Mexico is on track to have its most murderous year on record.
Criminal violence in that country is overwhelmingly committed with firearms, most of which are sourced from the United States. This week, experts on gun policy and Latin America and members of Congress held a Capitol Hill briefing on the issue. They urged the White House and lawmakers to confront the vicious cycle by which loose gun laws here fuel soaring crime south of the border and send refugees fleeing north.
The event was organized by Representatives Alan Lowenthal, Ruben Gallego, and Norma Torres, all Democrats. Several presenters pressed the point that the same policies that contribute to firearm violence in American communities also help arm transnational criminal organizations like drug cartels.
“We are part and parcel of this problem,” Lowenthal said.
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The elected officials expressed exasperation with the Trump administration, which is openly hostile to Latin American refugees fleeing criminal violence. They also criticized the Obama administration for backing off cross-border trafficking after the Fast and Furious gun-walking scandal in 2011. “I was deeply disappointed the Obama administration did not do more. They were scared” after Fast and Furious, said Gallego.
Current law and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives practices, which limit public disclosures of detailed trace data, shield gun dealers from scrutiny when weapons they sell end up used in crimes or smuggled abroad. “We know of the gun dealers taking part in this,” Gallego added.
The ATF has found that approximately 70 percent of all crime guns submitted by Mexican authorities for tracing every year originated in the United States. As Eugenio Weigand and Chelsea Parsons of the liberal policy institute Center for American Progress found in a report they released in February, the portion of homicides in Mexico committed with guns increased from a slim minority to fully two-thirds over the past two decades.
Yet American efforts to clamp down on the southward flow of guns has not kept pace, said Kristen Rand, legislative director of the Violence Policy Center, an advocacy group. The number of prosecutions for smuggling goods out of the country, a statute used most commonly to bust gun traffickers, varies widely from year to year. According to the Federal Judicial Center, which tracks federal prosecutions, 159 defendants were charged in smuggling cases in 2017, up from 71 the year before.
Mexican law makes it far more difficult for civilians to buy firearms than in the United States. However, Maureen Meyer of the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights advocacy group, said that violence, criminal impunity, and police corruption have grown so rampant that Mexico has begun to see an increase in gun ownership by ordinary citizens for self-defense. Many of those residents are also turning to the black market, since they don’t feel they can count on corrupt police and the country only has one legal gun store.
Meyer argued that Mexicans are arming themselves out of desperation, rather than embracing an American-style gun culture — indeed, she said Mexicans have a “sense of bafflement” at American mores around firearms.
A 2017 survey of Mexican gun owners by David Perez Esparza of University College London and David Hemenway of Harvard found that most had acquired a weapon for self-defense during the past five years. A majority believed the proliferation of guns would ultimately make the country more dangerous.
The participants in Wednesday’s forum agreed that the best means of tackling the illicit cross-border gun trade were the same they would recommend for reducing shootings in the United States: universal background check requirements to reduce unregulated private sales, a revived ban on assault weapon, and better oversight of dealers.
Anti-violence activists in Mexico are aware of the common interest in reducing the flow of illegal weapons. On the same day that the Democratic Congress members and other policy experts were convened in Washington, a coalition of Latin American advocacy groups published an open letter expressing solidarity with the Parkland, Florida, teen activists, and calling for the United States to amend its gun laws and export practices.
“Your demands are also ours,” the letter read.