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Mexico sues U.S. gun makers for 'deliberate actions' that fuel cartel violence

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Mexico sues U.S. gun makers for 'deliberate actions' that fuel cartel violence

  • Two AK-47-style rifles, 3,000 rounds of ammunition and the tripod for a .50-caliber sniper rifle seized in March 2016 by Nogales-area U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers.
    CBPTwo AK-47-style rifles, 3,000 rounds of ammunition and the tripod for a .50-caliber sniper rifle seized in March 2016 by Nogales-area U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers.

The Mexican government filed a lawsuit Wednesday against seven U.S. gun manufacturers, and a Boston-area wholesaler, arguing that the companies are responsible for a "deadly flood" of weapons that invariably "wreak havoc in Mexican society."

The 139-page lawsuit filed in federal court in Boston is the first time that a foreign government has sued gun makers in the United States, and argues that the companies' "deliberate actions and business practices" have armed criminal organizations throughout Mexico.

Mexico said that around 70 to 90 percent of the guns recovered at crime scenes in Mexico were trafficked from the U.S., and were made by Smith & Wesson, Beretta, Century Arms, Colt, Glock, and Ruger. They also singled out Barrett, because the company's .50-caliber sniper rifle is a "weapon of war prized by the drug cartels."

The lawsuit also blamed Interstate Arms—a Boston-area wholesaler—for the problem, arguing that the company "expressly markets itself as selling 'military-style' arms." These marketing techniques "are "disproportionately likely to motivate and attract dangerous individuals who harbor militaristic ambitions or want to attack large numbers of people," the lawsuit read. "It is the perfect message for drug cartels and other criminals who want to do battle with the military and police in Mexico."

"These weapons are intimately linked to the violence that Mexico is living through today," said Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard during a press conference on Wednesday.

"For decades, the government and its citizens have been victimized by a deadly flood of military-style and other particularly lethal guns that flows from the U.S. across the border, into criminal hands in Mexico," the lawsuit reads. "This flood is not a natural phenomenon or an inevitable consequence of the gun business or of U.S. gun laws. It is the foreseeable result of the Defendants’ deliberate actions and business practices."

As an example, Mexico cited three guns made by Colt that they argued pandered to the criminal market in Mexico, including the "El Jefe" .38-caliber pistol, the .38-caliber Super "El Grito" and the .38-caliber "Emiliano Zapata 1911." 

"These models are status symbols and coveted by the drug cartels; they are smuggled into Mexico from the U.S. in volume," the Mexican government said. "Colt’s special edition .38 Super pistol is engraved with an image of the Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata on one side of the barrel and a phrase attributed to him on the other: 'It is better to die standing than to live on your knees.'"

And, they added that the Zapata-engraved pistol was used to murder investigative journalist Miroslava Breach Velducea in 2017.

Federal law enforcement in the U.S. have regularly tried to blunt the smuggling of firearms and ammunition into Mexico. On July 23, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers in Nogales, Ariz., seized over 1,000 rounds for rifles and 9mm pistols concealed in the trunk and center console of a vehicle. Meanwhile, officials with Homeland Security Investigations, a part of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced Operation Without a Trace, a program that seized more than 1,125 firearms and over 680,000 rounds of ammunition over the last two years. 

Weapons made by the companies ended up in Mexico through "operación hormiga,” or ant operation, the lawsuit argued. People are purchasing small numbers of firearms in U.S. gun stores—including stores in Tucson, Phoenix and Green Valley—and smuggling the weapons into Mexico.

In 2018, a Tucson man, a former police officer, was sentenced to 78 months in federal prison for smuggling weapons, including two .50-caliber Barrett rifles, an AK-47-type rifle, and a series of .38 and 9mm pistols. One gun was intercepted at the border and a .50-caliber rifle was seized in Mexico, authorities said.

And, in 2017, a Phoenix woman was sentenced to 30 months for attempting to smuggle two semi-automatic AK-47-patterned rifles, along with 3,000 rounds of ammunition, and a tripod-mount for a .50-caliber sniper rifle, into Mexico a year earlier. In 2017, CBP officers arrested an 18-year-old man who had two AK-47-patterned rifles, an AR-15-style rifle, and an FN-SCAR in his Chevy sedan.

The smuggling of firearms into Mexico was the reason that the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives launched its "gun-walking" investigation under the Bush administration, and expanded under the Obama administration.

Better known as “Operation Fast and Furious” the investigation allowed people to smuggle guns across the U.S.-Mexico border from gun store sales in Arizona. However, the case fell apart when ATF lost track of at least 2,000 of the weapons. Ultimately, the agency recovered around 700 of the guns.

Fast and Furious became notorious after guns lost during the investigation were linked to a firefight in the desert near Nogales, Ariz., in 2010 that led to the death of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry. A member of the Border Patrol's elite Border Patrol Tactical Unit, Terry and three other agents set up a position in a remote area south of Tucson known as Mesquite Seep, part of an operation to apprehend the group of bandits, who were armed with AK-47-style rifles.

Obama administration officials were blamed for Terry's death, and fallout forced U.S. Attorney for Arizona Dennis Burke to resign. Fast and Furious also become the focus of a congressional investigation that ultimately led to a contempt hearing for former Attorney General Eric Holder.

Mexico's lawsuit argued that the U.S. companies "design, market, distribute, and sell guns in ways they know routinely arm the drug cartels in Mexico." Further, they said that the companies use "reckless and corrupt gun dealers and dangerous and illegal sales practices that the cartels rely on to get their guns."

Mexican officials also argued that the companies design firearms that can be easily modified to fire automatically, and to be "readily transferable on the criminal market in Mexico." Mexican authorities said that in 2009, 30 percent of seized AK-47 rifles had been modified to be fully automatic.

Even weapons that are not modified, "approach the rate of fire of automatic weapon," the lawsuit read, and a marketed to civilians.

"Defendants know how to make and sell their guns to prevent this illegal trade; the U.S. government and a U.S. court told them how," they furthered. "Defendants defy those recommendations, and many others, and instead choose to continue supplying the criminal gun market in Mexico— because they profit from it."

Mexico has "strong domestic laws that make it virtually impossible for criminals to lawfully obtain guns in Mexico," they wrote. "Mexico has one gun store in the entire nation and issues fewer than 50 gun permits per year."

However, the 10 companies "undermine these stringent laws, and wreak havoc in Mexican society, by persistently supplying a torrent of guns to the drug cartels," they argued. More than half-a-million guns are trafficked from the U.S. into Mexico, and the 10 companies named in the lawsuit produced more than 68 percent of those guns, the lawsuit read. This means that the companies annually "sell" more than 340,000 guns that flow from the U.S. to criminals in Mexico, they argued.

While Mexico only has one store, the country has the third most gun-related deaths in the world, the lawsuit read. "Murders are the leading cause of death in Mexico among teenagers and young adults between 15 and 19  years of age." And, the arming of "pitiless" cartels like the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas has led to high-profile murders. Leading up to Mexico's  2018 presidential election, armed drug cartels killed at least 130 candidates and politicians. 

Additionally, from  2006 to 2021, guns killed at least 415 members of the Mexican Federal Police or National Guard, wounding at least 840 more, and guns from the U.S. killed 25 members of the Mexican military, and wounded another 84.

The magnitude of these deaths is so extensive that, beginning in 2005, it "significantly affected the life expectancy of all Mexicans." "While life expectancy increased by approximately .5 years throughout Mexico from 2000 to 2005, it decreased by about the same amount from 2005 to 2010," the lawsuit read.

While Mexico's suit focused on U.S. companies, the "iron river" of weapons to Mexico comes from other sources, including Europe.

The FN Five-seveN semi-automatic pistol regularly desired by cartels is made by the Herstal Group, and according to a report from Armanent Research Services, sicarios used a mix of U.S.-made and European-made weapons to attack government forces in Culiacán during a violent incident in 2019.

Among the weapons used in the incident were AK-47s made in Romania, the Herstal group's FN Herstal Minimi belt-fed machine gun (used by the U.S. military as the M249 Squad Automatic Weapon) as well as an FX-05 Xihucóatl, a weapon produced exclusively for the Mexican military. The sicarios also used the Barrett .50-caliber rifle, and Browning's M2, a machine gun that fires .50-caliber rounds.

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