Fueling Drug Cartels: America’s Gun Fetish (OPINION)

Nov 22, 2019
12:13 PM

Smoke from burning cars rises in Culiacán, Mexico, Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019. An intense gun battle with heavy weapons and burning vehicles blocking roads raged in the capital of Mexico’s Sinaloa state fter security forces located one of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán’s sons who is wanted in the U.S. on drug trafficking charges. (AP Photo/Hector Parra)

In a speech before a joint session of the U.S. Congress on May 20, 2010, Mexican President Felipe Calderón criticized gun and assault weapon sales in the United States that are unlawfully exported to Mexico. Calderón argued that U.S. firearm sales are a major contributing factor in the violence and drug cartel fighting that continues to plague Mexico. Calderón called on the U.S. to take action in order to end the flow of deadly weapons going south of the border.

Today, Mexico continues to have a serious problem with the number of assault weapons and other arms that are already in the country and continue to be brought in. It’s been described as a plague by Mexican officials as they continue to demand to know just what is being done to end this scourge of American weapons heading to Mexico.

Mexicans have the right to own firearms, but legal purchases from the single Mexican gun shop in Mexico City, controlled by the Army, is extremely difficult. The alternative is to buy weapons smuggled into Mexico after being obtained at gun shops in the United States and carried across the US-Mexico border.

“The inhabitants of the United Mexican States have the right to have arms in their domicile for their protection and legitimate defense, excepting those prohibited by Federal Law and those reserved for the exclusive use of the Army, Navy, Air Force and National Guard. Federal law will determine the cases, conditions, requisites and places (when and where) inhabitants will be authorized to carry arms.” — Article 10 of the Mexican Constitution

American women with no criminal history are seen as valuable “straw buyers” who transfer their purchases to smugglers through relatives and acquaintances. The women are paid to buy high-powered weapons from U.S. gun dealers from Houston to the Rio Grande Valley. Over the last decade, women have been increasingly targeted for recruitment to divert attention from high-profile suspects in gun trafficking operations.

In other cases, high-powered military-grade weapons are obtained via the Guatemalan border or stolen from the police or military. Many of the firearms smuggled through Central and South America, as well as the firearms used by Mexican authorities, originated in the U.S. as part of the failed drug war. Consequently, the black market for firearms in Mexico is a lucrative one.

A significant source of Mexican cartel weapons come from legal sales by U.S. gun companies to the Mexican military and police. Sales approved by the U.S. State Department, which after they arrive in Mexico, end up in cartel hands. In 2011, CBS News reported, “The Mexican military recently reported nearly 9,000 police weapons missing.”

Sharyl Attkisson explains: “A foreign government fills out an application to buy weapons from private gun manufacturers in the U.S. Then the State Department decides whether to approve… it did approve 2,476 guns to be sold to Mexico in 2006. In 2009, that number was up nearly 10 times, to 18,709.”

The State Department has since stopped disclosing the numbers of guns it approves for sale just as Mexico becomes one of the world’s largest purchasers of U.S. guns through direct commercial sales, beating out Iraq. A 2009 U.S. State Department audit showed 26 percent of guns sold legally to governments in Mexico and Central America ended up in the wrong hands.

Then there was Attkisson’s “Projection Gunrunner” report from 2011.

The most common smuggled firearms include AR-15 and AK-47 type rifles, and FN 5.7 caliber semi-automatic pistols. Firearms are purchased in the United States in a semi-automatic configuration before many are converted to fire as “select fire” machine guns. There are also multiple reports of grenade launchers being used against security forces and at least 12 M4 Carbines with M203 grenade launchers have been confiscated.

“When a woman walks into a gun store and says she’s looking for a weapon for her own protection, there aren’t going to be a lot of questions.” — Harold Hurtt, former Houston Police Chief

Most U.S. military-grade weapons (grenades and light anti-tank rockets) are acquired by the cartels through the huge supply of military arms left over from the wars in Central America and Asia. It has also been reported that one-eighth of the Mexican army deserts annually taking their government-issued automatic rifles with them. Weapons that originated in the U.S.

Deserters make up a good portion of the membership of many cartels. Namely the Zetas, Mexico’s first militarized drug cartel. Their founder, Lt. Arturo Guzmán Decena was a former army officer who had deserted. Guzmán is believed to have recruited soldiers from his paratrooper brigade and at least 40 members of the Mexican special forces prior to his death.

The Zetas’ mission was to establish the Gulf Cartel’s right to smuggle drugs and guns through any given port or border city over the Sinaloa and other groups. Taking advantage of the low pay and high desertion rate of the Mexican army, the Gulf traffickers reportedly entice troops with large sums of cash and positions of responsibility.

As the Zetas gained strength, they brought increasingly powerful weaponry into the drug war, including .50-caliber machine guns originally designed as anti-aircraft weapons. As a result, they now wield more firepower than much of the Mexican government does.


Recent reports of the arrest of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán’s son, Ovidio Guzmán, shows just how outgunned and underprepared the Mexican government is in dealing with the cartels. The use of heavy weapons of war coupled with guns flooding in from the U.S. makes the cartel as formidable as any terrorist group around the world.

At least one of the cartel’s trucks had a mounted .50 caliber M2 machine gun and another had an improvised armored turret-like structure. Vehicles that are normally found in conflicts raging Syria, Iraq, Libya, or other hotspots around the world.

Sniper rifles, grenade launchers, fully automatic high caliber machine guns, explosives, and vehicles with mounted guns underscores just how heavily armed criminal organizations in Mexico are and how capable they are of taking on even Mexican military forces directly.

In 2013 the University of San Diego issued a report that found the number of firearms smuggled from the United States was so significant that 48% of American gun dealers rely on that business to stay afloat. According to the report, an estimated 253,000 firearms are purchased in the United States expressly to be sent to Mexico every year. The vast majority of those sales originated in the border states of California, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.

The report concludes that ongoing government efforts to regulate firearms trade and trafficking across the U.S.-Mexico border are largely ineffective. The improvements by the Mexican government in seizing illicit firearms are still meager in relation to the volume of weapons crossing the border into Central America.

The scale of gun trafficking establishes the United States as an important contributor to the supply of firearms in illicit markets. It also draws attention to the particular function of domestic firearms regulation and the responsibilities of U.S. authorities. Taken together, smarter policies are required to combat firearms trafficking including the disclosure of disaggregated gun sales and background checks geared toward identifying straw purchasers.

As migrants flee gang violence in their home countries, Americans are fueling the instability by participating in the flood of high-powered weapons being transferred into the region.


Arturo Tha Cuban is a front-line anti-racism activist, essayist and upcoming author who advocates for equality, justice and accountability. He tweets from @ExtremeArturo.