A three-ton sign made of confiscated crushed weapons unveiled last year in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, by then-President Felipe Calderón, sent a clear and direct message to American neighbors up north: “No More Weapons.”
For years, particularly under Calderón’s leadership, Mexico has directly blamed lax U.S. gun control laws for increased violence south of the border by arming Mexican drug cartels with military-grade assault weapons. Calderón said the expiration of the U.S. assault weapons ban in 2004 directly coincided with a rise in violence in Mexico.
The drug war was severely ramped up with Calderón’s election in 2006. According to the Mexican Interior Ministry, it has claimed more than 70,000 deaths.
The lion’s share of weapons used by cartels come from the United States, but having said that, if the Virgin of Guadeloupe were to stop the flow of weapons southward it would be a nuisance for the cartels but it certainly would not end the bloodshed.
- George W. Grayson, Professor Emeritus at College of William and Mary
Now, a new administration led by President Enrique Peña Nieto is trying to capitalize on the U.S. debate on stricter gun control, which has captured national attention following massacres in Aurora and Newtown. Peña has come out in public support of measures that would tighten up U.S. gun regulations.
Echoing that sentiment, just last week, the newly named Mexican ambassador to the U.S., Eduardo Medina Mora, said he hopes the Newtown shooting “opens a window of opportunity for President Obama” to pass tighter gun control laws.
“The Second Amendment and the regulations adopted in the U.S. is not, never was and never should be designed to arm foreign criminal groups,” the ambassador said.
Mexican activists turned in a petition to the U.S. embassy in Mexico City with more than 54,000 signatures, calling on the U.S. government to take further steps to combat weapons trafficking. The move adds to the mounting pressure on Obama to pass stricter gun control legislation.
Questions remain, however, on whether gun trafficking or gun control laws are directly to blame for Mexican violence.
George W. Grayson, a Mexico expert at the College of William and Mary, doubts tighter gun control laws in the U.S. will greatly affect violence in Mexico. Cartels, Grayson said, can easily find AK-47s and other assault weapons on the international market – places such as China, France, Brazil and Israel.
“The lion’s share of weapons used by cartels come from the United States, but having said that, if the Virgin of Guadeloupe were to stop the flow of weapons southward it would be a nuisance for the cartels but it certainly would not end the bloodshed,” Grayson said.
Ultimately, he said, Mexico would do itself a favor by looking domestically for the roots of the drug war - fixes are badly needed to the country's corrupt judicial system, military and police force.
“The future of Mexico success in the gun war lies in Mexico, not the United States,” Grayson said.
Some leaders south of the border agree. Gerardo Acevedo Danache, vice president of the Chamber of Commerce for the Mexican State of Tamaulipas, which borders Texas and is home to thousands of drug war killings, pointed to his country's leaders and not U.S. gun policies as the main culprits for the incessant violence.
“President Calderón made moves without analyzing what was going on, without military intelligence, he auto-declared this war,” Acevedo Danache said. “We see the activities of the drug cartels are still going on … and we see have seen no results at all.”
Acevedo Danache does believe there needs to be more gun control in the U.S., particularly an assault weapons ban, but he doesn’t think stricter Mexican gun laws would be applicable north of the border.
“We need to have the right to defend ourselves,” he said.
Mexico’s gun laws are some of the most stringent in the world.
Gun licenses and permits are issued through Mexico’s defense department. To apply for a one-year permit, a person must go to the nearest military base and get added to a Federal Arms Registry. In practice, carry licenses are restricted to the wealthy and the politically connected. In a nation of 112 million people, there are only 4,300 carry licenses.
However, David Wilson, a researcher at the Mexico Institute, an independent think tank, argued that there is mutual blame to share with room for progress on both sides of the border.
“One measure in the U.S. isn’t going to keep weapons out of the hands of criminals in the U.S.,” Wilson said. “But it could make it more difficult, and a marginal gain when you’re talking about human lives is pretty significant.”