After the elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn., that took the lives of 26 innocent souls in mid-December 2012, numerous world leaders expressed their condolences and solidarity with the United States. One of these leaders was Enrique Peña Nieto, Mexico’s new president who had been inaugurated just two weeks prior to the massacre. He must have viewed the shooting with a strange sense of irony, given that his country has been plagued with drug-related massacres in a daily basis for almost a decade.
Peña Nieto, along with many Mexican citizens, is probably also keeping an eye on the ensuing debate over new gun control measures, possibly hoping for restrictions that will keep Mexican drug cartels’ weapons of choice from heading south across the border.
Despite the abundance of firearms on the streets of Mexico, it is incredibly difficult for Mexican citizens to legally obtain a firearm, although the Mexican constitution has a provision similar to our own Second Amendment. Even if a Mexican is able to successfully navigate the gauntlet of paperwork, fees and personal recommendations required to obtain a permit, he or she is limited to purchasing firearms with very low stopping power—.38-caliber or weaker—and can only buy them at Mexico’s sole gun shop.
Mexican cartels obtain these firearms from several different places, but the United States is arguably the closest, cheapest, and most convenient source.
- Sylvia Longmire
Yes, you read that correctly. In the entire country of Mexico, there is only one store where citizens can legally buy firearms, and it’s run by the army. Thus, it should come as no surprise that there are only about 6,000 firearms legally registered in Mexico.
As a result of these restrictions, Mexico’s bloodthirsty drug cartels have had to resort for decades to arming themselves through the black market. If you think the internal gun control debate in the United States is bad, you should listen in on the debate over where the black market guns in Mexico come from.
To make a very long story short, the U.S. government asserts that the majority of illegally owned firearms in Mexico —to the tune of about 70 percent— are purchased in the United States. This assertion is largely based on trace data obtained from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). Gun rights advocates and lobby groups like the National Rifle Association (NRA) contend that this claim is false, that trace data is inexorably flawed, and that most firearms in Mexico come from internal Mexican sources, Central America and other third-world countries. They also believe the trace data is manufactured and an attempt by the Obama administration to leverage those statistics into enacting highly restrictive gun control measures.
For the record, the Mexican government supports the U.S. government’s stance. Former Mexican President Felipe Calderón had no trouble during his tenure pointing the finger of blame at the United States for all the guns flooding his country. After the movie theater massacre in Aurora, Colorado in July 2012, Calderón posted a message on Twitter that said, “Because of the Aurora, Colorado tragedy, the American Congress must review its mistaken legislation on guns. It kills.” In December 2010, he made the bold and unprecedented move of using the rare privilege of time on the Congressional floor to call for the reinstatement of the expired 2004 assault weapons ban.
It is in this context that Mexico’s collective ears perked up after the current gun control debate began here in light of the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting in December 2012. The term “assault weapons ban” started getting thrown around rather liberally, and some politicians have gone beyond just wanting to reinstate the old ban. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California) introduced a bill into Congress last month that would ban the sale, transfer, manufacture and importation of 100 specialty firearms and certain semiautomatic weapons. The bill would also apply the same pariah status to magazines capable of holding more than ten rounds.
To understand the impact that both the old ban and the new proposed ban would have on southbound weapons trafficking, it’s important to know what firearms Mexican cartels prefer to use and the manner in which they purchase those firearms. According to ATF and Mexican government seizure statistics, the most commonly recovered firearms in Mexico are .223-caliber Bushmaster rifles (one of these was found at the scene of the Sandy Hook massacre), 7.62mm Romarm/Cugir rifles (a.k.a. AK-47 variants), .223-caliber DPMS, Inc. rifles (a.k.a. AR-15 variants), and 5.7mm Fabrique Nationale Herstal pistols (which go by the brand name FiveSeven®). It should be noted that these pistols are capable of firing armor-piercing ammunition.
Mexican cartels obtain these firearms from several different places, but the United States is arguably the closest, cheapest, and most convenient source. Cartels hire U.S. citizens with no criminal history —known as straw purchasers, or strawmen— to walk into gun shops or attend gun shows and legally buy everything on their cartel-provided shopping list. The straw buyer fills out the appropriate ATF forms and submits to a background check, which he or she usually passes. After the purchase, the straw buyer hands off the weapons to a middle man, who makes arrangements for the guns to be transported across the border into Mexico and into cartel hands.
It should be noted that currently it is legal to manufacture, sell and own all of these firearms. However, if Senator Feinstein’s proposed gun ban were to miraculously become law, all that would change. It specifically names 157 types of firearms to be prohibited, including all AK-47 and AR-15 variants, all Thompson rifles, Uzi-type pistols, and many more. Cartel straw buyers would no longer be able to purchase their favorite firearms through easy and legal means. Even private face-to-face sales of these weapons would be prohibited, and American gun enthusiasts would be more likely to stockpile and fiercely protect these guns rather than make a possibly shady sale that might land them in jail.
This situation would have a huge negative impact on cartel logistics. With one of their primary sources of preferred firearms effectively dried up, they would have to resort to much more costly and time-to-transport intensive sources. This isn’t to say that most of the guns currently on Mexican streets would magically disappear, but the flow of these weapons from external sources into Mexico would certainly slow down, and perhaps allow seizures by Mexican authorities to finally get ahead of the curve. This is the ultimate desire of the Mexican government and citizenry. It would also be a huge political and diplomatic victory for the U.S. government, which is tired of being at the pointy end of Mexico’s index finger.
In reality, however, this situation is a pipe dream. Despite the slight shift in American attitudes about assault weapon ownership as a result of Sandy Hook and Aurora, we still remain a gun-loving nation and have a Congress largely under the thumb of the gun lobby. Much of America was visibly bristling at President Obama’s recent 23 gun control-related executive actions, most of which had to do with tightening up background checks and none of which had to do with restricting gun purchases. But it’s clear that the odds of any sort of gun ban legislation actually making it to Obama’s desk for signature in the near future are slim to none.
This is sure to be very disappointing for the Mexican government, and probably a source of amusement for Mexican cartels. However, through all the political mess, this manages to leave the Obama administration sitting pretty with its drug war-ravaged neighbor, able to say, “Hey, we tried!” and blame the gun lobby for its inability to slow down the southbound flow of firearms through legislation.
This isn’t to say that anti-gun legislation is the silver bullet for keeping assault weapons out of Mexico, because it certainly isn’t. Mexico has a lot of internal problems to solve, with corruption at the top of the list, before it can make a meaningful dent in the weapons trafficking crisis. It shouldn’t rely on the political temperature changing in another country as a means to improve its security situation. It also shouldn’t expect the U.S. government to change its gun laws to appease another country, or for any reason other than because it’s what’s best for the safety of the American people.
However, this doesn’t mean that significant measures can’t be taken to strengthen the enforcement of our existing gun laws or that actions can’t be taken that would place more scrutiny –not restrictions– on the sale of firearms preferred by Mexican cartels. Unfortunately, the debate over such baby-step measures will continue in earnest for some time on this side of the border, meaning the Mexican people will need to keep looking inward for possible weapons trafficking solutions.
Sylvia Longmire is a former senior border security analyst for the State of California. She is currently a consultant, columnist for Homeland Security Today magazine, and author of Cartel: The Coming Invasion of Mexico’s Drug Wars (available in Spanish as El Cartel).