For the last decade, the Mexican government has been locked in a brutal war with the country’s drug cartels. The conflict has claimed tens of thousands of lives, displaced scores of residents, and cost both the Mexican and the United States governments billions in tax dollars. 

As the Mexican military ramped up its pursuit of cartels in the mid-aughts, criminal organizations were eager to match its firepower. They looked north of the border, where high-powered weaponry is readily available. American firearms quickly made their way to the heart of the bloodshed: Cartels have smuggled large numbers of weapons into Mexico, fueling record-breaking tallies of homicides, explosive conflicts with law enforcement, and raging inter-cartel violence. 

This August, Mexico opened up a new front in its war against the cartels. In a lawsuit filed in U.S. federal court, Mexican authorities accused several major American gunmakers — including Colt, Smith & Wesson, and Ruger — of negligent business practices, alleging that their reckless sales and lax regulation of distribution channels have contributed to a surge of firearms into cartel hands. 

Here’s how U.S. weapons have fueled violence in Mexico, by the numbers:

Up to 150,000

The estimated number of people killed in Mexico as a result of organized crime between 2006 and the end of 2018

The figure doesn’t include the nearly 73,000 people who have gone missing over the same time period. Violence has intensified in the last few years as larger cartels have fragmented into smaller, competing organizations. The Mexican national homicide rate has increased by a staggering 84 percent between 2015 and 2020.

Source: Congressional Research Service, “Mexico: Organized Crime and Drug Trafficking Organizations,” 2020 


The number of crime guns traced from Mexico to the U.S. between 2014 and 2018

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives ran nearly 80,000 traces on behalf of the Mexican government during that time period. Seven out of 10 of the guns traced were manufactured or sold in the U.S. The same report notes that because federal agencies don’t have access to all guns seized by the Mexican government, the figure is likely an undercount.

Source: Government Accountability Office, Firearms Trafficking report, 2021


The number of people internally displaced due to violence and conflict in Mexico since 2006 

Across the country, cartel-related and other violence has driven residents away from their homes, leading to an internal refugee crisis. While this number counts only those who have moved within the country to find safety, many others seek refuge by heading north to cross into the U.S. As the Mexican government has shifted priorities toward public health during the COVID-19 pandemic, cartels have expanded into new territory and reinvigorated turf wars. This surge in criminal activity led to a spike of people fleeing violence, breaking a three-year downtrend.

Source: Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre

$221 billion

The economic impact of violence on the Mexican economy

Violence puts an enormous cost burden on society: healthcare expenses, police and military expenditures, lost wages, and more. This figure, compiled by the Institute for Economics and Peace, a nonprofit research think tank, is equivalent to roughly 22 percent of Mexico’s GDP.

Source: Institute for Economics and Peace 

$3.1 billion

The amount of U.S. government aid spent combating Mexican drug cartels between 2007 and 2020

Through the Mérida Initiative, a military aid agreement authorized by Congress, the U.S. has provided Mexico with access to an array of tools to combat drug trafficking organizations. They include firearms tracing technology, counter-narcotics training, surveillance equipment, and military aircraft.

Source: Congressional Research Service, “Mexico: Organized Crime and Drug Trafficking Organizations,” 2020 


The number of .50-caliber guns seized by the Mexican military between 2010 and 2018 

The .50-caliber round, originally designed for antiaircraft and antitank use by the military, is the largest commonly sold round not regulated under strict federal regulations. In the U.S., the round is an expensive novelty, serving a niche market of enthusiasts. But in Mexico, cartels have sought out weapons chambered in the powerful caliber, specifically for use against government forces. Particularly popular are Barrett sniper rifles, which have been used by criminal organizations to launch assaults on police and even take down helicopters. The Mexican government says that of the 554 high-caliber weapons it seized, 226 were made by Barrett.

Source: The Trace, “American-Made .50-Caliber Rifles Help Fuel Mexican Cartel Violence,” 2019


The number of legal gun stores in Mexico 

Due to very strict regulations, there is only a single gun store in Mexico. The dealer is located on a military base in Mexico City, and prospective buyers must show proof of employment and pass both local and federal background checks. The process can take months.

Source: The New York Times, “How to Buy a Gun in 16 Countries,” 2018