Gun-rights advocates say the numbers do not accurately reflect the true number of guns found in Mexico, which they argue is much higher. But instead, the ATF's data reflect only the number of guns that were submitted for traces. Some gun advocates in the U.S. have argued further that Democrats try to use the inflated numbers to make their case for stricter gun laws.


But groups in favor of curbing illegal guns look at the ATF’s numbers as an accurate reflection of the U.S.’s largely invisible role in the bloody drug violence that has plagued Mexico for the past five years and resulted in the killing of more than 47,000 people.

In 2011, the ATF recovered and traced about 20,000 guns that were found in Mexico. About half of those – 10,514 – were manufactured in the U.S., and nearly 4,000 of the traced guns had been previously brought into the U.S. legally, according to the ATF’s numbers. About 3,600 of the guns found in 2011 were made outside of the U.S.

Heavier powered guns have been turning up more often in the ATF’s recovery and tracing efforts, the agency said.

“Law enforcement in Mexico now report that certain types of rifles, such as the AK and AR variants with detachable magazines, are used more frequently to commit violent crime by drug trafficking organizations,” said the ATF in a press release.

The ATF has come under fire over the past 16 months for a failed operation it conducted to try and stop the flow of guns from the U.S. to Mexico. Operation Fast and Furious authorized the sale of nearly 2,000 weapons in the Southwest border region to known and suspected straw buyers for Mexican drug cartels.

The operation’s theory revolved around tracking those guns through the hands of cartel members in an effort to dismantle the entire network. But ATF agents were not given permission or resources to follow the gun buyers, allowing the guns to disappear, with only the hope of recovering them later for tracing at a crime scene or police bust.

Congressional Republicans have relentlessly investigated the issue. The top two officials at the ATF stepped down from their positions as a result, as did the U.S. Attorney for Arizona, who provided legal advice to operational agents on the ground.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) has requested thousands of documents from the Justice Department about the operation and has threatened to hold Attorney General in contempt if he does not get them.