Every weekend, the Mexican drove from Ciudad Juarez to Mesquite, near Dallas, Texas, in nine and a half hours. Mesquite is famous for its gun markets. Every weekend he bought twelve to fifteen AR-15 semi-automatic rifles. Then he drove nine and a half hours back and in Mexico sold the weapons to the drug cartel that had ordered them. “No one in Mesquite asked him for a permit,” says Ioan Grillo, a journalist who interviewed the Mexican in prison for his book, released in February Blood Gun Money. “No one checked him at the border.”
The influx of illegally imported firearms from the United States has long been a thorn in Mexico’s side. Estimates of the number of weapons brought into Mexico from the north run as high as 500,000 a year. On Wednesday, the Mexican government committed an act and files a lawsuit against ten American arms manufacturersincluding Colt, Glock and Barrett.
According to the indictment, these companies are actively involved in the smuggling of weapons into Mexico. “For decades, the Mexican government and civilians have been victims of a deadly flood of (military) firearms originating in the US,” the indictment said.
Of all the weapons detected in Mexico by the US Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Service between 2014 and 2018, about 70 percent come from American manufacturers and traders. “AK-47s or Kalashnikovs arrive in Mexico via the US from Romania,” Grillo said over the phone from Mexico City.
coffee table gun
Colt produces a .38 pistol with the name and face of Emiliano Zapata, the Mexican revolutionary of the early twentieth century, on the barrel. It is especially popular in Mexico, as a sort of coffee table gun for drug lords. The example is cited in the indictment as evidence that US arms manufacturers are deliberately targeting the Mexican market, and that they don’t care if their products fall into the hands of killers.
The bulk of the contraband involves much heavier weapons, such as Barret’s .50 sniper rifle. The bullets from this weapon, used by US military personnel in Afghanistan and Iraq, are the size of a cigar and can penetrate the door of an armored vehicle up to two kilometers away. In 2016, a drug gang shot down a police helicopter in western Mexico with a Barrett .50. In 2019, members of the Sinaloa drug cartel fired the same rifle at the police officers who had captured their leader. The streets in Culiacán were littered with the dead and injured and the police had to release the gang leader.
There are about 30,000 murders per year in Mexico, about three and a half times as many as in the US in proportion to the population. An unnamed Mexican government official told Reuters news agency that 17,000 of those murders were committed with weapons imported from the US have been smuggled in.
During his research, Grillo saw for Blood Gun Money how easy it is to legally obtain firearms in the US, unlike much more restrictive Mexico. A man who buys 85 guns at once – the seller just gives them to you. “The US government can certainly make it harder for the smugglers,” Grillo said. “To start with, by taking a serious approach to screening buyers.”
Shooting in El Paso
In the American media, lawyers immediately spoke about the chances of the Mexicans, almost all of whom believe that the gun lobby has pretty much boarded up American legislation. In 2005 a law was passed that exempts arms manufacturers from prosecution if a crime is committed with ‘their’ weapons. It is not without reason that the motto of the gun lobby is: ‘Firearms don’t kill people, people kill people’.
The timing of the Mexican indictment does not seem coincidental. It was Tuesday a year ago that a gunman in El Paso, Texas, on the southern border, shot and killed 20 people in a supermarket. Eight of the victims had Mexican nationality.
In 2019, the Supreme Court ruled that parents of children who were victims of a shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School (twenty preschoolers and six adults killed with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle in 2012) have the right to take their cases to court . Weapons manufacturer Remington is trying to settle the case with a lump sum of 33 million dollars (28 million euros).
The Mexican government says it is keeping a close eye on these and similar cases and sees this as a reason to turn years of dissatisfaction into legal action. Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said at a press conference that “our main goal is to stop these companies.”
“I would not immediately say that they have no chance,” says Grillo. “Look at the tobacco companies and the pharmaceutical industry. The major changes in those industries have all been enforced in court.”
A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of August 6, 2021