The Other Public Health Crisis: Gun Violence in Mexico

MAPA Newsletter Jul-Aug 2020

by Maria Termini

Countries around the world are wrestling with one of the worst public health crises of modern times, as the coronavirus continues on its ravaging course. Many have died, many are experiencing the painful effects of this disease, and many are living in fear. Unprecedented measures have been taken to control the spread of this virus. Yet, there is another serious public health problem, right across our border, one that cannot be ignored and continues to kill in ever-increasing numbers. This is the epidemic of gun violence in Mexico, a country which is now experiencing its highest homicide rate in recorded history.

Last November, I worked in a border shelter and met many Mexican families forced to leave their homes. Many had lost family members who were killed, tortured or disappeared; many had experienced death threats, rape or robbery of everything they owned. Because of a corrupt and broken justice system, the Mexican government cannot protect its citizens from organized criminal groups and even the military and the police.

All these entities are heavily armed, thanks to the weapons coming to them from the United States. The vigorous gun trade, legal and illegal, between Mexico and the U.S. is a big factor in the escalating violence that Mexico is experiencing.  Mexico is the main importer of U.S. firearms. Many guns are manufactured in New England: Colt (CT), Sig Sauer (NH), Century Arms (VT), Mossberg (CT) and Smith and Wesson (MA).

The overall statistics of gun violence in Mexico are chilling. According to Aljazeera more than 61,000 people are known to have been forcibly disappeared in Mexico, many of them migrants.  Firearms were used in more than 68,000 homicides in the last three years. In 2006, the U.S. and Mexico declared war on drugs and implemented a military aid package called Plan Merida which provided Mexico with large quantities of weapons that got into the hands of the wrong people. Having more guns than ever in Mexico has created more crime than ever. More and more guns are not the solution. In Mexico 99.3% of crimes are not investigated. Mexico is the Latin American country with the highest impunity rate. Killers are free from sentencing and making reparations to victims.

The U.S. plays a primary role in this violence as the principal source of arms flowing legally and illegally to Mexico. U.S. Census Bureau data show that the U.S. exported more than $33 million of firearms, ammunition and gun parts to Mexico last year, far more than to any other Latin American country. Unfortunately, this massive transfer of weapons entering Mexico has no system to effectively control and track the end users. Often these weapons wind up in the hands of police or military units that have committed gross human rights abuses or are in collusion with criminal groups.

Mexican army information indicates that more than 20,000 firearms sold to state and federal agencies in Mexico were reported as lost or stolen between 2006 and 2017.  As a result of this lack of control, U.S. firearms exported to Mexico with the purpose of combating crime and establishing security do just the opposite.

Guns exported to Mexico are sold to the Mexican army, which is empowered to legally distribute them to local and state police, security companies, and private non-military individuals. The Mexican army spent more than $1.4 billion between 2007 and 2017 for weapons, including grenades, assault rifles and bullets. The 2018 budget for the Mexican army greatly increased to $3.6 billion. The illegal gun trade also continues to flourish from gun shops and gun shows from which it is easy to smuggle them across the border into Mexico.

Firearms from the U.S. have been used in some of the worst human rights violations in Mexico. In September of 2014, the local police in Iguala, Guerrero caused the disappearance and murder of over forty-three students from the Ayotzinapa agricultural college. The police were armed with rifles, legally supplied through licensed shipments from Colt. In the state of Veracruz, the police are responsible for at least fifteen death squad murders, using firearms exported by three U.S. arms companies: Colt, Bushmaster, and Combined Systems.

The northern Mexico state of Tamaulipas clearly shows the deadly result of gun trafficking, militarization, impunity, and corruption. Here some 6,128 people have been forcibly disappeared. From 2010 and including 2019, more than 23,000 illegal firearms were recovered in Tamaulipas, more than in any other Mexican state. In 2018, the largest seizure of crime guns occurred as authorities recovered 220 high-powered rifles and 185,000 cartridges here. Tamaulipas is across the border from Texas and is a most active corridor of gun trafficking. Large numbers of weapons sold to the Tamaulipas police were lost or stolen. Last November, three women and six children were ambushed and shot to death along a mountain road in northwest Mexico and gun murders are on the rise in Juarez.

We must do all we can to call attention to this epidemic of gun violence in Mexico and urge Congress to reduce legal firearms exports to Mexico to levels before the war on drugs, support a federal ban on the sale of all assault weapons and high capacity magazines, and require tighter control of gun exports. Guns should not be sold to those credibly involved with human rights abuses. We must make these demands clear to our legislators. Together we can work to stop policies of warfare and violence and instead focus on development, fighting poverty, and community investment. We have clearly seen how more guns creates more deaths and suffering. We know that the war on drugs will not be won with violence. The many deaths from guns have made this clear. We can stand together for values of peace and justice in all places and oppose this gun trade which has been shown to only increase violence.

Maria Termini is an artist, author and musician who has traveled extensively in Latin America. She is a member of  Massachusetts Peace Action. She can be contacted at: