Why Mexico is taking on the US arms industry for illegal trafficking of weapons

The Mexican government has filed a lawsuit against manufacturers including Smith & Wesson and Colt, arguing they design guns with drug cartels in mind

Gina Brewer, owner of the weapons store Texas Gun.
Gina Brewer, owner of the weapons store Texas Gun.Gilles Mingasson (Getty Images)

The Mexican government is seeking those responsible for the wave of violence that has had the country on a knife-edge for the past 17 years, and has focused its attention on the US arms industry, from manufacturers to end-product sellers. “They know very well that these weapons are among those favored by the drug cartels,” states a historic 139-page lawsuit targeting the illegal arms trade, which was presented by Mexican authorities in a Massachusetts court on Wednesday. It is an all-too-familiar reality for Mexicans and US citizens, with an estimated 340,000 firearms made in the US ending up in the hands of Mexican prosecutors as evidence in cases of violent crime every year.

The Mexican government has avoided the issue with the US in the last 15 years, despite pressure from Washington to ramp up the war against the cartels. Although accusations have reached international forums and government officials, in turn, have made the occasional statement, above all when news of a massacre emerges, the true scale of the damage the US arms industry has caused in Mexico has never been so clear. In the lawsuit, Mexico has avoided entering into a diplomatic debate and has made it plain that “this case has nothing to do with the Second Amendment” – the constitutional right for all Americans to own and carry weapons – but instead is intended to shine a light on an industry that with its extensive knowledge of the illegal arms trade manages to position its products in Mexico.

Mexico’s lawsuit is historic because for the first time it places the names of the weapons manufacturers, the drug cartels and their victims on the same piece of paper

Despite Mexico’s attempts to delimit its scope, it remains unclear what the extent of the lawsuit’s impact on bilateral relations will be. The White House has yet to make any comment on the court filing. The US arms industry trade union has spoken out against the lawsuit, claiming it is unsubstantiated and that sales under its remit comply with US law. “The Mexican government is responsible for the rampant crime and corruption within its borders,” it said in a statement. The main spokesman for the Mexican administration on the subject over the past two years has been Secretary of Foreign Affairs Marcelo Ebrard and his office has coordinated the lawsuit. “If we do not win, they will not understand, they will continue to do the same thing and we will continue to witness deaths every day in our country,” Ebrard said on August 5 when the legal action was announced. The Secretariat of Foreign Affairs has acknowledged the legal process will be long, but added that the Mexican government is prepared to go all the way to the US Supreme Court if necessary.

The document presented in Massachusetts details over 100 crimes since 2004 in which the weapons used to mete out death were illegally trafficked from the United States. Mexico has date-stamped that year as a point of no return since when homicides have risen steadily, stating that 90% of the weapons used in these violent crimes were obtained illegally from the US. The lawsuit names 11 arms manufacturers but stresses that six, in particular, have profited most from the demand for weapons among organized crime syndicates: Smith & Wesson, Beretta, Century Arms, Colt, Glock and Ruger. Furthermore, the document claims that from the design of the product to its sale, these companies have criminals foremost in mind as potential clients, appealing to the preferences of the cartels for assault rifles such as the AK-47 or the AR-15. “[The weapons manufacturers] choose to continue to supply the criminal arms market in Mexico because they profit from it,” the Mexican government states in the lawsuit.

One example cited is a special edition of a .38 caliber Colt pistol embossed with the name and image of Emiliano Zapata and a phrase attributed to the Mexican revolutionary leader: “It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.” One of these Colt limited editions was used in the assassination of journalist Miroslava Breach in 2017. The shooter was a Sinaloa Cartel associate and the weapon was unregistered. “These models are status symbols, they are coveted by the cartels and brought into Mexico in large quantities,” the Mexican government says. The pages of the lawsuit also lay out the contemporary history of the cartels, names them and attributes crimes to them: The Zetas, the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, La Línea, the Sinaloa Cartel, the Northeastern Cartel, the Michoacán Family, the Knights Templar Cartel and the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel.

Colt makes a .38 caliber pistol embossed with the name and image of Mexican revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata

The lawsuit is full of examples of the journey weapons makes to Mexico from the US. According to the Mexican authorities, the gun companies know their distributors and know that 10% of them deal 90% of the arms that are illegally imported into Mexico. The document argues that the cartels make front purchases through US citizens who are not subject to any form of investigation despite acquiring dozens of weapons that are considered as being for military use. Mexico also claims that many of these transactions are carried out at gun shows in the US and that the models in question are designed to meet the requirements of the cartels by being convertible for automatic fire or personalized with gold or silver grips.

Mexico’s lawsuit is historic because for the first time it places the names of the weapons manufacturers, the drug cartels and their victims on the same piece of paper. Although for now, it omits other factors indirectly responsible for the escalation of violence, the Mexican government is making public acknowledgment of the consequences of the war on drugs that has accounted for some 350,000 deaths to date. “The life of Mexican citizens would be very different if they could live without the dangers and threats of the armed cartels. They would have less fear and more freedom to meet and enjoy life,” the document states.

English version by Rob Train.

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