Mexico's American Gun Problem
As President Trump fights drugs and migrants pouring into the U.S., Mexico is reeling from bloodshed fueled by American guns, bullets and grenades flowing into Mexico.
More than 33,000 people were murdered in Mexico last year, an all-time high. The police chief of Tijuana, Mexico’s most violent city, told KPBS “nearly all” of the more than 2,000 weapons seized in the city since 2016 were American-made: AK-47s, AR-15s, Glocks and more.
“We know those weapons come from the U.S. because in Mexico there’s no way for people to buy them,” Marco Antonio Sotomayor said in Spanish. “They buy them in places like Arizona, Nevada, because of the weak gun laws, and at gun shows. And they come through California and cross the border into Tijuana.”
Mexico has only one gun store. It’s controlled by the army in Mexico City. The gun laws for civilians are strict, with six-month background checks and a federal registry keeping track of every weapon. Person to person firearm sales is prohibited. Calibers are restricted to .380 or less. Tijuana’s police chief, Sotomayor, said Tijuana’s proximity to the U.S. makes it easy for smugglers to saturate the city with American guns.
“It’s very hard to buy a gun in Mexico,” Sotomayor said. “We have a very intense process before you can buy one. If you guys had that, it would be really helpful.”
It looks unlikely under the Trump administration. This month, Trump announced the U.S. would be withdrawing from an international arms treaty, which regulates the cross-border flow of weapons to reduce global violence. He spoke at a National Rifle Association Forum about the importance of defending “God-given rights.”
The inspection problem
Mexican customs data shows seizures of U.S.-origin guns at U.S.-Mexico ports of entry increased 92 percent last year to 364. More than 116, 000 bullets were also seized heading into Mexico, according to Mexico's customs agency.
Under Mexican law, it’s illegal to take guns into Mexico from the U.S. But southbound customs checks are limited—something the new president in Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, appears set to change.
In an exclusive interview with KPBS, Mexico’s customs director, Ricardo Peralta, said Mexico will revamp U.S.-Mexico ports of entry this year, with improved technologies to collect biometric and other data from vehicles crossing from the U.S. into Mexico.
“If we’d used technology like this in the past, we would have avoided so many deaths in Mexico,” Peralta said in Spanish.
He said the administration has received some pushback about ramped-up southbound inspections because it could mean slowdowns to enter Mexico, like the occasional four-to six-hour wait times for entering the U.S.
“Of course there’s resistance,” Peralta said. “People think Mexico has no intention to take care of its border …We see this as a great opportunity rather than a crisis.”
But the plans have not yet been funded, and in the meantime, the flow of American guns continues largely undetected by Mexican customs agents.
The tracing problem
About 70 percent of the 15,316 weapons submitted to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) by Mexican authorities nationwide in 2017 were traceable to the U.S.
“Those weapons are being used by drug cartels to enforce their business, to go after law enforcement, Mexican authorities and innocent civilians,” said Ernesto Diaz, an assistant special agent in charge with the ATF.
He said there’s been an increase in large-caliber weapons being smuggled into Mexico, as well as gun parts that are then assembled south of the border. Diaz said ATF is trying to combat the situation by going after U.S.-based smugglers, many of them U.S. citizens.
“There are people associated with cartels who reside in the United States," Diaz said.
David Shirk, a researcher at the University of San Diego who studies violent crime in Mexico, said it’s difficult for the ATF to track guns smuggled into Mexico because there’s no federal U.S. registry of guns.
“It’s actually illegal in the United States for the ATF to maintain records of who has a gun in the United States,” he said. Shirk said the tracing restrictions are due to Congressional legislation pushed by gun advocacy groups like the National Rifle Association which see them as a threat to civil liberties and fear a possible governmental confiscation of their guns.
But, Shirk said, allowing the ATF to more easily track guns would help identify straw purchasers, other illegal gun sales and southbound gun smugglers. He added that it would decrease the flow of asylum-seekers to the U.S. While most of the influx is from Central America, people are also fleeing record violence in the Mexican states of Guerrero and Michoacán.
“Mexico has a homicide by firearm epidemic,” Shirk said. “To the extent that the Trump administration would like to go after ‘bad hombres’ in Mexico, one of the best things he could do is help crack down on illegal firearm purchases in the U.S. and the trafficking of those firearms into Mexico.”
Gun rights advocates say regulation is not the answer. Bob Maupin, a self-described vigilante in East County who patrols his border-adjacent ranch with an AR-10 rifle, said Mexico would be safer if firearms were deregulated there. He said strict gun laws allow a powerful minority to oppress the rest of the country.
“I would like to see the Mexican people be armed so they can take their country back,” Maupin said. “It’s a narco-dictatorship.”
On the other hand, Tijuana’s police chief, Sotomayor, said it’s impossible for authorities to do their job of protecting civilians when cartels have an endless supply of U.S. guns. He said 11 police officers have been killed since 2016 in Tijuana by criminals using guns likely from the U.S.
The gun violence in Mexico is affecting real people, like Julieta Sanchez, a San Diego permanent resident whose 29-year-old son, Fernando, was shot dead in Tijuana.
"I don't want vengeance," she said. "I want more government control, over these people selling guns to kids.”
Sanchez brought Fernando to the U.S. from Mexico when he was 15. He studied, then worked installing floors and carpets. Eventually, he began to struggle with addiction. But rehab was too expensive in the U.S., so Sanchez sent him to Tijuana for treatment. The day he was going to be checked in, she said, he was shot in the head.
She said she hopes something is done about the gun smuggling problem soon.
“They killed my son, then they’re going to kill another, and it’s going to keep happening. They’re young. These men are young," she said.
The regulating problem
Lee Moiseve, owner of the gun store Gun Fighter Tactical, said tougher gun laws hurt his clients, not cartels.
“It just makes it really hard for law-abiding citizens to get recreational toys,” he said. “Criminals are criminals. They’re gonna buy a gun however they want to.”
Moiseve said gun stores like his cooperate with ATF to help trace weapons, and that he himself has declined sales to suspicious customers. He recalled one man who "said out loud, 'I wanna buy that rifle to take back to my ranch in Mexico,' and we said no, you can't do that, there's laws against that and I can't sell you that gun now."
Matt Klier, who owns the Active Defense Shooter School in San Diego, was practicing marksmanship with a Glock 19 at a private shooting range in East County. He let me shoot a few rounds at a steel silhouette after giving me some pointers. “Oh, right in the balls,” he said.
Klier thinks gun regulations hurt only law-abiding people.
“The laws are so convoluted and ever-evolving, that I can be sitting at home doing nothing, and I could immediately become a felon,” he said, citing changing laws on ammunition magazines with more than 10 rounds.
He said 12 years in the military and eight years as a police officer gave him insight into the human condition, and that law-abiding people have the right to protect themselves.
“I’ve seen the realities of human beings and how violent they can be.” he said, adding that he's pretty sure America is due for some kind of violent crisis: “Currently we are 20 years past the longest history of a republic everlasting.”
Klier reloaded his Glock and fired at a six plate rack, successfully hitting each plate.
He says some of his theories, such as that single parenting by women is partly to blame for violent crime, "are completely heterosexual white male-biased." But he does want to see the murder of innocent people in Mexico stop, and said Americans do play a role. He said the solution is simple:
“Hey America, stop doing illegal drugs!” he said. “That’s it. That’s your answer. Every addict out there. Quit. Stop buying illegal drugs. And all that shit going on in Mexico will stop. ”