Columnist Razvan Sibii: Stopping the ‘iron river’ of guns to Mexico

  • In this 2014 file photo, trade show attendees examine handguns and rifles in the Smith & Wesson display boot at the Shooting Hunting and Outdoor Tradeshow, in Las Vegas. AP

Published: 8/16/2021 3:28:09 PM

Four main things cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally: drugs, undocumented immigrants, dirty money and guns. We hear all the time about the first two, and rarely about the last two.

The government of Mexico just gave us a much needed reminder of the gun issue by suing 10 American gun companies for knowingly and actively assisting the arming of drug cartels. The lawsuit was introduced in federal court in Massachusetts, and five of the companies it names are headquartered in New England, including Springfield’s Smith & Wesson.

We get bent out of shape about the families who cross into the United States illegally (thus committing a federal misdemeanor), but we’re not much bothered by the enormous number of weapons that Americans have illegally provided to the cartels’ sociopaths. No one is clamoring for a wall to be built on the border to protect Mexico from massive American criminality.

“We can never know the true scale of this traffic. But one study estimates more than two hundred thousand guns are trafficked over the border every year. This led to Mexican law enforcement in 2020 estimating that 2.5 million guns had been smuggled over the border in a decade,” writes Ioan Grillo, a Mexico-based journalist, in his 2021 book “Blood Gun Money.”

What’s more, according to the Mexicans, the American gun-makers intentionally design and market their product to appeal to the cartel killers. “Colt’s special edition .38 Super pistol is engraved with an image of the Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata on one side of the barrel and a phrase attributed to him on the other: ‘It is better to die standing than to live on your knees.’ One of those pistols was used in 2017 to assassinate the well-known investigative journalist Miroslava Breach Velducea, who made it her life’s work to uncover corruption, drug trafficking rings, and human rights violations,” says the complaint filed by the Mexican government two weeks ago.

“Fun” fact: In the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920, both Zapata’s peasant revolutionaries and the Mexican government forces were armed with American guns. The current “Drug War” is not America’s first foray into unbridled gun-running.

In his book, Grillo details the process by which guns fall off the map somewhere in America only to reapper in the hands of Mexican narco-traffickers. The first step is the purchasing of weapons by American citizens either at the virtually unregulated “gun shows” or from one of the more than 100,000 licensed gun sellers in the country. Then, the weapons are smuggled into Mexico, often in the same vehicles that had brought in drugs.

When the “straw buyer” (that is, the person who pretends to buy guns for themselves but then resells them or “loses” them) gets caught, they’re unlikely to go to prison because of low sentencing guidelines. And the gun manufacturers, the ones who make money from selling guns that spray an immense number of bullets in seconds, are protected by law against civil liability claims filed by victims of gun violence.

America has no federal law banning gun trafficking per se. But it does have a law prohibiting the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) or the FBI from establishing a centralized database of American guns, gun owners or gun transactions, which makes investigations into the origins of a gun used in a massacre extremely difficult.

How is this possible? We all know the answer: the Second Amendment, the NRA, the Republican Party, the American “gun culture.”

The “iron river” of American guns does not flow just to Mexico. It also flows to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, where Texas-sold weapons victimize hundreds of thousands of families who abandon their homes and seek refuge in the U.S. It flows to Jamaica and other Caribbean countries, where Florida-sold weapons decimate entire communities. And it flows to Colombia, where both government troops and rebel groups have long been totting American guns.

What would happen if Congress actually changed the law to allow for universal background checks, a national gun transaction registry, and a ban on assault-style weapons? Would cartels, gangs and guerillas stop terrorizing people and transforming them into desperate refugees?

“You could say, ‘Well, they’re going to get [the guns] anywhere,’ but I think the abundance of weapons matters. Every criminal in Mexico has an AK-47, an AR-15, and they’ve got an endless supply of bullets. Mexico has deep problems beyond the gun issue. There’s enormous corruption and a basic failure of law enforcement in Mexico,” Grillo told me in an phone interview.

“But they could get on top of this situation if it wasn’t for this huge iron river of guns. You see a negative feedback circle where the cops are outgunned by criminals, so the cops are easily subdued and intimidated and bought off by criminals. So the criminals get more powerful. But you could have a positive feedback circle, if the criminals had fewer guns and police were able to get the upper hand and then become less corrupt,” Grillo said.

We contribute mightily to the supply side of undocumented immigration when we flood Mexico and Central America with illegal guns and drug money. And we contribute mightily to the demand side when we maintain an economy that depends on the labor of undocumented immigrants. And then we turn around and innocently ask, “Why can’t these people stay in their own countries?”

Razvan Sibii is a senior lecturer of Journalism at UMass Amherst. He writes a monthly column on immigration and incarceration. He can be contacted at

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