Edgard Garrido/Reuters/File
A soldier walks in front of arms seized by national security authorities in Mexico City in April 2013. Mexico only has one authorized gun store in the entire country.

To curb violence at home, Mexico sues gun-makers in US

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Homicide rates have been trending up in Mexico over the past 15 years, with a record of just under 36,000 people killed across the country in 2018 alone. The growth of organized crime, turf wars, and high rates of impunity all play a role.

However, the Mexican government is trying to tamp down on another factor: gun manufacturers in the United States, whose firearms are brought across the border. Earlier this month, Mexico filed a lawsuit in Massachusetts federal court against 10 U.S. gun companies.

Why We Wrote This

There are many domestic factors underpinning Mexico’s high murder rate. But the government is arguing that U.S. gun-makers – and gun policy – play a part as well.

“For years the Mexican government has been saying the U.S. should do more about guns, but most of the time it’s in response to pressure from the U.S. to stop the drug trade into the U.S.,” says Carlos Pérez Ricart, a Mexico City-based researcher. With this lawsuit, “Mexico is going on the offensive.”

The lawsuit is about more than any long-shot legal wins – it’s about indirectly pressuring the U.S government. Success at the border, Dr. Pérez Ricart says, whether concerning the drug trade, human trafficking, or now arms flows, will require the two neighbors to cooperate, and share responsibility.

For the past 15 years, violence has been on the rise in Mexico due to the growth of organized crime, turf wars, and high rates of impunity. But the Mexican government in August acted to curb another potential factor in the country’s high death toll: It filed suit against a handful of U.S.-based gun manufacturers for their role in the steady flow of arms that cross the border into Mexico each year.

What’s the lawsuit about?

The Mexican government filed a lawsuit on Aug. 4 in Massachusetts federal court against 10 U.S. gun companies, saying they are deliberately enabling the flow of weapons to Mexican cartels. Homicide rates have been trending up in Mexico over the past 15 years, with a record of just under 36,000 people killed across the country in 2018 alone. The suit points to business decisions among U.S. gun-makers that seem specifically designed to appeal to Mexican consumers, such as using branding rooted in Mexican history or popular culture, like a .38-caliber pistol engraved with the face of revolutionary Emiliano Zapata.

Why We Wrote This

There are many domestic factors underpinning Mexico’s high murder rate. But the government is arguing that U.S. gun-makers – and gun policy – play a part as well.

About 70% of guns traced in Mexico by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives between 2014 and 2018 came from the United States.

“These weapons are intimately linked to the violence that Mexico is living through today,” said Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard in announcing the suit.

How are U.S. guns getting into Mexican hands?

Mexico has strict laws around gun sales for private use: There’s only one authorized gun store in the entire country.

Mexican trafficking organizations have turned to U.S. citizens for help in acquiring their illegal arms. Americans without criminal records buy several guns at different locations or gun shows in the U.S., and then drive them across the border. 

Mexico has put pressure on the U.S. over this in the past, but it’s typically come as an argument when the country is on the defensive, says Carlos Pérez Ricart, a professor of international relations who focuses on arms trafficking and organized crime at the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics in Mexico City.

“For years the Mexican government has been saying the U.S. should do more about guns, but most of the time it’s in response to pressure from the U.S. to stop the drug trade into the U.S.,” he says. 

With this lawsuit, “Mexico is going on the offensive.”

The shared border means U.S. gun laws have a direct impact on Mexico, experts say. The 2004 end of an assault weapon ban in the U.S., for example, is seen as a turning point for Mexico’s homicide rate, which spiked soon after, especially in border towns.

“The Mexican government is responsible for the rampant crime and corruption within their own borders,” Lawrence G. Keane, senior vice president of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, said in a statement reacting to the lawsuit.

Mexico’s impunity rates for murder, which hover around 90%, and widespread corruption at all levels of government play a proven role in the vast presence of violence and crime here.

But there’s “a bigger picture to consider,” says Dr. Pérez Ricart. 

“We are neighbors with the most powerful country in the world,” he says, “and it happens that this country is producing millions of weapons every year and selling them without regulation.”

Could this lawsuit change things?

This is the first time a national government has sued gun-makers in the U.S., and many observers believe the political impact could be greater than any legal outcome. Government officials said they’re seeking $10 billion from gun manufacturers, which would normally be blocked by a U.S. federal law that shields gun manufacturers from being sued by victims of gun violence. But the argument that gun-makers are knowingly trying to sell to an illegal market would circumvent that law.

It’s still a long shot, and legal experts are skeptical the case will go far. But if more suits follow, it could offer a new means to pressure U.S. gun-makers – and indirectly, the U.S. government. 

It’s taken years for Mexico to convince the U.S. that drug and human trafficking are its charge too, says Dr. Pérez Ricart. “It’s a good idea to try and move the discussion to include U.S. responsibility, as well.”

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