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MEXICO CITY — Hit men from the Jalisco New Generation Cartel rolled into a swanky Mexico City neighborhood on the morning of June 26, 2020, planning to assassinate the capital’s police chief. They carried three Barrett .50 caliber sniper rifles, a Smith & Wesson 9mm pistol and 5.56mm caliber carbine, a Ruger 5.56mm caliber rifle and a Colt 5.56mm caliber carbine. After a terrifying shootout, two police officers and a civilian were killed, the police chief was wounded, and a drug cartel once again showed that it is armed like special forces.
The incident is featured in an unprecedented lawsuit by the Mexican government to expand responsibility for gun violence. On Wednesday, the Mexican government sued American gun-makers and distributors in U.S. federal court for damages caused by illicit firearms. The defendants include Smith & Wesson, Barrett, Ruger, Colt and several others.
The lawsuit aims to “make the defendant companies compensate the government of Mexico for the damage caused by their negligent practices,” said Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard, who presented the suit filed in Massachusetts federal court. The Mexican government estimates $10 billion in damages from economic loss.
The companies have not commented publicly. But a trade association for the U.S. gun industry, the National Shooting Sport Foundation, rejected the allegations.
The lawsuit is a long shot in American courts, legal experts say. But for Mexico, it’s about more than the courtroom.
“The Mexican government wants to put arms trafficking at the center of the conversation with the United States,” says Cecilia Farfán-Méndez, the head of security research programs at the University of California, San Diego’s Center for US-Mexico Studies. “They’re saying, ‘You’re concerned about drug trafficking, well we’re just as concerned about firearms trafficking.'”
Mexico has strict gun laws but is awash in guns
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In Mexico, it’s next to impossible for citizens to legally buy a gun. The one firearms store is owned by the military and it issues fewer than 50 permits per year, according to the government. But that hasn’t stopped millions of firearms from circulating around the country.An estimated 200,000 firearms are illegally trafficked in from the U.S. every year, according to the U.S. government. Between 70% and 90% of firearms found at crime scenes in Mexico are traced back to the United States. In 2020, there were 24,617 homicides with a firearm in Mexico.
“All border security is directed towards stopping drugs from going into the US, not to identify arms going south,” says Carlos Pérez Ricart, a professor of international relations at the Center for Economic Research and Training in Mexico City. “A single cell of three or four people can traffic between 300 and 400 arms into Mexico every year, no problem.”
Manufacturers allegedly “attract and arm” cartels
The lawsuit alleges the arms companies aren’t simply negligent but they also “design, market, distribute, and sell guns in ways they know routinely arm the drug cartels in Mexico.”
The suit lists a striking example: Colt’s .38-caliber “Emiliano Zapata 1911” edition. The gold-plated pistol is engraved with a Zapata quote: “It’s better to die standing than to live on your knees.” The gun is coveted by cartel bosses, according to local media reports. It was the weapon used to murder Mexican investigative journalist Miroslava Breach in 2017. The lawsuit provides several other examples of manufacturers allegedly tailoring products to cartel preferences.
The National Shooting Sport Foundation called all the allegations “baseless.”
“The Mexican government is responsible for the rampant crime and corruption within their own borders,” Lawrence Keane, the foundation’s senior vice president and general counsel, said in a statement. “It is these cartels that criminally misuse firearms illegally imported into Mexico or stolen from the Mexican military and law enforcement. Rather than seeking to scapegoat law-abiding American businesses, Mexican authorities must focus their efforts on bringing the cartels to justice.”
The Mexican complaint cites dozens of media reports, academic investigations and government briefs to allege the companies sell weapons knowing they will end up in cartel hands.
“Gun companies do know that a significant percentage of their products end up in the hands of cartels,” Ioan Grillo, author of Blood Gun Money: How America Arms Gangs and Cartels, tells NPR. (He is one of the sources cited in the government’s complaint.) “And the way that the products arrive in certain places, I think there’s a case that they kind of see a market and know cartels are a significant part of this market.”
Grillo says arms sales in border states like Texas, New Mexico and Arizona reflect the cartel demand for their preferred weapons, such as AK-47-style arms sold by defendant Century Arms and Barrett’s .50-caliber sniper rifle.
The suit is a long shot
Arms manufacturers will almost certainly motion for dismissal, according to legal experts, but the Mexican government is hoping the allegations are taken seriously by a judge.
“It seems like a stronger case than at first blush,” says Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond. The Mexican government “would argue the case shouldn’t be dismissed because the information they need to prove [allegations like this] is in the hands of the manufacturers and they should be able to see documents, they should be able to depose the relevant players.”
It’s an uphill battle. The first hurdle to overcome is a 2005 law in the U.S., the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act. It makes civil lawsuits against arms manufacturers, like the one filed by the Mexican government, almost impossible.
But Tobias says the Mexican government has argued that the commerce in arms lawshould not apply because of past Supreme Court decisions related to tort law abroad.
Additionally, gun-maker Remington — not named in the Mexican lawsuit — recently offered to settle with family members of the Sandy Hook massacre in a lawsuit claiming its marketing practices contributed to the massacre. This development is encouraging news for the Mexican government.
Mexico is resetting drug war cooperation
But even if the lawsuit fails, it has another objective.
“This neutralizes the U.S. argument for the drug war, it gives the Mexican government leverage negotiating with the U.S.,” says Pérez Ricart.
For example, when U.S. officials complain that the Drug Enforcement Administration doesn’t have enough leeway to work in Mexico, the Mexican government is now responding with complaints about arms trafficking.
In July, the Mexican government said it was done with the Mérida Initiative, the U.S.-Mexico drug war security agreement dating back to 2008, and wants to create new avenues for cooperation. The U.S. government may even welcome all these developments, says Farfán-Méndez at UC San Diego.
“I don’t think [the U.S. government] would interpret the lawsuit as a hostile maneuver or anything,” she says. “They actually might be happy if it goes somewhere in court because it’s a way to start dealing with the issue.”
Since President Biden has indicated he wants to bring back an assault weapons ban and implement other gun control measures, the U.S. and Mexican governments may share legislative priorities on firearms.
The Mexican government is a customer too
But Mexico’s renewed focus on arms trafficking has one major contradiction, says Pérez Ricart.
“With one hand the Mexican government is suing these companies and with the other hand it’s buying weapons from the same companies and distributing them to the military and police forces,” he says.
National security protections make the extent of Mexican military purchases difficult to calculate, but defendants Colt, Glock and Barrett have all sold weapons to the Mexican armed forces over the last decade.
Mexican security forces — including police at all levels and the military — are also guilty of atrocities committed with firearms.
Poor oversight means an unknown number of these legally purchased guns also end up on the black market. In the last two years, 341 long arms and 1,075 pistols from police and military forces have been reported “missing” in Mexico, though experts suspect the real figure is much higher.
“It doesn’t matter if they are legal or illegal,” says Pérez Ricart. “There are too many guns in Mexico.” He says stopping illegal trafficking isn’t enough to end Mexico’s frightening levels of gun violence.