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Curbing illicit firearms trade crucial to success of U.S.-Mexico security deal

In order to fulfill its promise of addressing the root causes of drug violence, addiction, and human trafficking, the proposed security deal between the United States and Mexico must create a more transparent and responsible firearms trade north of the border, according to Mexico’s foreign affairs ministry. 

“Illicit firearms trafficking is determinant to the challenge of public safety,” said Alejandro Celorio, legal consultant at the Foreign Ministry.

Conceived under the acceptance of shared responsibility for the problems of drug trafficking, addiction, and violence in both countries, the recently proposed “U.S.-Mexico Bicentennial Framework for Security, Public Health, and Safe Communities” intends to consider new strategies to stop firearms sold in the United States from reaching Mexico. 

Citing statistics compiled by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Government Accountability Office reported this past February that the vast majority of guns used in criminal acts in Mexico come from the United States. The ATF traced 70% of firearms recovered in Mexico from 2014 to 2018 back to the United States, though that number is most likely higher as those figures do not include data on unreported weapons. 

Mexico, a country with only one gun store operating legally, has been flooded with U.S.-sold firearms over the past decade. One study by the Mexican government puts that number at around 2.5 million. 

But while stanching the largely unmitigated flow of firearms crossing the border from north to south is a requisite for lowering Mexico’s record-high levels of violence, the lack of sensible gun regulation presents a serious challenge for diplomats from both countries. 

“Combatting gun trafficking is very complicated,” said Celorio, who is heading up a federal lawsuit filed by the Mexican Foreign Ministry against several U.S.-based gun manufacturers in the District of Massachusetts this past August. “What we can do — and this is what stands out in the Bicentennial Framework — is call attention to the role that illicit firearms trafficking plays in the broader spiral of violence in Mexico.”

Celorio acknowledged each government has its limits with respect to its own domestic policies, but there are still actions the United States can take to curb firearms trafficking, even while U.S. gunmakers continue to legally sell .50-caliber sniper rifles and other assault-style weapons with the full knowledge that some will end up on the Mexican black market. 

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“It would be very naive to say that the companies don’t know what’s going on,” said Celorio, who stressed that Mexico’s lawsuit is not targeted at U.S. citizens’ right to bear arms. 

“The gun companies are the ones responsible for the illicit firearms trade to Mexico,” he said. “Our lawsuit is not against the firearms trade. We don’t want it to stop. That’s to be determined by U.S. law. What we want is for that trade to be transparent, responsible, and accountable.”

He called the Bicentennial Framework “ambitious” and mentioned actions that officials in both countries can take to stop the illicit firearms trade to Mexico, such as improved coordination, information exchange, and the generation of intelligence on gun trafficking routes and patterns. One way to improve coordination is by conducting mirror patrols along the border. 

“They already take actions like this to address migration issues, to stop illicit substances, and for money laundering. Now we want to grow this bilateral collaboration to stop the trafficking of firearms,” he said. 

One way straw purchasers in the United States get away with selling to criminal organizations in Mexico is by reporting guns bound for the illicit market lost or stolen, for which there are little to no penalties under U.S. law. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence recommends levying fines on buyers for every second gun reported lost or stolen, among other legal overhauls, as a means of closing this and other legal loopholes. 

The United States is also responsible for addressing the demand side of the addiction crisis, and substance abuse prevention and reduction are among the Bicentennial Framework’s ambitious goals. Curbing the illicit firearms trade is key to cutting down the supply that meets that demand, as well as to addressing human trafficking. 

“The organized crime that traffics drugs is less powerful without firearms. Those who traffic migrants would be less powerful without firearms,” said Celorio.

Accountability is key to understanding and making progress in the realm of public security in Mexico. Diplomats may have to sidestep directly calling out U.S. citizens for their role in creating and maintaining the gun trade that fuels extreme violence in Mexico, but others aren’t as strictly bound by jurisprudence.

Author Alan Riding was Mexico City bureau chief for The New York Times in the 1980s, and his 1984 book "Distant Neighbors: A Portrait of the Mexicans" is considered a classic of modern Mexico. He noted how U.S.-sold guns have been making their way down to Latin America for decades. What has changed since then are the types of guns coming down and the sweeping power that criminal organizations have come to wield thanks to the expansion of the illicit drug trade in Mexico in the 21st century.

Riding also more readily extended the shared responsibility to the U.S. citizenry, which largely ignores the disastrous effects of the country’s reckless firearms trade. “Americans are implicitly responsible for the violence in Mexico by way of maintaining lax gun regulations, but they don’t think of it in those terms,” he said in an interview. “They think of it in terms of their own rights and their own ability to carry a gun and protect themselves and their families.”

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Though Riding called Mexico’s lawsuit a “great initiative,” he is doubtful it will succeed in the courts. “But while it’s going nowhere, it’ll actually draw attention to the issue,” he said.

The argument against sensible gun regulation is always propped up by U.S. citizens’ constitutional right to bear arms, but the Second Amendment does not apply to Mexican citizens. The question now is whether or not the attention the lawsuit brings to the matter will cause Americans who equate gun ownership with freedom to cede some of that freedom in order to save Mexican — and American — lives. Riding is not hopeful it will.

Celorio, on the other hand, is not only hopeful that increased awareness will curb the record-high levels of violence, he is confident that the unprecedented lawsuit will win out against the gun manufacturers. 

“A foreign government has never sued this industry for harm done outside the United States, so there’s no precedent to say that Mexico won’t succeed in its arguments, because it’s the first time it’s been done,” he said. “It’s difficult, but it won’t be impossible.”

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An Arizona Department of Public Safety trooper arrested a 24-year-old Nevada man and seized five AK-47 assault rifles during a traffic stop in March, 2018, on I-10 near Marana.

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