By John Lindsay-Poland
Armed With Reason, April 13, 2023
The protracted and polarized debates about firearms in the United States frequently track the importance that each side attributes to two factors: human decisions to do harm (‘people kill people’) and the nature of firearms for doing harm (‘guns kill people’).
The gun violence prevention side of this debate has developed considerable nuance in the last decade, given the embrace of community violence interruption programs and red flag laws that recognize the importance of human factors in gun violence, such as systemic racism, suicidal depression, and the lack of police accountability for use of firearms.
While there are plenty of gun owners who have their own nuanced approaches, their voices tend to be drowned out by pro-gun arguments that double down on the idea that it’s bad people or mental illness – and the lack of interventions against criminals or illness – that are the problem.
When it comes to trans-border gun violence between the United States and Mexico though, the differences become deeper and even more complex. After the kidnapping on March 3, 2023, of four U.S. citizens, and subsequent killing of two of them, in Matamoros, Tamaulipas – very close to the U.S. border – Republican leaders revived a call for U.S. military intervention to “take out” criminal organizations in Mexico. The Republican fallback position, which the Biden administration seems to be considering, is to formally declare such groups as “foreign terrorist organizations.” That would put in motion mandates to impose sanctions as well as criminalize anyone associated with these groups, including migrants who have been forced to pay criminal groups to transit through Mexico.
U.S. guns have been trafficked and sold to Mexico since the 1800s. But the role of those guns became much more pervasive and devastating in the mid-2000s, coinciding with several changes that made the problems worse. The drug war has exploded in Mexico, fueled by violent competition between criminal organizations as well as the Mexican government’s declaration of a drug war, with U.S. support. This has created vast new markets for weaponry in Mexico, a country with almost no gun industry of its own.
The expiration of the U.S. federal assault weapons ban in 2004, and the gun industry’s embrace of assault rifles to boost otherwise declining demand within the United States, generated an enormous supply of exactly the type of weapons sought by criminal organizations to control territory and make money from their illicit businesses. Indeed, criminal access to U.S. military-grade firearms has enabled the power of criminal groups to traffic massive amounts of fentanyl into the United States.
By the 2000s, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) was reliably tracing upwards of 70% of firearms recovered in Mexico and submitted for tracing to U.S. production and/or purchases. A disproportionate number of these trafficked firearms were assault rifles. If 70% of the more than 24,000 gun homicides in Mexico in 2019 were committed with U.S.-sourced firearms, then there were more murders committed with U.S. guns in Mexico that year than in all of the United States. As University of Michigan researcher Eugenio Weigend says, you can’t understand the gun industry and gun violence in the United States without looking internationally.
Central American countries were experiencing something similar to Mexico, with a post-war growth of violence that made continued life in Salvadoran, Honduran, and Guatemalan communities unsustainable, driving massive and desperate migration north. Yet, during the Obama and Trump years especially, the United States mostly shut down access to asylum for those migrants. They increasingly became prey to organized criminal groups in Mexico who took over the market of “coyotes” (people who bring people across the border for pay), expanding their extortion business, and relying heavily on U.S.-sourced weapons. Mexico increasingly enforced U.S. dictates to keep migrants away from the U.S., especially through measures during the Trump presidency, concentrating asylum-seeking migrants near the U.S. border where armed groups could more easily extort money from them – or, failing that, murder them.
At the same time, Mexico militarized its internal security measures beginning in the 1990s. That accelerated under President Felipe Calderon’s drug war (2006-2012) and current President López Obrador’s (2018-2024) replacement of federal police with a military National Guard and the transfer of dozens of powers (including control of maritime ports, airports, customs, and transit construction) from civilian agencies to the military. This militarization was supported by the importation of more than 305,000 firearms for police from 2006 to 2018. The National Guard, now armed with more than 50,000 Sig Sauer pistols exported from the United States in 2020, was tasked with rounding up migrants to be deported.
In the context of the U.S. debate on firearms, the anti-Mexican, xenophobic rhetoric of Trump and his supporters morphed with the former president’s fealty to the gun industry into a narrative that declared violence was coming north from Mexico. In fact, most U.S. border communities are unusually safe; what violence they experience is overwhelmingly committed by U.S. citizens.
A recent twist on this narrative occurred during the House Judiciary Committee’s debate on banning assault weapons last summer. Republicans – then in the minority and knowing the committee’s Democratic majority would approve the ban – claimed that U.S. border communities face an “invasion” of migrants. Texas Representative Chip Roy proposed an exemption to the ban within ten miles of the border for residents to defend themselves from this “invasion.” (Federal assault weapons legislation would not be retroactive to people who already own assault weapons.) Texas is the source of more than 40% of firearms recovered in Mexico and traced to the United States. Such an exemption would be a boon for weapons trafficking by gun dealers in the border region, and for the cartels that Republicans use so effectively in their narratives.
Democrats on the committee responded that, in fact, the Biden government is defending the border (indeed, the Biden government regularly calls for increasing the budget of Customs and Border Patrol, despite its racist practices and lack of accountability), and that Republicans were essentially inviting people to shoot peaceful migrants on sight. No one mentioned the impact of concentrating the entire U.S. assault weapons market near the Mexican border on the cartels’ access to such weapons, thus accelerating the very violence that leads migrants to seek refuge in the United States. Most Democrats in the federal government have no such analysis of the relationship between the U.S. gun trade, reasons that people migrate north, and militarized border policies. The Government Accountability Office has observed that there is no U.S. strategy to address cross-border gun trafficking.
However, some elected officials have begun to promote actions to stem the systemic trans-border gun trade that is contributing to so much violence and displacement.
In December, 2022, Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-TX) and five other Representatives introduced the ARMAS Act, which would mandate an integrated strategy to reduce gun trafficking from the United States to Mexico, Central America, and Caribbean countries. The legislation would also require end-use controls on firearms exported to the region and regular reporting to Congress, enabling legislators to stop export licenses that risk increasing violence and destabilization. Castro is likely to reintroduce the ARMAS Act in the House of Representatives later this month.
In the Senate, Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) has pressed Commerce Department officials about increased exports of assault weapons since firearms export oversight transferred to Commerce from the State Department in 2020. She is taking up some of the leadership of former Senator Patrick Leahy, who led other senators in pressing the State Department for accountability for U.S. weapons exported to Mexico that were used in atrocities – including mass forced disappearances in Guerrero and Tamaulipas states by forces with Colt and Sig Sauer rifles.
In August, 2021, the Government of Mexico filed a lawsuit in Boston against 11 U.S. gun manufacturers and distributors for their negligence and marketing practices that have resulted in the flood of military-grade firearms trafficked into Mexico and used in violence. This was followed by a suit against five Arizona gun dealers for their voluminous sales to traffickers of firearms into Mexico. A judge dismissed the Boston lawsuit, but Mexico recently appealed, with support from Caribbean countries, two dozen U.S. district attorneys, and 17 U.S. state governments who submitted amicus briefs, along with Mexican and U.S. victims and their families, scholars, and policy advocates.
Governments are unlikely to take effective action without organizing from below – that includes community members, faith groups, migrant associations, gun violence prevention activists, feminists, academics, public health advocates, local elected officials, and others. Trans-border gun violence and its consequences are the result of a toxic cocktail of problems long brewing, and it will take many different efforts to reverse them.
The Binational Peace Summit aims to do that, and is developing a grassroots, binational policy platform to influence presidential elections in both the United States and Mexico in 2024. The Summit is an ongoing process, highlighted by a gathering in Mexico City in February of more than 300 community members from Mexico and the United States, including indigenous and Afro-descendant leaders, victims of gun violence, human rights leaders, and land rights activists. To raise awareness of how U.S.-sourced guns impact people in Mexico, Summit participants will organize speaking tours by Mexican community leaders and advocates over the course of the coming year.
Family members of those taken by gun violence in Mexico and the United States know, and often say, that the lives stolen and destroyed could be your children. We need to act as if our children’s lives were on the line – because they are.
John Lindsay-Poland coordinates Stop US Arms to Mexico, a project of Global Exchange. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org