If it weren’t for U.S. gun companies supplying a steady stream of weapons for Mexico’s criminal organizations, my then-16-year-old cousin Diego might not have been kidnapped in 2015. His mother, Veronica Rosas Valenzuela, might not be sifting through sewage searching for him this month in El Gran Canal de Ecatepec.
Tens of thousands of people killed by American guns in Mexico could still be alive. Most of the kidnapped and missing could still be with their families. Mexico would be a radically different country, without the grief and rampant terror of gun violence.
With only one gun store in the country and fewer than 50 gun permits granted a year, Mexico has some of the strictest gun laws in the world. Between 70% and 90% of guns found at crime scenes in Mexico come from the U.S., including guns designed to appeal to the Mexican market such as a Colt .38-caliber pistol featuring an image of the Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata and the phrase: “It is better to die standing than to live on your knees.”
Earlier this year, the Mexican government filed a lawsuit against several U.S. gun companies, accusing them of knowingly flooding the country with illicit firearms, which have brought horrific levels of bloodshed.
In a brief filed on Monday, the gun companies asked a federal judge in Boston to dismiss the lawsuit. The companies — Smith & Wesson, Glock, Ruger & Co and others — postured as the good guys, invoking stereotypes of Mexico as a lawless place. “At bottom, this case implicates a clash of national values,” their attorneys wrote. They characterized Mexico’s lawsuit as a threat to “America’s constitutional freedoms.”
Marcela Celorio, Mexico’s consul general in Los Angeles, said this lawsuit has nothing to do with the 2nd Amendment. “This is against the gun companies,” she told me. “We would like the federal courts to hold them accountable for all these negligent commercial practices that have actively facilitated unlawful trafficking of their guns into Mexico.”
Mexico is seeking billions of dollars in damages and demanding that the gun makers adopt new sales and marketing practices, including smart-gun technology to prevent unauthorized use. The complaint also mentions other anti-trafficking strategies such as hidden serial numbers, a ban on multiple simultaneous sales of assault weapons and cutting off supplies to dealers known to inundate the Mexican market. All of these ideas could be carried out readily.
The complaint describes in sickening detail the weapons that appeal to drug cartels: pistols such as Colt’s “El Jefe” (The Boss) and “El Grito” (The Scream), as well as Barrett’s .50-caliber sniper rifle marketed as “battle proven” — used to shoot down helicopters and penetrate armored vehicles in Mexico. “They are trying to accommodate these guns for the Mexican market,” Celorio said.
One University of San Diego study found that 47% of licensed gun dealers in the U.S. would go out of business without Mexico’s demand for trafficked guns. David Shirk, the study’s co-author, said Mexico’s lawsuit could be a turning point because it comes amid other lawsuits, including from families of children killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting.
The suit, he said, might cause gun makers “to rethink what they do and to try to limit the availability of their product for wrongful use.” Most of the increase in licensed gun dealers in the last decade has been in border states. The complaint estimates that between 342,000 and 597,000 of the defendants’ guns are trafficked into Mexico annually.
My cousin Veronica’s life has become a relentless search for Diego across Mexico. A suspect in the teenager’s kidnapping posted a photo on Facebook in 2015 of an assault rifle and ammunition spelling out his own name, and another of two pistols under a baseball cap reading “Dope.” Other photos show the suspect’s love of U.S. gun culture and Mafia films. As Veronica told me, “Any criminal can have any weapon.”
María Herrera Magdaleno, a 72-year-old Mexican mother whose four sons were also kidnapped and missing, told me she blames U.S. gun companies for her agony: “They’re destroying us.”
John Lindsay-Poland, coordinator of Stop U.S. Arms to Mexico, said the harm of U.S. gun culture visited on Mexico is immense. As he points out, there are more gun homicides in Mexico than in the U.S., since most gun deaths in the U.S. are from suicides.
Mexico’s suit will face a daunting legal path. The federal law called the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act largely protects gun manufacturers and dealers from liability when their products injure people. But Mexico’s lawyers argue it doesn’t apply in this case, citing a Supreme Court case that says the “default rule for tort cases” where actions in one country cause injury in another is that the law of the place where the injury occurs applies.
Steve Shadowen, a lawyer for the Mexican government, is confident the federal liability shield won’t bar the case. “Once we get past that, then our case is as close to a slam-dunk as you're going to get,” he said.
Meanwhile, there are steps U.S. officials can take to reduce gun trafficking into Mexico. Ioan Grillo, author of “Blood Gun Money: How America Arms Gangs and Cartels,” argues that universal background checks — which 84% of Americans support — and prison sentences for straw purchasers could save countless lives. “There’s not even a basic effort to stop this,” he told me. These failures show just how complicit Americans are in Mexico’s tragedy.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.