Last September, 12 men and a teenage boy departed from two northern Mexican cities in search of asylum in Texas. They paid a coyote for safe crossing through areas controlled by criminal groups. Nevertheless, in the border area of Ojinaga, they were blocked by masked, heavily armed men who kidnapped the men but told the teenager to run. He reported hearing gunshots as he fled, and to this day, the other migrants have not been located.
In 2017, Yosimar García Cruz, a police officer in Mexico’s Pacific coastal city of Culiacán, was abducted from his home and forcibly disappeared by men armed with rifles. His commander and other officers from his unit were also disappeared, apparently in retaliation for assisting assisted a military patrol when it was ambushed several months prior.
What do these violent stories have in common? They were criminal acts likely committed with U.S. weapons. Seventy percent of guns recovered from crime scenes in Mexico are traced to the United States, and they contribute to Mexico’s more than 22,000 yearly gun-related homicides. The U.S. gun market supplies military-grade arms in thousands of retail locations in U.S. border states, and purchasing restrictions are lax. As a result, 250,000 guns are estimated to be trafficked into Mexico from the U.S. annually.
Given these grim stories and statistics, last August, the Mexican government filed suit in a federal court in Massachusetts against some of the largest U.S. producers of firearms, including Smith & Wesson, Glock, and Beretta. Mexico seeks an end to the companies’ negligence and marketing practices that have predictably led to the massive use of their guns to commit violence in Mexico.
Last week, 13 states, dozens of U.S. cities and a range of legal and academic experts formally filed a statement in support of Mexico’s litigation. So did Yosimar’s mother, Maria Isabel Cruz.
Mexicans and migrants traversing the country in search of safe harbor are especially vulnerable to gun violence and illegal groups who run human and drug trafficking operations. To make matters worse, armed state agents are tasked with deporting migrants, and in so doing, they often push them straight into the arms of the traffickers. Attacks or threats with firearms are growing and are a principal driver of forced migration into and from Mexico.
In addition to homicide, kidnapping, and extortion, guns are often used to commit rape and domestic violence, and to repress protests. More than 94,000 people have been forcibly disappeared in Mexico, most of them at gunpoint.
Central Americans are also fleeing growing gun violence in their countries. Yet “disrupting firearms trafficking is not an explicit US objective in Central America,” according to a Government Accountability Office report published last month. What’s worse, the GAO reported that nearly half of over 10,000 U.S.-sourced firearms recovered in four Central American countries were legally exported from the United States and diverted to criminal entities.
The United States is selling a growing number of weapons to Mexican and Central American police and military, purportedly to fight the country’s skyrocketing violence. The Commerce Department, for example, approved exports of nearly 100,000 firearms to Guatemala in a recent 12-month period.
Without a policy to identify the guns’ end users, these weapon sales are likely to do the opposite. For example, last January, a police unit armed with U.S. weapons in Mexico’s northern Tamaulipas state attacked a group of Guatemalan migrants in Camargo, close to the U.S. border, killing 19 people.
The only way to combat Mexico’s debilitating U.S.-sourced gun violence is to make it an integral part of the debates about the enormous human cost of firearms. Even with the unprecedented increase in gun homicides in the United States since 2019, Mexico experienced more than twice the rate of homicides with U.S.-sourced guns last year – approximately 15 per 100,000 inhabitants – than the entire United States did (6.25/100,000).
Assault rifles are a glaring example. In the United States, these weapons are often used in mass shootings. And while it is true that assault-rifle related shootings represent a small portion of the total number of overall gun deaths in this country, U.S.-sourced assault rifles are the weapon of choice for much organized criminal activity in Mexico.
Information like this needs to become an integral part of all kinds of policy discussions, and it has to be addressed with with diverse strategies from multiple sectors. A growing transnational network of gun violence prevention groups, public health advocates, victims collectives, and academics research the issue and participate in policy and advocacy efforts.
Transparency and data, from both the Mexican and U.S. governments, are critical to creating and supporting strategies that reduce the flow and impacts of guns in Mexico. That, combined with detailed storytelling, including testimonials from gun violence victims can sensitize policymakers and the general public to how the current U.S. gun market is generating devastating harms on both sides of the border. Only then can we coordinate actions to turn this nightmare around.
John Lindsay-Poland coordinates Stop US Arms to Mexico, a project of Global Exchange. More information at stopusarmstomexico.org.