S. border cities to work directly to exchange timely investigative information regarding seizures of suspected U.S. sourced firearms within the contiguous Mexican border states.

It January of 2008, ATF Acting Director Sullivan announced that an additional twenty-five Special Agents and fifteen IOIs will be permanently assigned to the Southwest border to curb the illegal export of U.S. sourced firearms and ammunition to Mexico.

Since ATF is a relatively small federal law enforcement agency, this accounts for a significant proportion of total available manpower and directly affects our ability to address violent crime in other parts of our country. Nationwide, we have about 2,500 Agents and about 750 inspectors. The FY 2009 budget request provides for 12 new industry operations investigators operations and $0.9 million to increase our staffing levels in the ATF field offices along the U.S./Mexico border.

It is estimated that there are over 6,647 FFLs along the U.S./Mexico Border compared to approximately 35 IOIs and 100 special agents stationed along the border and dedicated to investigating firearms trafficking. It is a major challenge for ATF to adequately identify and disrupt the illegal sources of firearms and ammunition, while participating in the interdiction of shipments firearms and ammunition destined for Mexico. Nevertheless, in FY 2007, we investigated 187 firearms trafficking cases and recommended 465 defendants for prosecution and seized over 1,297 firearms as a result of “Project Gunrunner”.

In inviting ATF to appear today, this Committee asked about whether the Inter-American Convention Against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Ammunition, Explosives and other related materials (CIFTA) was in compliance with ATF regulations. While ratification is up to the Senate, ATF programs and regulations comply with the primary obligations required under the CIFTA, such as licensing of, manufacture and importation of firearms.

There should be no question that firearms trafficking is a priority for this Bureau and that it will be a priority until this issue is adequately addressed. The expansion of our “Project Gunrunner” will assign additional manpower and investigative resources to our border offices to specifically work to dismantle the criminal infrastructures that exist to procure the “deadly tools of the trade” and enable DTOs to engage in increasingly violent turf battles.

I would like to conclude by again stating that ATF has developed and is actively implementing our “Project Gunrunner” initiative which is modeled upon our border successes over the years, and that is designed to actively disrupt, deter and dismantle the criminal enterprises and infrastructures seeking to ensure a continued and viable supply of U.S. sourced firearms for criminal purposes to Mexico, but which is also designed to address and eliminate the actual sources of the firearms and ammunition that have become so readily available for criminal purposes in both Mexico and in the U.S.

Although it has proven exceptionally difficult to reduce the demand for U.S. sourced arms in Mexico, ATF will continue to attack the infrastructures and illicit sources fueling the availability and access to firearms by those who seek to further their narco-trafficking activities on both sides of the border.

I would like to thank the Committee for its time and for the honor of allowing me to testify on this subject, and I look forward to any questions you may have. I would ask that my written statement be entered into the record.