The Mexican government has launched legal action against US gunmakers in an unprecedented attempt to halt the flow of guns across the border, where US-made weapons are routinely used in cartel gun-battles, terror attacks on civilians – and increasingly to challenge the state itself.
The Mexican government is suing six gunmakers in a Massachusetts court, alleging negligence in their failure to control their distributors and that the illegal market in Mexico “has been their economic lifeblood”.
Announcing the suit on Wednesday, the foreign minister, Marcelo Ebrard, alleged that units of Smith & Wesson, Barrett Firearms, Colt’s Manufacturing Company, Glock and Ruger have catered to the tastes and needs of Mexican drug cartels and depend on illegal Mexican sales to boost their bottom lines.
The lawsuit alleges that gun companies openly pandered to Mexican criminals, citing Colt’s special edition .38 pistol, engraved with an image of the Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata. One such weapon was used in the 2017 murder of the Chihuahua journalist Miroslava Breach, who investigated links between politicians and organized crime and was shot dead while taking her son to school.
“We’re going to litigate in all seriousness and we’re going to win at trial and we’re going to drastically reduce the illegal weapons trafficking to Mexico, which cannot remain unpunished with respect to those who produce, promote and encourage this trafficking from the United States,” Ebrard said.
“The companies must immediately stop negligent practices, which cause damage in Mexico and cause deaths in Mexico.”
Mexico is seeking up to $10bn in damages, as well as better safety features on guns and tighter controls on sales.
Mexican officials said there were legal precedents for the suit, including a recent offer by Remington to pay nearly $33m to families to settle lawsuits claiming that its marketing of firearms contributed to the 2012 Sandy Hook school massacre in Connecticut, where 26 people died.
None of the companies named in the suit made any immediate public response.
Mexico has been plagued by violence for the past 15 years, since the then president, Felipe Calderón, deployed troops to fight a militarized “war on drugs”. Much of the violence has been perpetrated with weapons originally sold in the US and smuggled into Mexico, according to analyses of firearms recovered from crime scenes.
A study by the Mexican government found that 2.5m weapons had been illegally smuggled into the country over the past 10 years, including military-grade weapons such as 50-calibre Barrett rifles capable of taking down helicopters.
Organized crime factions have become increasingly audacious as they confront rivals in battles over territory and even challenge security forces in pitched battles. In October 2019, cartel gunmen with machine guns and armoured trucks overran the city of Culiacán, forcing the military to release Ovidio Guzmán, son of the imprisoned cartel boss Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.
“US weapons are essential to Mexican drug cartels,” said Falko Ernst, senior Mexico analyst at the International Crisis Group. A successful lawsuit and stopping US weapons “would make a deep dent, at least in the short and medium term”, Ernst said.
“But the question is whether alternative supply lines would eventually evolve if US weapons were unavailable,” he said, pointing to the staggering number of weapons “lost” by the police.
On paper at least, Mexico has strict gun-control laws and legal weapons can only be bought at a single store on an army base in Mexico City.
The Mexican government has long demanded US action on stopping guns across the border. Calderón pleaded his case in Congress to no avail. Ebrard raised the possibility of suing gunmakers after the August 2019 massacre in a Walmart store in El Paso, in which the gunman targeted Mexicans.
The lawsuit announcement came a day after the two-year anniversary of the crime.
“Given the US government’s total lack of action [on guns], it’s a reasonable action,” said Tom Long, international relations professor at the University of Warwick. “We have a decade and a half of interagency ‘cooperation’ that at best nibbles at the margins.”
Gema Kloppe-Santamaría, a Mexican crime investigator at Loyola University Chicago, said: “The initiative and timing are politically charged. It’s to see if Mexico gets more promise of a change via this lawsuit than it has gotten via diplomatic/bilateral efforts to pressure the US government into changing its gun control policies.”
The suit comes as Mexico suffers spasms of violence and drug cartels acting increasingly brazen in their battles with rivals and security forces alike.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador promised a security policy of “hugs not bullets” while campaigning for office, but he has largely turned to the military to calm the country. Mexico’s homicide rate has remained stubbornly high, however, at 29 per 100,000 – little different from when he took office in December 2018.