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UN Meeting Looks to Improve Detection Capacity of Ammunition Trafficking

Monday, December 16, 2019TOPICS: Conferences and WorkshopsFaculty and StaffFieldworkResearchUS-Mexico Border

begin quoteIf we can improve efforts to limit illicit traffic in ammunition by just a few percentage points, it could mean fewer bullets reaping young lives across the hemisphere.

The following post was written by Kroc School Associate Professor Topher McDougal, PhD.

On a remote dirt road near La Mora, Sonora in Mexico, cartel members involved in a wider fight over control of drug trafficking routes to San Diego gunned down nine women and children on 4 November 2019. Acts of narco-violence have routinely reached massacre levels since the dissolution of the so-called “pax narcótica” under then-President Felipe Calderón. Indeed, Latin America more broadly is struggling with a huge burden of armed homicide: about 75% of murders in the region are committed with a gun as opposed to 42% globally. Not surprisingly, homicide rates in the Latin America and Caribbean (LAC) region — now at 22.3 homicides per 100,000 people per year — are over four times the world average.

The La Mora incident struck a particular chord in the United States — both because the victims were innocent and defenseless, and because they were members of a bi-national splinter-group of Mormons with U.S. citizenship. But more than nationality and religion linked the incident to the U.S. The bullet casings recovered at the scene were American-made Remington .223-caliber cartridges, likely fired by American-made AR-15 and M-16 rifles.

Trafficking in small arms has garnered growing attention in scholarly and international policymaking circles. UN Sustainable Development Goal 16, having to do with the promotion of peaceful and inclusive societies, features Target 16.4 aiming to significantly reduce illicit arms flows. But for a number of reasons, less attention has been focused on ammunition flows — despite the fact that around 10 billion bullets are manufactured each year in the U.S. alone. The United Nations Regional Centre for Peace, Disarmament, and Development in Latin America and the Caribbean (UNLIREC) recently hosted in Lima, Peru a group of forensic and social scientists with expertise in small arms and ammunition. I was fortunate to be among the experts invited to help craft a monitoring and evaluation mechanism for ammunition in the LAC region.

Figure 1. Topher McDougal speaking about the need to gather price data on illicit ammunition in Latin America. Former and current UNLIREC Directors William Godnick and Mélanie Régimbal sit to his right.

From my point of view, there were two major improvements in current practice that would make ammunition tracking and interdiction efforts more effective. The most striking one is the need to gather data on ammunition prices on the (usually illicit) civilian market. From an economic perspective, price data is critical in understanding the function of illicit markets. Without price data, we are restricting ourselves to a bean-counting exercise – contar frijoles, in Spanish. We become effectively reliant on measuring the trade by numbers of cartridges seized at border crossings and by police. While ammunition seizure data is important, it is a highly problematic metric on which to base policy because seizure numbers are influenced not only by the underlying illicit trade they are interdicting but also the capacity and political will of the country interdicting them. This fact sets up a classic moral hazard problem: in the eyes of the UN, a country might seem to have more of a problem with ammunition trafficking if they crack down on it (and thereby seize more of it). Conversely, a country might be perceived as having less of a problem with ammunition trafficking if they turn a blind eye. Price data is important because it can help us to approximate ease of access to ammunition, and therefore infer trafficking patterns. For instance, in a recent article, my co-authors and I were able to use ammunition price data to demonstrate that the supposed firewall between the UN peacekeepers and Haitian police on the one hand, and the civilian market on the other hand, was porous. We showed that when the UN mission and Haitian police received a shipment of ammunition, prices for ammunition on the civilian market would systematically drop.

The second point I made was a bit more technical and concerned the importance of creating analytical weights for those ammunition cartridges we do recover and which then enter our seizure databases. Typically, seizures will occur at border checkpoints and where police presences are highest. They will also typically be reported to national authorities back in capital cities with greater regularity the nearer they are to government offices and facilities. We generally know how populations, crime, and government forces such as border control agents and police are distributed sub-nationally within a country. We can therefore build predictive models that will account for — and correct — geospatial biases in reporting. Such corrections will better allow us to infer trafficking hotspots that are less controlled, and to shift the allocation of scarce government resources to more effectively interdict trafficked ammunition in those areas.

I will continue to work with UNLIREC in the months and years to come. If we can improve efforts to limit illicit traffic in ammunition by just a few percentage points, it could mean fewer bullets reaping young lives across the hemisphere.


Kevin Dobyns
(619) 260-7618

Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies


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