Published February 18, 2013
MEXICO CITY – Taking a seat in a folding metal chair in a garage behind Saint Michael the Archangel Church, 78-year-old grandmother Maria de Jesus Rodriguez Vidal unwrapped her purple shawl, opened her brown purse and removed a .22-caliber revolver tucked inside a red cloth pouch.
She wanted to get rid of it.
The government was glad to take it off her hands.
"Because of the danger to the children and the family in general," soft-spoken Rodriguez said last week when asked why she had decided to turn in the weapon. She said it belonged to her husband, a prison guard until his death 8 years ago.
Taking the gun from her, a government official returned the favor, handing her an Android D2 tablet, $50 in cash and a voucher to buy food staples such as beans, sugar and milk.
It's all part of Mexico City’s gun buyback program, launched in December 2012 to help curb out-of-control violence propagated by the country’s years-long drug war.
As part of the program, educators select neighborhoods and then go door to door explaining to residents the dangers of keeping weapons at home.
Then they set up shop at a Catholic church in the community where for a week or two they invite neighbors to drop off their guns, cartridges, and grenades — in one case even an aircraft bomb — no questions asked.
In exchange for their weapons, residents receive cash, bikes, tablets and vouchers. Soldiers immediately destroy the guns on site.
"The people who surrender their weapons, we do not ask their name or their address. It's a very friendly program and totally anonymous," Azucena Sánchez Méndez, Undersecretary of Citizen Participation and Crime Prevention, told Fox News Latino during an interview in her office in downtown Mexico City.
Officials don’t look into peoples’ criminal histories or try to track past use of the weapons, said Sánchez. The whole point is to simply rid the country of as many weapons as possible, she said.
It’s the second time the government tries the effort. A similar program between 2008 and 2011 collected about 5,000 weapons in the city, but it was organized solely by the Ministry of Public Safety. This time it has expanded, joining forces with the Ministry of Social Development, the city council, community groups and the Defense Department.
The program kicked off in December at the Lord of Cuevita church in Iztapalapa — Mexico City's most populous neighborhood, which also has the distinction of having the most recorded rapes and violence against women.
From there it moved to Mexico's famous Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in the rough-and-tumble Gustavo A. Madero section in the north of the city. At the third location, St. Peter's church in the more rural area of Tlahuac, residents had an option of receiving home appliances like stoves, washers, electric grills and refrigerators instead of bikes and tablets.
All 16 leading neighborhoods in Mexico City will be visited before the end of the year, with the program returning to high-crime areas like Itztapalapa for follow-up visits.
Back in relatively calm Saint Michael the Archangel Church, a buzz grew when a stocky 32-year-old man arrived and unzipped his bags to reveal an M-12 "street sweeper" shotgun.
"It could be dangerous in the hands of a delinquent," said one soldier while inspecting and labeling the weapon.
The man turning in the weapon declined to give his name but said he purchased the weapon from a gun shop in Dallas, Texas, to protect his ranch in the nearby state of Querétaro. For his deed, he left the church with $450, a tablet and a food voucher.
He said he had no concerns about bringing his weapon to the church and authorities.
"If so, I wouldn't have come," he explained matter-of-factly.
Sánchez, the government officials, said the program has gained the trust of residents in large part by partnering with churches.
"It's a way to give the people a little bit of confidence," she said.
The average age of people bringing in weapons that Fox News Latino spoke with was 63 — not the delinquents and narcos most Americans associate with guns in Mexico. Although Mexico City has not suffered the extreme violence seen in other parts of country, those involved in organized crime here typically have access to much more sophisticated weapons than outdated, low-caliber pistols and revolvers many residents turned in. Much deadlier guns can fairly easily be purchased — or even rented — in the black market in neighborhoods like Tepito.
Sánchez acknowledged the buyback program may not make a big dent against organized crime. But if it can at least help curb violence, then it’s serving the community well.
“In a moment of emotional crisis for anyone, if they know they have a weapon they can end up using it against their own family," Sánchez said.
Since the program began in December, the government has collected more than 2,500 guns, 225 grenades, 16,000 cartridges and a bomb, government officials said. Residents have received cash totaling $344,716, in addition to gifts and vouchers.
Back at , the mood shifted from somber to jovial when one female resident attempted to negotiate the compensation for her gun (a .32-caliber pistol), and once accepting the set offer pulled from her purse another gun (a .32-caliber Colt revolver) and then — only after determining the price for that — yet another gun, which actually turned out to be a real-looking toy pistol.
Lourdes Meza Barrera, 66, accompanied her husband Arturo to turn in their .22-caliber Ranger pistol. The couple received $100 and a mountain bike in their choice of red, orange or blue.
Her husband asked her to pick the one she wanted, but she quickly reminded him the adult-size bike would be his only to ride.
"They don't consider the short ladies," she exclaimed, standing up to reveal her small stature.