MEXICO CITY — Mexico, already rocked by drug violence, is increasingly concerned that Texas, the biggest gateway for gun smuggling, is about to enact its new permitless carry law that will expand gun rights — further threatening Mexico’s “national security,” a top Mexican official said.
That and other concerns led Mexico to file an unprecedented lawsuit in U.S. federal court last week against U.S. gun manufacturers in an effort to slow the flow of guns south of the border, where they are used in tens of thousands of murders in Mexico’s own bloody drug war.
The situation is so dire that Mexican officials also have been quietly working behind the scenes with the Biden administration to fundamentally revamp its security cooperation agreement with the United States, taking aim at the so-called Merida Initiative, said Roberto Velasco, the Mexico Foreign Ministry’s chief officer for North America.
The Merida Initiative is the cornerstone of security cooperation between both countries dating back to 2007 during the presidencies of George W. Bush and Felipe Calderon of Mexico. “Since Merida began, violence has exploded in Mexico,” Velasco said in an interview, referring to the $3 billion U.S. aid program as a “huge failure.”
Velasco said the initiative, which in part relies on the so-called Kingpin strategy, has failed to curb violence. Taking down top, powerful cartel leaders is futile because they’re quickly replaced. Dozens of smaller, deadly criminal organizations are now terrorizing large swaths of the nation where once a few cartels held sway, he said. Meanwhile, a record flow of drugs like fentanyl from Mexico is sweeping across the United States.
“Is it all Merida’s fault?” Velasco asked. “Of course not, but we need a new, stronger, bilateral framework for cooperation.”
When asked whether the two countries are working on a quid pro quo for a new agreement, as in the U.S. rewarding Mexico for its cooperation on immigration, Velasco vehemently denied the assertion. He called the discussions “very productive,” adding the two sides plan on meeting this fall.
Without naming Texas, Velasco added that weapons smuggled from the U.S. “constitute a huge national threat” adding that Mexico is “extremely concerned states have moved toward a path of liberalization, permitless laws.”
Overall, about 70% of the firearms submitted for tracing in Mexico between 2014 and 2018 originated in the United States, according to a Feb. 2021 U.S. Government Accountability Office report. The report described the guns as a “national security threat” because they facilitate the illegal drug trade and organized crime.
“This is not about debating the Second Amendment,” which guarantees the right to bear arms, Velasco said. “These guns are pouring into our country without any control. As the United States debates this issue, they need to think about how to keep these guns in their own country, because they are wreaking havoc in Mexico, causing much damage not just here, but throughout Latin America.”
Currently, Texans are required to pass a safety course and get a license to carry a handgun. The new permitless carry law will strip away those requirements.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who signed the bill into law, did not return calls seeking comment. At the time of the signing, he boasted that Texas would become a “Second Amendment sanctuary state.”
Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, author of the bill, said the new law is limited to handguns and pushed back against the Mexican government, saying, “The idea that Mexican government officials would lecture us on public safety is the most absurd thing I’ve ever heard,” arguing that Mexico has lost control of “large sections of their own country,” as they have ceded control to cartels. He blamed Mexico’s weak rule of law, “Mexican corruption and impunity for the mess.”
Texas’ permitless carry law takes effect at a time of heightened political rhetoric and growing concern about extremist and hate crimes, say Mexican officials and a Texas lawmaker, pointing to the 2019 mass shooting in El Paso where eight of the 23 people killed were Mexican nationals.
Mexicans on both sides of the border are increasingly vulnerable to the consequences of loosening gun laws. According to Mexico, U.S. gun manufacturers and illicit arms trafficking from the U.S., particularly from Texas, have for years contributed to the mounting carnage in Mexico, where tens of thousands have died since a full-scale war between law enforcement and rival cartels began in 2005. But there are new worries about risks to Mexicans in the U.S. as well.
“The new law places Mexican expats in the United States in danger, especially in light of El Paso, especially with the heightened rhetoric that we’re seeing from the governor and lieutenant governor, because there are millions of Mexican expats living in Texas,” said Texas Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas and past member of the International Relations and Economic Development committee and member of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus.
“And the second concern would be that people who possess these guns can possess them now without any license and would be more likely to also traffic them,” he said. “And that creates a further vulnerability for Mexicans on both sides.”
The lawsuit against gun manufacturers filed by Mexico on Wednesday in Massachusetts came a day after El Paso marked the grim anniversary of the hate crime carried out by Patrick Crusius from Allen, a self-described white nationalist. He was targeting Latinos to “stop the Hispanic invasion of Texas.”
During a memorial ceremony marking the two year anniversary of the attack, Mexico’s Foreign Minister, Marcelo Ebrard recalled he had visited El Paso two days after the Aug. 3, 2019, massacre. Shocked by what he saw, he said, the government immediately vowed that it would take legal action to protect Mexican citizens.
When asked about Texas’ new permitless carry law, a visibly frustrated Ebrard said in an interview: “As foreign minister of Mexico, I should not give my opinion on what the government of Texas decides, as that is their sovereignty, but I do believe, as a country, that what we need to do is prevent the easy access to weapons.”
“We don’t believe that giving such easy access to individuals is a good idea,” he said. “It’s a terrible idea. That’s why we in Mexico prohibit the use of arms. Why? Because of the violence we’re living through. Weapons mean violence.”
In Mexico, Mexicans must get a permit from the army to own a gun and they can only be bought at the country’s lone gun store in Mexico City. The seller, the Directorate of Arms and Munitions Sales, is not allowed to publicly promote its products.
Some of the weapons that end up being used in Mexico are stolen and smuggled south, according to the lawsuit, but most are bought at retail gun stores, pawn shops or frequent gun shows in major cities such as Dallas, El Paso, Houston and San Antonio.
The guns range from pistols to semi-automatic weapons such as the popular AR-15 and others that are “easily converted to fully automatic,” according to the lawsuit.
The complaint provides examples of gun dealers supplying weapons to cartel traffickers, including an unnamed Mesquite dealer who the suit says sold more than 150 guns to a trafficker for drug gangs in Mexico.
The complaint alleges U.S. gun makers cater specifically to ruthless cartels with handguns, including gold-plated status symbols for Mexican thugs, or the .38-caliber pistol “Emiliano Zapata 1911,” named for the Mexican revolutionary, similar to one used in 2017 to assassinate investigative journalist Miroslava Breach Velducea in Chihuahua City, Mexico.
“Defendants’ willfully blind, standardless distribution practices aid and abet the killing and maiming of children, judges, journalists, police and ordinary citizens throughout Mexico. Defendants’ unlawful conduct has substantially reduced the life expectancy of Mexican citizens and cost the government billions of dollars a year,” the lawsuit claims. “Defendants’ guns are the venom in the snakes that are the drug cartels; without those guns, they could be controlled and stopped.”
The National Shooting Sports Foundation, a trade association for the firearms companies, rejected the lawsuit’s allegations.
“The Mexican government is responsible for the rampant crime and corruption within their own borders,” said Lawrence G. Keane, the group’s senior vice president and general counsel.
Over the years, the U.S. government has poured billions of dollars into improving civilian law enforcement and the justice system in Mexico, much of it through the Merida Initiative. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, an avowed nationalist who came into office vowing to restore security for his countrymen, has long criticized the initiative. He’s railed against what he has called too much U.S. meddling in Mexico’s domestic affairs.
Tensions came to the brink last year following the arrest in Los Angeles of Salvador Cienfuegos, a former Mexican defense minister, on drug trafficking charges. The U.S. later dropped the case amid criticism in Mexico, which led to an outcry from U.S. law enforcement officials.
As of May, there were 14.243 homicides across Mexico, a total practically unchanged from the 14,673 for the same period in 2020. Last year was the second-deadliest on record, with 34,554 murders compared with 34,681 in 2019.
U.S. law enforcement officials have estimated that up to 35% of Mexican territory is controlled by organized criminal groups.
Eric Olson, a security expert on organized crime at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., is familiar with ongoing negotiations between the Biden and AMLO teams.
He said both sides are “trying to thread the needle between continuing law enforcement cooperation that is acceptable to Mexico and to U.S. law enforcement officials. There’s a sense that there’s room for a new approach, but I don’t think that means in any way there’s not a desire to continue the kind of security cooperation that has existed under the Merida Initiative.”
But Vanda Felbab-Brown, a security expert at Washington-based think tank Brooking Institute, suggested the ongoing discussion is an attempt in part by the Biden administration to reward Mexico for its cooperation on trying to stem the flow of immigrants across the nations’ shared border.
“López Obrador calculates that as long as you’re delivering on stopping migrants, or at least stopping some migrants from getting to the U.S.-Mexico border, he can be very aggressive on other policy issues,” she said, adding, “I think there is wide belief in Mexico that it has the United States by the throat, as long as the United States needs cooperation on immigration.”
Felbab-Brown warned that the Biden administration must proceed carefully because of questions regarding Mexico’s commitment to taking on cartels, noting that any deep change in bilateral security cooperation “will be counterproductive for the U.S. and for Mexican democracy and public safety.”