How American guns help Mexican cartels overwhelm Mexico’s police and military

Mexico cartel guns suspects
Suspects stand behind seized guns at a press conference in Tijuana, Mexico, March 24, 2010.
  • About 70% of guns used in crimes in Mexico that are seized and traced originated in the US.
  • Weapons sent illegally from the US to Mexico and used by criminal groups are overwhelming Mexican security forces.
  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

Ciudad Juarez, MEXICO - Almost 50 years after Mexico's first law to restrict the use of firearms was implemented in an attempt to keep the country at peace, Mexico finds itself flooded with foreign weapons.

Mexico's prohibitive laws against firearms have not stopped thousands of weapons from being used in its streets, directly threatening its own security forces.

About 70% of guns used in crimes in Mexico that are seized and traced originated in the US, according to an updated Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on efforts to combat firearms trafficking from the US to Mexico.

The weapons sent illegally from the US to Mexico and used by criminal groups are now overwhelming security forces in most Mexican states, and it is "almost impossible" to fight back, a state police officer in the northeastern state of Tamaulipas told Insider.

A Mexican police officer is killed by a gun every 16 hours, despite their own heavy armor and armament, according to a 2020 report by Causa en Común, a nonprofit organization focused on security issues in Mexico.

Mexico City forensic crime scene gun
Mexican forensic experts observe a gun used in an assault in La Condesa neighborhood of Mexico City, May 6, 2019

Heavily armed military personnel have been deployed throughout Mexico to fight crime, but state and local police forces, many of which are riven by corruption, are outgunned by criminals and face other challenges, such as low pay.

Criminal groups "are using military tactics and equipment like tanks, landmines, rocket-launchers. It is getting to a point where we are not equipped enough to fight back, and most of the time we rather leave than stay to fight," the officer said, speaking anonymously to avoid retaliation.

English journalist Ioan Grillo, who has covered crime in Mexico for more than 20 years, says most of the automatic weapons sold legally in the US end up in the wrong hands in Mexico, driving armed conflict there.

"At least 200,000 guns cross illegally from the US into Mexico every year," Grillo told Insider.

Drug cartels use high-powered firearms, such as .50-caliber rifles, that can rip through armored vehicles, as well as weapons capable of shooting down government helicopters, as happened in Michoacan in 2016.

Grillo's new book, "Blood, Gun, Money," examines how Mexico's biggest challenge has its origins in the US.

"Mexico is now dealing with a hybrid armed conflict fueled by the 'iron river' flowing south of the border," Grillo said. "This needs to be addressed and stopped by both countries."

Mexico guns rifles firearms
Hundreds of firearms on display before being destroyed at the Morelos military headquarters in Tijuana, Mexico, August 12, 2016.

Rep. Gregory Meeks, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a press release that firearms trafficking to Mexico is "out of control" and urged Congress to "move quickly to crack down" on it.

"Neither Mexico nor the United States can solve these challenges alone and I look forward to continue working on these issues with [Sen. Dick] Durbin and our partners in Mexico," Meeks said. (Meeks and Durbin requested the updated GAO update.)

This armed conflict has its deepest roots in the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez, where the vast majority of those more than 200,000 guns come across from Texas, which has a strong gun culture.

"Ciudad Juarez has become the number-one for illegal guns trafficking into Mexico," Grillo said.

Ciudad Juarez was known as the "murder capital of the world" in the late 2000s, when violence largely related to organized crime caused more than 13 murders a day, according to official figures.

During four years of research for his book, Grillo interviewed an illegal arms trafficker at a local prison in Ciudad Juarez, who described how Mexican cartels benefit from the US's permissive gun laws.

"This trafficker thought gun shows in Texas were illegal because of how easy it was to get a hold of powerful firearms," Grillo said. "They enter gun shows in places like El Paso and buy firearms from alleged collectors who are selling all kinds of guns without asking for any documentation."

Texas Ft. Worth gun show
Guns for sale at a gun show in Fort Worth, Texas, July 10, 2016.

A hitman, or sicario, for the Juarez Cartel interviewed by Insider confirmed the use of gun shows to supply his organization and described how they traffic arms into Mexico.

"There are some people [with clean records] we send to El Paso or to Tucson to legally buy guns or ammo in small quantities ... and then we traffic them little by little," he said.

"But the real firepower, we get it from dealers who have the permits to sell military-grade weaponry," the man said.

The sicario also said they buy "heavy weaponry" from "private security agencies" or even from members of the US military.

"If [the guns] are trafficked through Juarez, we disassemble them and put them inside old fridges or a bunch of scrap [metal], and we pay Mexican customs to let all the scrap into Mexico. When it is through Arizona, we bring them all the way from Vegas in containers and smuggle them through the desert," he said.

But while he points to gun shows and gun stores in the US, some gun owners point further up the chain.

Former Las Vegas gun dealer Wesley Felix accuses the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) of framing him and his family during Operation Fast and Furious, a federal investigation between 2009 and 2011 that allowed illegal gun sales so authorities could track their buyers and sellers.

"In my family's case, the ATF knowingly worked with known criminals and used a confidential informant to illegally purchase many firearms without our consent or knowledge," Felix said, adding that he believes his store was targeted because it sold class-three weapons, which includes machine guns, short-barreled rifles and shotguns, and silencers.

Mexico guns for peace
A boy looks at one of the sculptures in an exhibition called Guns for Peace at Bishopric Hill in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon state, Mexico, March 31, 2015.

Felix recently sent a letter with more than 30 pages of documents to the Mexican government addressing this issue. Insider obtained a copy of the letter and documents and confirmed their receipt through a Mexican diplomatic source.

In March 2016, the US Justice Department said it and the ATF "deeply regret[ed]" that firearms related to Operation Fast and Furious were used in violent crimes, "particularly crimes resulting in the deaths of civilians and law enforcement officials."

Felix believes the problem facing Mexico as it grapples with drug-related violence is not cartels or even gun shops like his but "the biggest cartel, which is the US Department of Justice."

But Grillo said a solution will rely on actions by the US and Mexico and that one country alone will never end illegal arms trafficking.

"Gun culture is rooted inside the US. It is very different from what happens in Mexico. But this issue has to be addressed by both countries. Both of them need to stop the iron river," said Grillo.

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