After Fabian Medina, then Chief of Staff of Minister Ebrard resigned, I wondered in these very pages, if arms trafficking would remain a priority on the bilateral dialogue between the U.S. and Mexico. Now we have our answer. On Wednesday the Mexican government filed a civil suit in federal court in Massachusetts against firearms manufacturers and distributors. The complaint is 139 pages long, but the argument is simple: these private actors knowingly continue business practices that benefit criminal actors and have cost Mexico hundreds of thousands of lives. Surprising nobody, these manufacturers have blamed Mexico for the carnage, but what can be expected when they have exhibited the same callousness against the deaths of schoolchildren?
Is this unprecedented?
Not quite. The Mexican government has previously used the U.S. legal system when private actors have benefited criminal ones. In 2010 and 2011 PEMEX filed complaints in the Southern District Court of Texas against several individuals who purchased condensate (a byproduct of natural gas extraction) from Los Zetas, who, in turn, had stolen it from PEMEX. Before the energy reform in Mexico allowed greater participation of private individuals in energy markets, any individual or entity who purchased oil and oil byproducts from somebody other than PEMEX, knew they were buying products obtained illegally (to learn more about this case, I highly recommend the book by Ana Lilia Pérez, “El cártel negro”).
Moreover, the Mexican government has been active on this firearms trafficking both vis-à-vis the U.S. government and in multilateral efforts. In May 2020, Minister Ebrard sent a diplomatic note to the U.S. embassy requesting information on the gun-running operation “Fast and Furious” (I wrote about that here) and this year Mexico chaired, under the leadership of seasoned Ambassador Campuzano, the Working Group on Firearms that was created under the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime. This is not a feel-good exercise, but requires advancing agreements among all UN members.
Is this a confrontation with the U.S.?
I do not believe so. Mexico’s claim is not against the U.S. government nor attempting to change domestic firearms laws. Instead, it focuses on private actors who have thwarted meaningful changes to gun control that would allow for safer communities in the U.S. In fact, as James Frederick, contributor to NPR in Mexico, pointed out to me, the complaint highlights the efforts that the U.S. government has made in attempting to stem arms trafficking and how these companies have circumvented them.
Last May, Roberto Velasco, Director for North American Affairs at the Foreign Ministry, announced that they wanted cooperation with the U.S. to address peace and health. A view, that at the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies we have promoted and issued recommendations for both governments. In this context, the claim filed by the Mexican government has the potential for sidelining the failed war on drugs and, in turn, emphasize excess mortality on both sides of the border. The dialogue, therefore, can shift to our shared tragedies and the responsibility that each country bears: overdose deaths and homicides perpetrated with firearms.
Will it succeed?
I will let the lawyers answer this. But even if it were to fail, it is clear Mexico is prioritizing firearms trafficking as a key issue in the bilateral agenda. I’m not one to read tea leaves, but announcing this measure at the Museo Memoria y Tolerancia whose mission includes “creating historical memory” and “educating about the dangers of indifference, discrimination, and violence” also sends a powerful message about the exorbitant human costs that Mexico continues to face.
* Cecilia Farfán Méndez is head of Security Research Programs at the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at the University of California San Diego (UCSD). Twitter: @farfan_cc