No U.S. Court Can Make Mexico’s Streets Safe

Suing U.S. gun makers may be good law and politics, but that won’t fix Mexico’s police or courts and end its culture of impunity.

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By Shannon O'Neil
August 12, 2021 | 10:37 AM

(Bloomberg Opinion) — Mexico’s lawsuit alleging in a Massachusetts court that U.S. gun makers knowingly supply guns to criminal organizations is a new twist on using the U.S. justice system to take on the crime and corruption that plague Latin America. It comes from a justified frustration over the “iron river” of illegal guns flowing south. Yet the lawsuit won’t do much to bring down Mexico’s crime and violence. That goal will require Mexico to make its own law enforcement and justice systems work.

The U.S. and Mexican governments estimate that traffickers send more than 200,000 weapons into Mexico every year. This flow adds up to big business: One study calculates that nearly half of all U.S. gun shops depend on illegal sales to Mexico. The U.S. government has done next to nothing about it: Indeed, Congress has all but flat-lined funding for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). Even as gun sales have surged, the ATF’s overall staffing levels have barely changed over the last two decades, and the number of inspectors who oversee gun dealers has markedly decreased.

The lawsuit has to feel good for Mexican officials, whose calls for action to stem the movement of guns have been ignored for years. Mexicans still rage over the “Operation Fast and Furious” fiasco more than a decade ago, in which ATF agents allowed straw buyers to illegally “walk” guns into Mexico, hoping to trace them to the cartels. The scheme ended in ignominy as agents lost track, and the guns were found at dozens of murder scenes, including that of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry, killed in 2010.

Moreover, Mexico’s legal case may have merit: Colt’s special edition Emiliano Zapata pistol clearly caters to those hoping to become protagonists in the next Mexican narcocorrido song. And though the administration of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador filed the lawsuit on its own, the U.S. may quietly approve of the move. Especially since the 2012 murder of 26 children at Sandy Hook Elementary, President Joe Biden has been a vocal advocate of regulating who can buy what kind of guns.


What the suit won’t do, even if successful, is transform the dire security situation Mexico faces. As James Bosworth of the Latin American Risk Report notes, “reducing impunity, corruption and the conditions that allow for criminal organizations to hold territory are more important factors that Mexico’s government is failing on.” Until Mexico invests far more money in making its communities safer and forges a coherent and comprehensive strategy to build a true rule of law, it will remain a dangerous place.

Mexico’s security budget is one of Latin America’s lowest in terms of GDP, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute: just 0.6%, compared with 1.4% in Brazil, 1.9% in Chile and 3.4% in Colombia — all safer countries.

In more than half of Mexico’s states, police officers don’t earn a living wage or hold the professional certification supposedly required by law. Many have to buy their own uniforms, gas and even bullets. Computers, forensic labs and a host of things that enable officers to do their jobs are scarce.


Lopez Obrador has redirected these meager resources away from police to the military. He disbanded the civilian-led Federal Police to make way for a military-controlled National Guard. He has upped the military budget by $2.5 billion while zeroing out dedicated funds for municipal police officers and slashed outlays for community policing and other programs shown to improve citizen security.

Mexico’s justice system is similarly foundering. The impunity rate for murders tops 95%, and that for other violent crimes is also frighteningly high. Nevertheless, the government deprioritized the implementation of a more transparent oral trial-based justice system, leaving the transition incomplete. Despite spectacular attacks on public officials and dozens of political murders in the run-up to June’s midterm elections, the government has cut funding for the investigatory organized crime unit within the Attorney General’s office.

The Mexican government has also eliminated most of the public funding for programs designed to help crime-torn communities recover. Gone are the after-school activities, violence prevention programs, counseling clinics, and women’s shelters — with potentially drastic consequences for the social fabric.

Security cooperation with the U.S. has deteriorated. Lopez Obrador’s administration has disbanded vetted bilateral units. Bureaucratic delays or lack of approvals over the last three years have caused several other bilateral security programs to sputter. The Mexican government recently declared the death of the Merida Initiative, the centerpiece of bilateral security cooperation, even as it has undermined the initiative’s main pillars: Police training and professionalization, justice sector reform, and building community resilience to crime through social and violence prevention programs. Although bilateral military cooperation continues, the U.S. is unlikely to sign up to a new security aid package that doesn’t emphasize civilian law enforcement and human rights.


The presence and prevalence of illegal high-powered guns and assault rifles matters, to be sure. Yet the U.S. has more guns, more illegal drugs and more illicit profits than Mexico. What it doesn’t have is anywhere near the scale of violence. That relative safety comes from functioning local, state and national law enforcement that implements targeted and often community-based strategies to take on the most violent criminal groups. It comes from a court system that does a much better job of convicting the guilty and protecting the innocent. And it results from prison systems that aren’t just open doors or training grounds for new recruits.

If Mexico’s government truly wants to reduce the bloodshed, it will need more than a successful Massachusetts lawsuit. It will need to invest billions more every year in a comprehensive, institutional and civilian-led approach to security. That’s something the U.S. wouldn’t need a court order to get behind.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Shannon O’Neil is a senior fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.