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Stop the River of Iron: The American Firearms Industry Brings Death to Mexico

As the Mexican state calls for evidence on ‘private companies engaged in the firearms industry and their effects on human rights’ Iain Overton looks at the trail of carnage

Guns and bullets are seen in front of the Cereso state prison after unknown assailants entered the prison and freed several inmates in January 2023. Photo: Reuters/Alamy

Stop the River of IronThe American Firearms Industry Brings Death to Mexico

As the Mexican state calls for evidence on ‘private companies engaged in the firearms industry and their effects on human rights’, Iain Overton looks at the trail of carnage

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‘NO MORE WEAPONS’ read the tall metal-lettered sign that stood over the Bridge of the Americas. The road beside it led two ways. One took you deep into the Mexican city of Ciudad Juárez, the other lifted you over the Rio Brava and away into the US city of El Paso. The message was not for the Mexicans heading north, it was for the Americans whose guns were trafficked here, down Mexico way.

The line of cars was heavy, as there was no toll here, unlike on other bridges, and it caused the cars waiting to cross passport control into the US to trail far back into the haze. Mexican men in blackened smocks cleaned car windows in silence. The Franklin mountains stretched into the American distance, framing a listless Stars and Stripes flag that was pushed by a stubborn desert wind from the south.

The sign’s off-silver letters were made from crushed firearms seized by the Mexican authorities. When the billboard was unveiled in February 2012, the then Mexican president, Felipe Calderón, asked the ‘dear people of the United States’ to help end the ‘terrible violence’ in Mexico. There had been 120,000 homicides in Mexico between 2007 and 2012, and most had been with guns. And many of these had been US guns.

‘The best way to do this,’ Calderón said, his voice lifting in the wind, ‘is to stop the flow of automatic weapons.’

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You can see why he made the plea. Mexico has virtually no firearms manufacturing industry, they have very restrictive gun laws, and there is just one gun shop in the entire country. More than 164,000 firearms seized in Mexico were traced back to US gun shops and factories from 2007 to 2019. According to Mexico’s Foreign Ministry, over 2.5 million guns have flooded the country in the past decade.

It’s not hard to see the scale of the problem. On the other side of the 1,951-mile border lie at least 6,700 licensed US gun shops. And there’s good money in this, too – one study found that 47% of US firearms shops were dependent to some degree on Mexican demand. The outcome of this was summed up by a US Senate report that concluded about 70% of guns in the hands of Mexican drug cartels came from the US.

The ‘river of iron’ has become so problematic for Mexico that this week it has begun to request evidence – including from this author – in regard to an advisory opinion from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights on “the activities of private companies engaged in the firearms industry and their effects on human rights”

The request is based on the Mexican State’s obligations under the American Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to protect the right to life. Mexico argues that the advisory opinion will have general applicability and provide guidance to all American states on protecting human rights, particularly in the context of armed violence and corporate activities in the arms industry. In other words, they are finally biting back at the murderous trade that they encounter on a daily basis.

In Mexico, there certainly seems enough evidence to prove cause and effect between North American gun sales and Mexican gun violence.

When an American federal ban on semi-automatic weapons expired in 2004, Mexican gun deaths increased by 35 per cent in the Mexican counties adjacent to Arizona, New Mexico and Texas – all of which had lifted the ban. But the homicide rate stayed about the same in the Mexican counties south of California, where a state ban on semiautomatic weapons had remained in place.


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During the US federal assault weapons ban the number of arms crossing south every year was about 88,000; after the ending of the ban this amount had increased by 187 per cent. It has been estimated the lifting of firearm sale restrictions north of the border resulted in at least 2,684 additional homicides in Mexico.

It’s not just Mexico where America’s lax gun laws have had an impact. The US government found that 76 per cent of firearms they traced in Costa Rica in 2013 were either manufactured in or imported into the US. It was 61 per cent in Belize. And in Jamaica, American guns are said to be dropping into Kingston like mangoes off a tree.

The line of worn-down cars filing patiently into the US is long and slow-moving. The other road, the one coming down from the north, is empty – the officials here just waved the cars through into Mexico. The lack of checks on southbound traffic, combined with the constant demand for firearms from drug cartels, must have created a perfect storm for smugglers. 

The Biden administration, in the face of this new attempt by Mexico to address the issue in the courts, has an opportunity to help curb the flow of guns to Mexico and beyond. Not least because, in the end, the violence comes back at them: guns smuggled from the US also find their way to Central American nations, causing mayhem that drives waves of migrants and refugees to the United States’ southern border. 

As Alec MacGillis wrote in the New Republic: ‘The surge of migrants coming to the US from Central America is being fueled in part by the movement of guns heading in the other direction, from US dealerships doing brisk business with the help of porous guns laws and a powerful gun lobby.’

Efforts to curb the flow of illegal guns have been hampered by the black market for guns, which is intertwined with the illegal drug trade, and the private-sale loophole, whereby collectors can sell weapons to others without running background checks on buyers or asking for identification. But the Biden administration could implement four measures that could help hit the black market for guns: universal background checks, increased punishment for straw buyers, cracking down on buying stolen firearms and regulating the buying of kits on the internet known as ghost guns. 

Confronting this black market for guns flowing from the US to Mexico could save thousands of lives, and the Biden administration has a clear path to move forward on this issue while Democrats control the House and the Senate. This latest legal move by Mexico City should be a wake-up call in Washington.

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