How America Is Exporting Gun Violence to Mexico

A failed drug war and lax U.S. gun regulations spell out disaster for Mexico.

Laura Weiss June 14, 2018

An AR 15 Bushmaster .223 semi-automatic rifle. (Photo by Julie Dermansky/Corbis via Getty Images)

On May 18, the coun­try awoke to news of yet anoth­er school shoot­ing. This one occurred in San­ta Fe, Texas, a small town out­side of Hous­ton. A 17-year-old shoot­er killed 10 high school stu­dents with his father’s gun, just months after 17 stu­dents were killed at Park­land High School. The recent shoot­ings have rekin­dled a nation­al con­ver­sa­tion about the dis­pro­por­tion­ate lev­els of gun vio­lence in the Unit­ed States and the lax laws reg­u­lat­ing gun pur­chase and use.

The United States is the world’s largest arms producer, with impacts across the hemisphere and beyond.

Yet miss­ing from the main­stream con­ver­sa­tion is an exam­i­na­tion of how the U.S. government’s gun poli­cies exac­er­bate vio­lence in neigh­bor­ing coun­tries, par­tic­u­lar­ly Mex­i­co. Some 70 per­cent of guns recov­ered in Mex­i­co in the last five years orig­i­nat­ed in the Unit­ed States. Some of these guns come from the legal trans­fer of hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars in guns to Mex­i­can police and mil­i­tary forces, which often wind up in the hands of crim­i­nal orga­ni­za­tions, fuel­ing vio­lence. Guns also come from ille­gal gun traf­fick­ing facil­i­tat­ed by easy pur­chas­ing require­ments, as well as lax reg­u­la­tions and documentation.

Trac­ing the bullets 

In 2017, Mex­i­co had the high­est homi­cide rate since the peak of its drug war in 2011, with near­ly 30,000 peo­ple mur­dered. Some 70 per­cent of guns recov­ered in Mex­i­co between 2011 and 2016 orig­i­nat­ed in the Unit­ed States. Accord­ing to a new report from the Cen­ter for Amer­i­can Progress (CAP), the pro­por­tion of mur­ders in Mex­i­co com­mit­ted with firearms has sky­rock­et­ed in the last two decades: In 1997, 15 per­cent of Mexico’s homi­cides were com­mit­ted with a gun, where­as by 2017, this num­ber had jumped to 66 percent.

Gun reg­u­la­tions in the Unit­ed States are clear­ly asso­ci­at­ed to vio­lence in Mex­i­co and in oth­er coun­tries,” Euge­nio Weigend Var­gas, co-author of the CAP report, told In These Times. Weigend Var­gas point­ed to a num­ber of fac­tors lead­ing to this rise in gun vio­lence in Mex­i­co — in par­tic­u­lar, the end of the U.S. government’s fed­er­al ban on assault weapons in 2004. A 2013 study found that homi­cides, gun-relat­ed homi­cides and crime gun seizures in Mex­i­can bor­der states rose between 2004 and 2013, with the excep­tion of Mex­i­can states bor­der­ing Cal­i­for­nia, which retained its assault weapons ban.

Guns reach Mex­i­co both through legal gun exports and through ille­gal gun traf­fick­ing. Accord­ing to the CAP report, 298,000 guns per year are legal­ly export­ed from the Unit­ed States, while almost the same num­ber are ille­gal­ly traf­ficked. Weigend Var­gas attrib­ut­es ille­gal gun traf­fick­ing to two key fac­tors: Assault weapons are legal in the Unit­ed States, and there are loop­holes for those who are restrict­ed from pur­chas­ing guns. Though some states require back­ground checks for pur­chas­ing guns, these are usu­al­ly not checked at gun shows. So any­body with a crim­i­nal record, or a gun traf­fick­er, can get to a gun show and pur­chase four, five AR-15s and AK-47s, and then smug­gle them to Mex­i­co,” Weigend Var­gas said.

Mean­while, the Unit­ed States has mul­ti-mil­lion dol­lar con­tracts with mil­i­tary con­tract­ing com­pa­nies, such as Sig Sauer, Inc, to deliv­er these guns, accord­ing to John Lind­say-Poland, who runs the Stop U.S. Arms to Mex­i­co pro­gram at the Amer­i­can Friends Ser­vice Com­mit­tee (AFSC). AFSC pub­lished a report in late 2016 on the harm­ful impact of legal gun sales to Mex­i­co, includ­ing their role in exac­er­bat­ing the country’s cri­sis of disappearances.

For instance, the report notes that some of the guns uncov­ered in the inves­ti­ga­tion of the dis­ap­pear­ance of 43 stu­dents from Ayotz­i­na­pa, a rur­al teacher-train­ing col­lege in the state of Guer­rero, were found to have orig­i­nat­ed in the Unit­ed States. The munic­i­pal police in near­by Iguala pos­sessed 20 assault rifles pro­duced by the Unit­ed States-based man­u­fac­tur­er Colt, which the Mex­i­can gov­ern­ment had pur­chased in 2013, accord­ing to data cit­ed in the report from Mexico’s Sec­re­tari­at of Defense.

There is no pro­to­col to ensure the guns sold to Mex­i­co legal­ly are not used to com­mit human rights vio­la­tions, Weigend Var­gas says. The ques­tion is, what kind of pro­to­cols do we fol­low when send­ing guns to mil­i­tary per­son­nel or police agen­cies in oth­er countries?”

Secu­ri­ty and impunity

These sales are occur­ring in addi­tion to the U.S. government’s secu­ri­ty coop­er­a­tion pro­gram with Mex­i­co, the Méri­da Ini­tia­tive, which since its launch in 2008, has sent at least $2.5 bil­lion in aid to Mex­i­co as part of an effort to com­bat drug car­tels in the coun­try. How­ev­er, the hard-fist­ed effort, whose strat­e­gy has pri­mar­i­ly relied on tak­ing down car­tel boss­es, is wide­ly believed to have increased vio­lence in the coun­try, because with no one in charge of the major car­tels, these crim­i­nal orga­ni­za­tions have splin­tered as they com­pete with one anoth­er to reassert dom­i­nance over the drug trade, and diver­si­fied their income streams. In this chaot­ic envi­ron­ment, there is lit­tle account­abil­i­ty for fed­er­al, state and local police as well as the mil­i­tary, whose abus­es and col­lu­sion with these crim­i­nal orga­ni­za­tions are treat­ed large­ly with impunity.

U.S. law pro­hibits U.S. secu­ri­ty aid from being sent to units that have cred­i­bly com­mit­ted grave human rights vio­la­tions. In 2015, the State Depart­ment cut off mil­i­tary assis­tance from Mexico’s 44th bat­tal­ion, found to be involved in the extra­ju­di­cial killing of 22 peo­ple in Tlat­laya, Mex­i­co. A 2016 report from the Open Soci­ety Jus­tice Ini­tia­tive con­clud­ed that both the Mex­i­can mil­i­tary and the Zetas drug car­tel have com­mit­ted crimes against human­i­ty in the con­text of Mexico’s drug war. But aid and weapons sales have oth­er­wise con­tin­ued to flow to the noto­ri­ous­ly cor­rupt Mex­i­can police and mil­i­tary, which often works in col­lu­sion with crim­i­nal orga­ni­za­tions in the country.

Pauli­na Arria­ga Car­ras­co writes in a 2016 report for the Mex­i­can NGO Desar­ma Méx­i­co (Dis­arm Mex­i­co) that guns intend­ed for pub­lic secu­ri­ty forces are sus­cep­ti­ble to diver­sion to orga­nized crime” or human rights abus­es. Arria­ga Car­ras­co affirms that in Mex­i­co there is also a lack of trans­paren­cy and access to infor­ma­tion about gun pur­chas­es from the Unit­ed States.

Mean­while, gun laws in Mex­i­co are actu­al­ly quite strict. There is only one gun shop in the entire coun­try, and peo­ple who wish to pur­chase them must pass a series of back­ground checks, prove their employ­ment, lack of crim­i­nal record, and get fin­ger­print­ed. But as Kate Linthicum recent­ly report­ed for the LA Times, every day this store sells an aver­age of 38 guns. Mean­while, 580 are traf­ficked from the Unit­ed States daily.

Guns, pol­i­tics and money

The issue of U.S.-sourced guns in Mex­i­co is not a new one. Pres­i­dent Enrique Peña Nieto and his pre­de­ces­sors, Felipe Calderón and Vicente Fox, have all denounced the Unit­ed States for its fail­ure to con­trol gun traf­fick­ing. They have also point­ed out the role of U.S. drug demand in fuel­ing vio­lence. Ahead of this year’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tions in Mex­i­co, the fron­trun­ners — left-wing Andrés Manuel López Obrador, cen­ter-right Ricar­do Anaya and cen­trist José Anto­nio Meade of the rul­ing Insti­tu­tion­al Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Par­ty (PRI) — have pub­licly stat­ed that unabat­ed gun traf­fick­ing from the Unit­ed States is respon­si­ble for a sig­nif­i­cant pro­por­tion of gun-relat­ed homi­cides in Mex­i­co. Meade has even pro­posed that Mex­i­co build its own wall to stop gun traf­fick­ing from the Unit­ed States.

And yet, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump announced a pro­pos­al on May 15 to loosen laws around inter­na­tion­al gun exports, by shift­ing their trans­fer from the State Depart­ment to the Com­merce Depart­ment. It’s worth not­ing that the gun indus­try con­tributed more than $30 mil­lion to the Trump cam­paign via the Nation­al Rifle Asso­ci­a­tion (NRA), as Lind­say-Poland wrote for NACLA in 2017.

The NRA has also pushed laws that would cut fund­ing from Bureau of Alco­hol, Tobac­co, and Firearms (ATF), the divi­sion of the U.S. Jus­tice Depart­ment that con­ducts research on the use of U.S.-sourced guns in oth­er coun­tries, which Weigend Var­gas notes is severe­ly under­fund­ed, mean­ing there is a lack of data about how U.S. guns affect vio­lence in oth­er coun­tries. The CAP report rec­om­mends that ATF receive more fund­ing to improve its data. But this is unlike­ly, he says, in the cur­rent polit­i­cal environment.

The Unit­ed States is the world’s largest arms pro­duc­er, with impacts across the hemi­sphere and beyond. The CAP report notes that the major­i­ty of guns uncov­ered in Cen­tral Amer­i­ca, one of the most dan­ger­ous regions in the world, also come from the Unit­ed States. And 99 per­cent of guns recov­ered in Haiti come from the Unit­ed States. Weigend Var­gas says that strength­en­ing gun laws in the Unit­ed States would mit­i­gate vio­lence in these coun­tries and slow out-migra­tion. That I am cer­tain of,” he said.

Lau­ra Weiss is Man­ag­ing Edi­tor at NACLA Report on the Amer­i­c­as. She has a Master’s degree in Latin Amer­i­can and Caribbean Stud­ies from NYU.
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