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Investigating the Global Firearms Trade and Its Human Impacts in Mexico

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Executive Summary

From February 19 to 25, 2023, an International Delegation visited Mexico to investigate the flow of firearms, with the aim of strengthening the visibility, understanding and strategies to reduce and control the flow of firearms to Mexico from other countries, especially the United States.

From 2010 through 2022, Mexico experienced more than 214,000 gun homicides. This gun violence does not impact all equally or in the same way. Migrants traversing Mexico, Mexicans of African descent, indigenous people, those without material resources, and women are disproportionately affected, in diverse and often invisible ways. Nearly all of the weapons used in these crimes were produced in the United States or Europe. Criminal organizations in Mexico obtain weapons primarily from the United States, from which they are trafficked across the commercially busy border with Mexico. At the same time, Mexico has increasingly militarized its security policies, with assistance from the United States, especially since the declaration of the war on drugs in Mexico in 2006. Mexico is by far the largest purchaser of U.S. firearms in Latin America, with no controls on end uses of those exports.

The delegation undertook dialogues with survivors and family members of victims of gun violence in Guerrero and other parts of Mexico, human rights defenders, journalists, high-level officials from Mexico’s Foreign Relations Ministry, Mexican senators, and the Prosecutor General’s Office. The delegation held public conversations and participated in the binational Peace Summit, which brought together more than 300 community members and activists from Mexico and the United States to build a binational policy platform and a grassroots and intersectional movement, led by African-descendant, indigenous, displaced people, and others most impacted by gun violence.

The delegation visited Chilpancingo, the capital of the state of Guerrero to hear first-hand from victims and survivors of gun violence. Though Guerrero has significant natural resources, it is one of Mexico’s economically poorest states, and 32 armed groups now operate in the state. One community leader said the violence in Guerrero is dire and deteriorating. He described the state as an “exemplar of impunity,” in which violence arises from state and local government as well as criminal organizations, with police and the military often seen to be accomplices to or perpetrators of criminal violence. Individual victims and survivors supported this account through their individual testimonies. Guerrero officials noted that police don’t face sanctions if they lose a firearm. A delegation member noted that in some parts of Guerrero, police or National Guard are stationed very close to roadblocks established by criminal organizations.

We heard from several families of people who were forcibly “disappeared,” most presumed to have been killed. Over 111,000 people in Mexico have been forcibly disappeared. The tragedy of losing their loved ones is compounded by the fact that they cannot put their loss to rest, because they were never found. Other families were forcibly removed from their homes. One man told how he his family walked for days to find safety and shelter. In 2021, 42 massive displacement episodes were registered in Mexico; in over 90% of the cases, firearms were involved.

Journalists told us how criminal groups use abductions, torture and intimidation to silence reporting on their crimes, which has virtually been eliminated in Guerrero. One journalist told how his brother was disappeared by a criminal group, tortured for 12 days, then returned. “While one group tells you not to publish, the other pressures you to publish. But if you publish, soon the opposing group writes you and says ‘you son of a whatever, we know where your family is, take it down or tomorrow morning you’ll have no head’,” one journalist told us. “It’s no exaggeration: there are zones of silence.” In Guerrero 36 reporters have been forcibly displaced, three disappeared and 20 killed in the last two 20 years.

A high-ranking official of the Prosecutor General’s Office said that most guns used in homicides in Mexico – more than 80% — are rifles, and noted that in recent years .50 caliber sniper rifles have become more commonly used by criminal groups. He said it is difficult for police to match the firepower of the cartels. Commanders in the Guerrero state police emphasized to us that organized crime has access to high-powered weapons, including .50 caliber rifles and grenade launchers. A senior analyst of violence for the federal government provided an overview of crime gun data is available, and stated 90% of the violence in Mexico is a result of U.S. policies.

The delegation also met with six members of the Mexican Senate, from various political parties. As one Senator put it, “our neighbor brings the guns, we bring the dead people.” There was agreement to open a shared public debate on the issue between legislators and civil society of both Mexico and the United States. Delegation members also met with diplomatic representatives of Belgium, United States and the European Union.

Mexican civil society organizations we met with called out human rights violations committed with firearms by state forces, the lack of transparency on information on the flow of firearms, and the urgent need to reform Mexico’s federal firearms law. Mexican groups and delegation members discussed plans for potential actions and how organizations in our countries can work together to achieve results. Delegation members plan to carry the stories we heard to political leaders in our countries to seek change and may return to Mexico in 2024 to follow up on its mission.

Conclusions: Gun violence survivors, victims and their families lack justice for the suffering produced by violence committed with U.S., European and Israeli firearms. A concern raised repeatedly was the role played by U.S. guns trafficked to Mexico and U.S. responsibility to stop that irresponsible flow of guns, including military-grade weapons and high-capacity magazines. Firearms tracing data indicates that thousands of assault weapons, primarily trafficked from the United States, have been used in crimes in Mexico.

Although all European Union (EU) countries have ratified the Arms Trade Treaty, they do not seem to feel responsible for the use of European firearms in violence in Mexico. European rules can be circumvented by European makes of guns being either manufactured in US-based plants, or sold through the US retail market and trafficked into Mexico. Most EU countries lack the capacity and/or political will to trace firearms directly exported to Mexico, and should not license such firearms exports, which contradict the criteria of the EU Common Position on arms exports.

Recommendations: The delegation urges the governments of the United States, Mexico and Europe not to turn their backs on the victims and take immediate and long-term actions to ensure their protection and the repair of harms to them. The delegation recommends that the United States Government implement the following:

  • A ban on the commercial sale in the United States of assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, as well as state or federal legislation to reduce, control or prohibit the export of assault weapons to other nations. Until such an assault weapon ban is instituted, the executive branch should use its authority to ban the importation into the United States of foreign-produced assault weapons.
  • Congress should pass the ARMAS Act, introduced by Rep. Joaquin Castro, which focuses initially on U.S.-sourced firearms in Mexico, Central America and three Caribbean countries, and requires: the development of a comprehensive interagency strategy to disrupt illicit the trafficking and diversion of firearms; Congressional notification and blocking of high-risk firearms arms exports; a report on the challenges and successes of current efforts to address illegal arms trafficking to inform future strategies; and a detailed report by the Commerce Department on export licenses, allowing Congress to understand the effect of current regulations.
  • All countries that export firearms should exercise greater controls on those exports, including post-shipment inspections and compliance with existing export guidance, to prevent their downstream use in human rights abuses or criminal collusion.
  • EU member states should enforce the EU Common Position that prohibits export of small arms to nations where there is a clear risk of prolonging violent conflict or use in human rights violations. The risk of diversion to criminal organizations must also be considered. There is significant evidence that these risks exist in Mexico. The EU Directive on Due Diligence currently under negotiation should define the arms industry as a high-risk sector within the scope of this law.

Organizations represented in the delegation were: Newtown Action Alliance; Global Action on Gun Violence; Black Lives Matter-South Bend; Change the Ref; European Network Against the Arms Trade; Ohne Rüstung Leben (Germany); Database on Israeli Military and Security Exports; Stop US Arms to Mexico Project of Global Exchange; Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights; Center for Ecumenical Studies, Global Thought Mx; Tlachinollan Center for Human Rights.

For further information, contact: John Lindsay-Poland, johnlindsaypoland@gmail.com