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How To Stop Traffic: Mexico Bets on Suing US Gun Companies

High-profile cases seek accountability for illegal cross-border arms sales.

Words: Ann Louise Deslandes
Pictures: Allyn Gaestel
Date:

On July 1, 2018, federal election day in Mexico, I went with a group of local journalists to the town of Corralitos in the Sierra Madre del Sur mountain range in the southeastern state of Guerrero. We drove from the state capital Chilpancingo to report on an armed incursion of an organized criminal group that had 600 people — most of the town — taking flight.

Arriving to the scene in the main street — a ransacked house cratered with the impacts of hundreds of bullets, a burned-out car sitting among scattered personal and household possessions — we first turned our attention to the bullet shells strewn between the house and the car. Corralitos was deserted apart from one woman we found in her front yard, broom in hand and eyes to the ground as she tried to bring some order to her little space amidst the wreckage that surrounded her.

“These are German bullets I think” said one of my colleagues, pointing out the patterns on a cluster of bullet casings.

“The rest, definitely from the United States,” he said, showing me the pressing that marked the bullet’s provenance as north of the border.

Weapons Across Borders

The guns are manufactured by companies like Colt and Smith & Wesson, sold in gun stores and by individual dealers and then trafficked over the border by land, air, or sea, sometimes as reassembled parts, where they form the arsenal of paramilitary groups like the one that shot up Corralitos in the days before we came to witness the damage. They are used to terrorize villages and drive out their populations in targeted attacks for tactical advantage, and for vigilante killings, hired hits, and kidnappings. It is particularly striking that there are so many guns from the US in Mexico, because Mexico has strict gun laws and only one gun store in the entire nation, which is located on a military base.

Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known by his initials as AMLO, had won the presidency in a landslide by the evening of that day in Corralitos. AMLO and his team campaigned promising an end to violence like this with memorable phrases like “hugs not bullets” and presenting plans for demilitarization of the “war on drugs” that has caused such enormous suffering in the country since former President Felipe Calderon sent the armed forces onto the streets to fight drug cartels. 

Six years later, with AMLO’s term about to end, it is difficult to find any vestige of that promise’s realization in the current state of the country. As Bloomberg reports, homicides have increased under AMLO by 26% while armed kidnappings and extortions have remained common.

“The official data demonstrates that the broad and indiscriminate availability of firearms is one of the determinant factors shaping the magnitude and characteristics of violence and insecurity in Mexico,” a spokesperson for the citizen’s advocacy organization México Unido Contra la Delincuencia (Mexico United Against Crime) told Inkstick.

“The Executive Secretariat of the National Public Security System (SESNSP, for its acronym in Spanish), an agency inside the structure of the Federal Government, recorded 6,062 intentional homicides in Mexico in 2024, up to March 31,” said the spokesperson.

“Of these, 72% were committed with a firearm.”

“But it’s not just homicides and injuries,” they continued, pointing to the National Survey of Victimization and Perception on Public Security (ENVIPE, for its acronym in Spanish).

“Extortion, robbery, and other crimes are committed in Mexico with the help of firearms. ENVIPE  reported that, in 2022, out of the estimated 14.6 million crimes committed where the victim was present, perpetrators were carrying a firearm in 22.8% of the cases.”

In Guerrero, governed by AMLO’s Morena party, the bloodshed and mass displacement have continued along with requests for asylum at the US border by people from the state fleeing armed violence. Federal crime figures reported by national daily El Financiero in January registered an increase from 3.7 homicides per day between January and November 2022 to 4.6 per day in 2023. 

Today, the Sierra region where the town of Corralitos is located is relatively less deadly than it was in mid-2018, says Filiberto Velázquez Florencio, a priest and director of the Guerrero-based Minerva Bello Centre for the Rights of Victims of Violence.

Velázquez, who regularly speaks out against state and criminal violence in Guerrero and has been involved in peace dialogues with warring groups, was himself the victim of an armed attack in October last year. Gunmen shot at the back tires and front window of his car after he got in it following a meeting at the Ayotzinapa teacher’s college.

While such conflict has “calmed” since a truce between two key groups was reached in February, said Velázquez, he noted that it is not only guns that have been used in recent conflicts in Guerrero. “We now have the variant of drones,” which were used for example by the criminal organization La Familia Michoacana against several communities in the Sierra and coastal regions of Guerrero in 2023 and another episode of drone attacks registered in January this year.

Indeed, the López Obrador government has not replaced arms with affection nor sent the military back to their barracks. On the latter it has done quite the opposite, increasing the combined budget of the armed forces by 150% and expanding its activities well into civilian realms such as taking control of customs ports and building large parts of the Tren Maya tourism megaproject.

Litigate to Mitigate?

The López Obrador administration has also opted for a high-stakes international litigation strategy to start getting US guns out of Mexico. On August 4, 2021, the Mexican government filed a lawsuit in the Massachusetts district court against arms companies Smith & Wesson; Barrett; Beretta; Century International Arms; Colt; Glock; Sturm, Ruger & Co; and Witmer Public Safety, suing the companies for negligence and arguing that they have failed in their duty to prevent their weapons from ending up in the hands of criminal actors in Mexico. They estimated the damage at approximately $10 billion. The case was heard and thrown out by the Massachusetts court just over one year later. Undaunted, Mexico appealed, and in January this year, the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled in its favor, agreeing with the defendants in a historic precedent that the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA), which prevents US gun companies from being sued, does not apply in Mexico. Thus back on the docket in the Massachusetts court, the Mexican defense team is waiting to see whether an appeal by the gun companies will be heard in the Supreme Court or whether they will be presenting evidence to the district court judge to demonstrate the companies’ negligence and seek damages.

Mexico’s case against the gun companies rests on the downstream acquisition of their weapons by armed non-state actors, as per the parlance to designate the members of organized criminal groups who kill thousands in Mexico with US guns.

Against the Massachusetts lawsuit when it was introduced in August 2021, the gun companies argued that they cannot be responsible for the failure of the Mexican government to control arms traffic and use. In requesting their appeal be heard by the Supreme Court, they say that the litigation amounted to a “foreign sovereign … trying to bully the industry into adopting a host of gun-control measures that have been repeatedly rejected by American voters.”

“If the Supreme Court decides that it’s going to hear the case, we’re ready. We’ll litigate it,” said Alejandro Celorio Alcántara, legal advisor to the Mexican Secretariat of Foreign Affairs.

Meanwhile, Mexico has another iron in the fire — a lawsuit brought to an Arizona court against five gun stores operating in the state. Mexico argued the Arizona dealers had also failed to prevent their wares from falling into the hands of criminal actors south of the border.  On March 25, the US District Court, District of Arizona ruled in favor of Mexico and affirmed its right to sue the companies with discovery beginning immediately.

“I think if everything goes well, we might have a jury trial at the beginning of 2025,” said Celorio.

Over this time and up to its successes, the Mexican government’s bid to bring US gun manufacturers and dealers to justice has gathered pace and support, with the governments of Belize and Antigua and Barbuda and the non-government organization Latin American and Caribbean Network for Human Security joining the effort and the attorneys-general of 14 US states and 26 districts coming on board along with victims groups on both sides of the border and organizations like the Global Action on Gun Violence. The Mexican government has hosted fora of Mexican and Caribbean government representatives to advance the legal strategy and, with local advocates for trafficking control such as victim’s groups, participated in binational conferences with US counterparts. 

As an advocate for victims of violence and strategist for peace, Velazquéz said he understands the logic of the Mexican state’s strategy as one intended to “weaken criminal groups by limiting their supply.”

“If the companies are stopped from sending weapons it will obviously weaken” the rivaling gangs who fight with arms, he said.

However, the curate is skeptical that the case could be anything more than an exercise of “vanity” on the part of the López Obrador government, considering that the main feature of its overall public security strategy has been the aforementioned expansion of the functions and powers of the armed forces.

With the continuing rise in homicides and armed conflict through AMLO’s term, “having the army in charge of protecting the people has proved to be an inefficient strategy,” observed Velazquéz.

To be sure, while the Mexican armed forces enjoy high levels of public support, as an institution they hardly have an unblemished record in the protection of the population. 

The families of the 43 missing students of the Ayotzinapa teacher’s college, for whom Velazquéz is an advocate, would agree. In 2018, AMLO promised to oversee the just resolution of this case, which placed the international spotlight on the crisis of forced disappearance in Mexico and continued the mandate of the Inter-American Human Rights Commission of an Independent Group of Experts to establish the facts of the case. In 2023, the Group ended their reporting on the disappearance of the 43 students and left Mexico, saying there was little point in continuing as the López Obrador government refused to compel the army to hand over vital evidence in its possession, whose involvement in the disappearance of the students is a key line of inquiry. The parents have accused the President of betraying and abandoning them by not compelling the Secretariat of Defense to hand over material that could resolve the case of their children’s disappearances. It is arguably a continuation of the state violence experienced by rural and Indigenous people in Guerrero since long before the students’ disappearance in 2014.

Mexico’s case against the gun companies rests on the downstream acquisition of their weapons by armed non-state actors. However, the Mexican army itself — now with more power than ever over public security — has also proven to be a direct source of weapons for paramilitary groups, with high rates of missing weapons recorded and evidence that Defense officials have directly sold weapons to drug cartels.

“Non-State” Armed Futures

The gun companies argue that they cannot be responsible for the failure of the Mexican government to control arms traffic and use by non-state actors.

In pursuing more downstream due diligence from the arms companies, Alejandro Celorio pointed out the current case of legal transfers of weapons from the US to Israel and Ukraine.

“Mechanisms have to be put in place to know who’s actually using those firearms and, and what happens after,” he said.

As state monopolies on violence — with their armory inventories, rules of war agreements, and obligations to track weapons — are fragmenting,  litigating the arms manufacturers from outside their original sites of manufacture and sale may increasingly become one of the more viable stabs at accountability and control of movement.

And, while states are spending more on their militaries than ever, it will remain important, and difficult, to question where the arms go, how and who they are used against, and, indeed, who is responsible.

Ann Louise Deslandes

Ann Louise Deslandes is an independent journalist, writer and research consultant in southern Mexico. You can follow Ann’s work by subscribing to The Troubled Region, her newsletter of/on foreign correspondence.

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