Mexican President Felipe Calderon

In his speech before a Joint Session of Congress yesterday, President Felipe Calderon of Mexico made a bold claim. He asserted that:

Just to give you an idea, we have seized 75,000 guns and assault weapons in Mexico in the last three years. And more than 80 percent of those we have been able to trace came from the United States — from the United States.

The media immediately picked up on this claim. As Reuters summarized the President’s remarks:

[He] said more than 80 percent of [the guns] came from the United States

Except that, of course, was not what the President said. The President included a crucial qualifier in his statement: he was referring only to the guns that Mexico has (with U.S. assistance) been able to trace. And in that context, the President’s claim is correct: he was referring to a U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report concluding that, of the guns seized in Mexico and given to the ATF for tracing from 2004 through 2008, approximately 87 percent originated in the U.S.

But this number says nothing about the percentage of guns seized in Mexico that originated in the U.S., because the U.S. does not trace the majority of guns seized in Mexico. Figures like “87 percent” sound impressive, but actual numbers are more illustrative. According to the GAO, the number of guns seized in Mexico that have been traced back to the U.S. has ranged from 5,260 in 2005 to 1,950 in 2006 to 3,060 in 2007 to 6,700 in 2008.

Thus, if the “last three years” the President mentioned are 2007, 2008, and 2009, only 9,760 of the guns seized in those years – the total of 2007 and 2008 – definitely came from the U.S. The U.S. share for 2009 has not yet been reported, but even if it doubled the total of 2008, the U.S. share for all three years would be less than a third of the 75,000 seizures in Mexico. A more realistic U.S. share is between 20 and 25 percent.

The argument the President made today has been refuted again and again, but it is not surprising that he relied on it. The only surprising fact is that the President couched his remarks in the context of a request for an ‘assault weapons’ ban, instead of in the context of support for the OAS’s Inter-American Convention Against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Ammunition, Explosives, and Other Related Materials, commonly known as CIFTA.

Perhaps this is a tactful admission that the Convention is seriously flawed. But if the President was trying to be tactful, he might have omitted his argument that the U.S. faces an incipient armed rebellion unless it acts on his request. The basic fact is that Mexico’s problems are fundamentally homegrown. It may be politically convenient for the President of Mexico to claim U.S. responsibility, but in the form he presented them today, those claims are regrettably misleading.