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How U.S. Gun Policy Influences Violence in Mexico

Gunfire, explosions, and chaos erupted in the Mexican city of Culiacán on October 17, 2019, as members of the Sinaloa cartel took to the streets armed with assault weapons, including high-caliber rifles, in an unabashed display of power. The cartel, enraged by the recent arrest of Ovidio Guzmán López—the son of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, a former leader of the Sinaloa cartel—terrorized communities within the city and engaged in a forceful gun battle with Mexican military forces, demanding Guzmán López’s release. The gun fight resulted in eight fatalities and multiple injuries before the Mexican federal government relented and released Guzmán López to end the bloodshed. This breakdown of the rule of law has exposed a harsh truth: Cartel members are armed with weapons capable of defeating Mexico’s military forces.

What happened in Culiacán is not an isolated case; similar confrontations have occurred in other Mexican cities and states. In 2011, for example, cartel members used AK-47 rifles to hold a three-day battle with military and police forces in the state of Tamaulipas. And during a gun battle in 2016, cartel members used a Barrett .50-caliber rifle to take down a state government helicopter in the state of Michoacán, killing four passengers. These incidents of cartels using arsenals of military-grade weapons in defiance of the Mexican government beg the question: Where did these guns come from?

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