Gangs and drug cartels commit much of the violence in Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. The guns they use are mostly from other countries, including the U.S.
The Department of Justice’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) receives firearm trace requests from the governments of Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras for some, but not all, firearms recovered in those countries. ATF tracing data reviewed by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) for approximately 27,000 firearms recovered from 2015 through 2019—the most recent data available—show that 40 percent came from the U.S. and the rest from 39 other countries. ATF data also indicate that almost half of the U.S.-sourced firearms were likely diverted from legitimate commerce in the four countries rather than smuggled from the U.S.
From January 2015 through March 2021, more than 100,000 firearms were legally exported from the U.S. to the four countries, according to agency data. Firearms are not manufactured in these countries, but U.S. and foreign officials stated that criminals can obtain them through illegal markets and theft, among other means. ATF data show most firearms submitted for tracing were handguns.
Although disrupting firearms trafficking is not a specific U.S. goal for the region, U.S. agencies have broad capacity-building, investigative, and border security efforts, which may help disrupt firearms trafficking.
- The Department of State provided a total of $38 million for capacity-building programs in fiscal years 2015 through 2019, which included some activities related to firearms trafficking—for example, training on firearms-trafficking investigations.
- ATF assisted partner governments by tracing recovered firearms, which provided investigative leads and helped law enforcement agencies in partner countries to link disparate criminal acts.
- U.S. Customs and Border Protection shared information on criminal activity, including firearms smuggling, with the four countries.
State officials told a GAO review that they plan to develop new projects or modify existing projects to focus on firearms. However, according to the officials, they lack sufficient information about relevant country conditions to tailor these projects to address each country’s needs. GAO said State officials have not sought such information from the four countries’ governments or other U.S. agencies because State has not focused on firearms trafficking in the countries. The watchdog maintains that obtaining such information would enhance State’s ability to develop effective programs to reduce criminal access to firearms and firearms-related violence in Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.
GAO therefore recommended that State obtain information about conditions in the four countries to support the development of effective programs to reduce the availability of illicit firearms. State concurred and said that it plans to obtain information through U.S. embassies and interagency working groups.