EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Americans are used to the narrative that dangerous things – from “bad hombre” migrants to drugs – cross the border from the south.
But the truth is not so simple, says Josiah Heyman, professor of anthropology and director of the Center for Interamerican and Border Studies at the University of Texas at El Paso.
The fact is that hundreds of thousands of firearms are smuggled from the U.S. to Mexico every year and are traced to 70% of all weapons seizures following murders, robberies and drug busts.
“We have a mythology that this is the safe side of the border. We are safe day to day from violent crime, no question […] But there is widespread guns going south and that is something that we need to be aware of as a society and reject,” Heyman said.
American cooperation is something the Mexican government desperately wants as drug-related drug violence has reached record levels in the past two years.
Now, as the Biden administration settles into its first weeks at the White House, Mexican officials are pressing for action.
“The Mexican government is going to propose specific actions to U.S. authorities, including intrusive and non-intrusive inspections of vehicles at the border, as well as the use of technology to stop arms trafficking,” said Fabian Medina Hernandez, chief of the Office of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Mexico.
Right now, Mexico inspects only about one in 20 vehicles coming over from places like El Paso, Texas. In Juarez, the lone X-ray machine at the Bridge of the Americas port of entry can inspect four to five vehicles at a time.
Southbound checks by U.S. Customs and Border Protection are infrequent, habitual commuters tell Border Report.
Texas, epicenter of gunrunning into Mexico
According to Medina, 41% of all the illicit guns utilized to commit a crime in Mexico came from Texas. California comes in second place with 19% of the volume and Arizona in third with 15%.
The border crossings south of McAllen are the principal entryway for this deadly contraband, followed by Eagle Pass, El Paso and Laredo.
That estimate comes from the volume of seizures effected during simultaneous surprise inspections on both sides of the border conducted between April 2020 and this month. Thousands of guns and ammo were seized during those checks, according to the Ministry.
“There are 9,000 sales points for guns along the U.S. border. I don’t know that they have as many McDonald’s restaurants as they have gun stores there,” Medina said on Thursday at an online arms trafficking forum.
Mexican Consul General in El Paso Mauricio Ibarra Ponce de Leon hosted the forum.
Medina estimates that between 2.5 million and 3 million guns – from small arms to semiautomatic weapons preferred by the drug cartels – have come into his country from the United States in the past 10 years.
He estimates that more than 16 million guns are now in the hands of civilians in a country with a deeply rooted anti-gun culture where the few who legally own a gun must have it registered with the Ministry of Defense.
Heyman said guns often come into Mexico a few at a time.
“One notable characteristic is that it’s done in very small amounts, the so-called ‘ant’ smuggling,” he said, citing a Houston Chronicle investigation that tracked 27 guns from Houston to Coahuila, Mexico, from an individual who brought them to a cartel over a six-month period.
Heyman said the same pattern holds for guns purchased in El Paso, smuggled to Juarez and eventually taken to gangs deep in the state of Chihuahua.
Medina added that the Mexican government handed U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Christopher Landau a list of 9,000 weapons of U.S. origin used in crimes in 2019.
Mexico and the United States have signed memorandums of understanding on security and weapons trafficking in the past, but this would be the first time the Biden administration tackles the thorny binational issue.
Gun control a ‘shared responsibility’
Heyman said it’s time for the people of both countries to discuss gun violence.
“Not only do we have a shared problem, but also a shared responsibility and a shared opportunity,” he said, adding that several U.S. citizens living in Mexico have been killed in Juarez since 2008.
The number of women killed by gun violence is also on the rise in Juarez, which sits across the border from El Paso, in the past few years.
“We are probably not going to solve the entire issue of violence and illegal markets, but what we can do is make it less dangerous. This is a goal that should be shared by Mexico and the U.S. government and all people who want to live safe,” he said.
Both governments need to come up with strategies that include going after the cartels’ finances – the money that allows them to obtain U.S. guns, Heyman said.
Heyman called for tougher gun regulations in the United States, including eliminating the private gun sale option and more comprehensive checks and licensing.