The weapon design of manufacturers like Colt appeals to Mexico's cartels - gold-plated Colt pistols are often confiscated there
Photo: Klaus Ehringfeld
Miroslava Breach Velducea was waiting for her son in front of her house in Chihuahua when her killer killed her with eight shots in March 2017.
The 54-year-old Mexican journalist reported on organized crime and the links between corrupt politicians and cartels.
On the murder weapon that was later found, a pistol
38 caliber emblazoned the Mexican revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata;
it is gold-plated and lavishly decorated - a deadly work of art by the traditional US company Colt.
Cartel members like the sons of El Chapo also like to flaunt gold-plated AKs on social networks;
they also have a huge arsenal of weapons that are above all effective.
When Chapo's son Ovidio Guzmán López was arrested in Culiacán in 2019, members of the Sinaloa cartel paralyzed the entire city for hours with Barrett sniper rifles, AKs and AR-15 assault rifles, and Beretta and Glock pistols.
Narco commandos drove through the city with jacked up machine guns on pick-ups, engaged in shootings with the military and police and set fire to cars - until the security forces had to release the Chapo son.
Mexico's cartels, but also common criminals, are well equipped: Millions of weapons are in circulation in the country where tens of thousands of people are murdered every year.
According to the US control agency ATF, around 70 percent of the weapons confiscated at crime scenes were smuggled across the border from the USA before the crimes.
Now Mexico is trying to curb the arms trade with the help of the judiciary: In August, the Mexican State Department filed a lawsuit in a US federal court in Boston, Massachusetts, against eleven arms manufacturers and dealers based in the USA - including Smith & Wesson, Beretta, Century Arms , Colt, Glock and Ruger, whose weapons are particularly often confiscated in Mexico.
In the indictment, Mexico accuses manufacturers and dealers of "actively" facilitating the illegal sale of their weapons to cartels and other criminals in Mexico - out of greed for profit. The "deadly tide of arms" pouring across the border from the USA is "the foreseeable result of the defendant's deliberate activities and business practices". They would market, distribute, and sell weapons in a certain way - knowing that they are regularly arming the cartels in Mexico.
Examples are the gold-plated pistols from Colt, which are specially designed for the Mexican market: "El Jefe de Jefes" (The Boss of the Bosses), "El Grito" (The Scream) and "Emiliano Zapata 1911" - the weapon with which the journalist Miroslava Breach was shot.
“These models are status symbols and sought after by the cartels;
they are being smuggled into Mexico in large quantities from the United States, ”the document says.
Mexico is now calling, among other things, for stricter controls on the arms trade;
According to the State Department's legal advisor, the government also wants at least $ 10 billion in compensation for government expenditures that have arisen as a result of the arms trade.
The indictment includes costs for deaths and injuries to security forces, health expenses and social benefits for victims of gun violence and their families, equipment damage such as military helicopters shot down with US weapons, or a budget for strengthening law enforcement agencies to combat the gun trade and gun violence.
"The companies market weapons with motifs, images and other allusions to drug trafficking that appeal to criminals," criticizes Carlos A. Pérez Ricart, who researches arms trafficking at the Mexican think tank Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas (CIDE). "Many models are also designed for war and guerrilla missions." The companies produce semi-automatic weapons that comply with US regulations and fire only one shot each time the trigger is pulled - but which can easily be converted into automatic weapons, for example in the arms workshops of the cartels.
"The lawsuit is an important political signal," says Pérez Ricart.
It shows that the arms trade in Mexico has changed "from a marginal note" to an issue that is important to the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
In Mexico, but also in the USA, the move has stimulated the debate about stricter gun controls.
It is also a precedent;
Mexico is the first foreign government to sue US arms dealers in a US court.
"This triggers a discussion about the legal standing of a foreign government and raises the question of the responsibility of private companies in international human rights crimes," says Pérez Ricart.
However, he doubts that Mexico can defeat the gunsmiths in court - there are many legal hurdles.
The US court is currently reviewing whether the trial is admissible - or whether the gun manufacturers are protected by the US Legitimate Arms Trade Act (PLCAA), which grants them near-complete immunity.
Mexico argues that this only applies to damage within the US.
According to Pérez Ricart, Mexico also has to prove as a country that it is a direct victim of the practices - and the court could also refer the case back to Mexico, as the victims and perpetrators are Mexican.
But even if there were to be a process in the coming year, according to the researcher, that would not be enough to enforce efficient gun controls: It is not the individual companies that are responsible for many claims from Mexico - but the US government. The Mexican government would have to exert pressure on these, for example, to prohibit the repeated resale of weapons or to oblige manufacturers to install devices in weapons so that they can be identified and confiscated in the event of illegal use.
US President Joe Biden is campaigning for stricter gun laws - but Congress would be responsible for reforms. Biden's Democrats currently have a slim majority in both chambers of the US Congress, but they would have to rely on the votes of a few Republicans in the Senate for far-reaching legislative changes - and many Republicans are opposed to stricter gun controls.
The powerful US gun lobby is also resisting reforms. The NSSF (National Shooting Sports Foundation), the second largest firearms industry association, has issued a statement "rejecting allegations by Mexico that American firearms manufacturers were involved in negligent business practices." All guns that are retailed would be sold in accordance with federal and state laws, with a background check and forms to be completed.
In practice, however, such basic control mechanisms would “completely fail”, knows the British journalist and author Ioan Grillo, who researched how the US is upgrading gangs and cartels for his recently published book “Blood Gun Money”.
"Today people go into stores, buy a dozen AK-47 assault rifles at once - and there are no alarm bells ringing," he says.
White vests would buy weapons en masse from US dealers for the cartels - and criminals benefit from legal loopholes that allow background checks to be dispensed with in private sales.
Since he considers it unlikely that US policy will put a stop to such dubious weapons deals, Grillo relies on the lawsuit from Mexico. "In many harmful American industries such as the tobacco industry, but also in the pharmaceutical industry such as the opium crisis, it is more lawsuits than political decisions that lead to change," he observes.
There are currently further lawsuits pending within the USA: The city of Chicago is taking action against an arms dealer whose goods are particularly common at crime scenes or with criminals; Family members of victims of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School rampage are arguing with Remington in court - in July 2021, the company offered plaintiffs $ 33 million in compensation. "That shows that gun companies are not bulletproof," says Grillo. "They may respond to complaints."
Should there actually be a trial in the Mexico case, the arms companies would have to defend themselves in court for years, according to Grillo, and comment on the allegations.
Even if they win in the end, it could be that public pressure leads to selective changes.
"Instead of denying any responsibility, they might make concessions and take a closer look at dealers in regions directly on the US border from which conspicuously large quantities of assault rifles end up in Mexican cartels," he hopes.
While hundreds of guns are smuggled across the border every day, Mexico's only gun shop in Mexico City sells almost 40 guns a day - only with a background check, the shop is run by the military.
A case from Germany shows how laborious it is to bring arms companies to court - but it also shows that legal remedies can bring about changes. Jürgen Grässlin, spokesman for the anti-armaments campaign "Action Outcry - Stop the Arms Trade!" And initiator of the international initiative "Global Net - Stop the Arms Trade" has sued Heckler & Koch - with success.
In 2009 a former employee of the German arms company contacted him and told him about illegal deliveries to Mexico. More than 4,500 G36 assault rifles, but also submachine guns and accessories, reached four Mexican states between 2006 and 2009, which were actually subject to a German export ban due to the violence there. In Guerrero, for example, German G36 assault rifles were confiscated from criminals; Police officers shot at students with imported weapons.
In 2010, Grässlin filed a criminal complaint against the company through his lawyer, and only nine years later were two defendants sentenced to suspended sentences in the trial against five former employees of Heckler & Koch. Heckler & Koch was also supposed to pay 3.7 million euros to the state. When the company then went to the Federal Court of Justice (BGH) to challenge the judgment, the BGH confirmed the penalties against the two ex-employees in March 2021. Now the weapons manufacturer has to pay - more than ten years after the whistleblower call at Grässlin.
"There are some bright spots, but it is a coin with two sides," says the peace activist. Small employees were "hanged"; Higher-ranking managers like two Heckler & Koch managing directors got away with impunity. The investigations against the German control authorities, the Ministry of Economics and the Federal Office for Economics and Export Control BAFA were also stopped too quickly.
"After all, Heckler & Koch was able to prove illegal arms trade for the first time in the company's history," says Grässlin. He sees the Green Country Strategy that the company enacted during the ongoing process at the end of 2016 as a “step in the right direction”. Heckler & Koch has committed itself to supplying its small arms only to NATO, NATO-associated or EU countries. Mexico, Brazil and India, African countries or the Near and Middle East are no longer used as sales markets.
Instead, the company is equipping the French army with the HK416 assault rifle as a new standard weapon and is increasingly concentrating on the US market.
Human rights crimes do not completely prevent this, says Grässlin - the French military play "a very precarious role" in the operation in Mali;
US security forces were also involved in illegal activities.
Grässlin also initiated a lawsuit against the weapons company Sig Sauer, which has since closed its plant in Germany and relocated production to the USA - three ex-managers of the weapons manufacturer were sentenced to suspended sentences in 2019 for illegal arms exports to the civil war country of Colombia Company had to pay eleven million.
The public prosecutor in Kiel is currently investigating whether Sig Sauer - without an arms export license from the German federal government - has delivered weapons via the USA to Mexico, Colombia and Nicaragua.
According to Grässlin, investigations could take years again: "But thick boards are drilled in decades and not in months or a year or two."
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