Because the recent spike in drug-related violence in Mexico has coincided with the 2004 expiration of the U.S. assault weapons ban, and because a significant portion of the weapons used in Mexican crimes have been traced to U.S. vendors, Mexican officials often accuse liberal U.S. gun laws of being a major obstacle to a safer Mexico. Indeed, President Felipe Calderon made precisely this point during a speech to U.S. Congress in 2010.
U.S. officials have not denied that the problem exists. As InSight Crime noted, President Obama lamented his government’s inability to make headway against the flow of arms traffic, calling the task “impossible” earlier this month. One Los Angeles official recently termed the southward arms flow between his city and Tijuana an “ammo pipeline.”
The anger over the “Fast and Furious” scandal, in which U.S. federal agents allowed weapons to cross the Mexican border in order to track their flow towards criminal groups, has furthered the image of a U.S. government careless about the impact the country’s arms may have on Mexico. Several of the guns purchased under Fast and Furious were later used in crimes, including the murder of a U.S. Border Patrol official last December.
However, the legacy of the Central American civil wars between the 1960s and 1980s, which flooded the region with small arms, has also contributed to the availability of lethal weapons in Mexico. There are·several recent examples of soldiers looting official arms caches and reselling them on the black market in nations like El Salvador.
The following is a partial translation by InSight Crime of a recent report from Contralinea on the challenges of the illegal arms trade:
With just one click on an Internet search engine, Francisco Sanchez has multiple options for the object of his interest: a Pietro Beretta 9 millimeter piece, offered at 10,500 pesos [roughly $775]. Sanchez wants to buy a semi-automatic weapon, which are only for use by the army, without requesting permission from the Secretariat of National Defense (Sedena), the only agency in Mexico that hands out licenses to carry arms.
In short, he will acquire an illegal weapon. To buy it he doesn’t need to go to a rough neighborhood, to a market like El Salado in Iztapalapa, or to a neighborhood like San Felipe de Jesus, in the Gustavo A. Madero·barrio (the largest in Latin America), two important areas for the black market for weapons. Nor does he have a contact with a friend of a friend of a police officer or soldier.
To acquire a gun it’s enough to sit down in front of a computer and, from the intimacy of your home, office, or any location, do a quick search to complete the transaction. Small arms are sold on hundreds of internet pages, with the deal agreed upon in chats, prices haggled over in computer messages or over cell phones.
Since 2005, the Attorney General’s office (PGR, for its initials in Spanish) recognized that·organized crime groups could acquire weaponry over the Internet. But today it’s not just the criminals, but also civilians like Sanchez, who, overwhelmed by the growing insecurity and criminality gripping the country, see owning guns as a way to defend their life, their property, and their family.
Even if citizens are purchase weapons for self-defense, the problem is that by buying them on the black market they feed the cycle of illegality, and increase the profits of the industry of death, says Edgardo Buscaglia, a UN adviser on issues of security and organized crime.
International organizations estimate that some 20 million illegal weapons circulate in Mexican territory, in addition to the 5.5 million authorized by Sedena; that is, for every legal gun there are at least four illegal ones. The black market for guns in the country is increasingly open, “almost unchecked,” in the words of the secretary general of the Organization of American States, Jose Miguel Insulza. It has penetrated an ever-growing number of structures in society, not only in the criminal realm.
For two decades, [Mexico’s] southern border has been a port of entry for the weapons that feed the country’s black market. There are 956 miles of border between Mexico and Guatemala, where it is enough to arrive to cities like Ciudad Hidalgo, Ciudad Cuauhtemoc, or in border towns like Corozal, Talisman or Carmen Xhan, cross the checkpoints and walk around Tecun Uman, La Mesilla, Peten, El Carmen and Gracias a Dios to be offered weapons. Salesmen in shacks, adobe huts, or in the middle of the street offer the old M-16s and Galils that the Central American civil wars left behind; or more modern weapons, like the M72 and AT4 (anti-tank rockets), RPG-7 rocket-launchers, or 37-millimeter MGL grenade-launchers, with tracers and armor-piercing capacity, sold by catalogue, and a one-week wait before delivery.
The weapons arrive mostly from the United States, through air or maritime routes to Guatemala for distribution in Mexico, Central America, or South America. The advantage that this market offers is that purchases can be made without any middlemen, and that crossing is much easier than on the northern border.
Weapons acquired in Guatemala to supply the black market in Mexico are transported using the “hormiga” method, among the belongings of those who cross the border between the two countries — identified as one of the most porous in the world. Or, if they are large shipments, they are transported along the Suchiate River, or in secret compartments in vehicles that cross the border, or in collusion with immigration and customs officials.
The Mexican government identifies four principal routes through which U.S. arms enter. The Pacific route, whose entry point is Tijuana, and passes though Mexicali, San Luis Rio Colorado, Nogales, Hermosillo, Culiacan, Tepic, Guadalajara, Lazaro Cardenas, Morelia, Chilpancingo y Oaxaca.
The central route, which passes through Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, Durango, Guadalajara, and Morelia. Through the Gulf route, they come via Ciudad Acuña, Piedras Negras, Nuevo Laredo, Miguel Aleman, Reynosa, Matamoros, before moving on to Ciudad Victoria, Veracruz, and Tabasco or Oaxaca. And the southern route, in the border towns of Balancan, Ciudad Cuauhtemoc, Tapachula and Ciudad Hidalgo, and moving on to Tuxtla Gutiérrez, and from there to Veracruz and Oaxaca.
Magda Coss explains how the legal weapons that the government acquires become part of this market: “Many of the weapons that comprise this black market are transfers from the government to supply their armed forces. The problem is that, owing to the corruption and the weakness of the institutions, much of the weaponry is diverted illegally and with premeditation, or through theft, to supply the black market. This is facilitated by the hidden identity of the ultimate user, and by the corruption of the officials and agents of the armed forces and national security.”
The origin of the problem, Coss says, is that there is not “adequate and transparent” monitoring of legal transfers. In her book, “Trafico de armas en Mexico,” she reports that from 2000 to 2008, Sedena was notified of the robbery of 6,932 weapons from 40 state public security agencies and local prosecutors’ offices, in addition to the Federal Police and the PGR. This figure represented 60 percent of the guns confiscated over the same period.