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Made in the USA: Exporting Death to México

from the Nov. 8, 2023 Bulletin

Accompanying and getting to know courageous activists risking their lives to gain justice in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Colombia in the 1980’s caused John Lindsay-Poland to dedicate himself to freeing all people from the fear of violence. He researches the connection between militarization and human rights abuses, and organizes action to demilitarize US policy in Latin America. Among other activities, he coordinates Stop US Arms to Mexico, a project of Global Exchange.

When did the era of gun violence in México begin and why?


A toxic cocktail of issues changed the pattern of gun violence in 2004 and 2005, and even more so from 2005 to 2010. 


First, market dynamics shifted. The international narcotics business had been centered in the Andes, but due to drug wars there, much of it moved to México. Production increased, including of synthetic drugs. Second, beginning in 2007, there was the War on Drugs, jointly declared by Presidents Calderón and Bush, using military strategies to stop drug trafficking. Third, since the drug trade is illegal, the only way to resolve disputes is through violence. Lastly, the ban on assault weapons in the US expired in 2004. Sales and trafficking to México of more deadly weapons led to an internal arms race between cartels competing for territory, and with government forces.


What was the strategy behind the War on Drugs, named the Mérida Initiative?


Initially it was a military and police strategy aimed at taking out the kingpins through a massive influx of US support. That backfired, because taking out the head of a cartel triggered violent competition between the factions wanting to take the kingpin’s place, and because so many government forces are colluding with criminal organizations.

The Mérida Initiative comprised the majority of US aid to México from 2008 to 2021 — to the tune of $3.3. billion. Now, both nations agree it was a failure. Will that reduce the arms flow into México?


No. Already by 2010, aid money began to shift away from a military strategy. But Mérida was never about giving México firearms; the support was in the form of surveillance, training, helicopters, and other equipment. 

The biggest problem isn’t the War on Drugs, it’s arms sales.


Mérida money went through the State Department. But there’s also significant Pentagon assistance, which doesn’t require Congressional review. There are also private commercial sales. Gun manufacturer Sig Sauer had a $5.5 million license to sell automatic rifles to the Mexican navy.

Pacific Council on International Policy

US weapons from these various sources are known to have been used in many extrajudicial killings; they were used for example in the disappearance of 43 rural teachers college students at Ayotzinapa in 2014 by government forces. The truth is, when a gun is exported to México, it’s not clear who will eventually be the end users that have their finger on the trigger.


Do you see any changes with AMLO’s Presidency?


It’s discouraging. AMLO has given unprecedented authority to the military. He created a new National Guard, whose officers carry Sig Sauer semi-automatic weapons. A single institution – the army – has authority in Mexico over arms manufacture, gun imports, sales to police, sales to private entities, the gun registry, and confiscated weapons…. There is no civilian oversight over this comprehensive web. And there has been almost no progress on serious human rights cases involving the military, such as the forced disappearances in Ayotzinapa.

That said, there is an encouraging development. In 2021 and 2022, México’s Foreign Relations Ministry filed suits in Boston and Arizona against eleven US gun manufacturers. US federal law provides broad protection to the firearms industry to prevent victims of, say, Sandy Hook, from suing the manufacturers for their products’ misuse. But México argues that crimes committed on Mexican territory — 20,000 gun deaths a year — don’t fall under those laws. 


In addition, the suit seeks reform in the way gun companies market their products, including their military quality guns advertised to retail markets. México also is asking for damages, since 70% of all firearms recovered and traced from crime scenes in Mexico came from the United States.


For once, a solution has been put forward that doesn’t focus on border security!

What does México need from its US allies?


Those fighting for gun violence prevention in the US — and that’s a growing number as the mass shootings continue — need to know that the number of gun homicides committed with guns made or sold in the US is even greater in México than in the US itself. Solidarity across borders is not just possible, it’s essential to end the scourge of gun violence plaguing us all. 



  • While México’s Boston lawsuit was initially rejected, in July 2023 México asked that their $10 billion lawsuit be revived. We’re waiting for a response.
  • On October 27, 2023, the Commerce Department, which oversees US exports of semi-automatic firearms and their parts and bullets, announced a 90-day hold on new licenses for exports to non-governmental gun users in some countries, in order to “mitigate risk of firearms being diverted to entities or activities that promote regional instability, violate human rights, or fuel criminal activities.” Stop US Arms to Mexico applauded this action, while calling for a broader suspension of weapons exports to reduce violence.