An Ocean of Guns:
Mexico’s Journalists in the Crossfire of the International Arms Trade

At least 86 of 119 journalists and media workers killed in Mexico since 2000 have been killed by firearms. Yet very few cases lead to an arrest and even fewer to a conviction. Over a months-long investigation, Forbidden Stories examined the flow of weapons into Mexico, analyzing thousands of declassified documents obtained by the NGO Stop US Arms to Mexico. These documents, along with the new report “Deadly Trade,” published today, suggest that in addition to weapons trafficked illegally across the US border, weapons produced overseas and sold legally to the Mexican Army may also be used to commit human rights violations.

By Phineas Rueckert
Reading time: 20m

This article is the fourth chapter of the Cartel Project, a series of investigations coordinated by Forbidden Stories whose mission is to continue the work of murdered or threatened journalists

 

Journalist Israel Vázquez, killed on November 9, 2020, in the final picture taken of him before he was shot dead in Guanajuato (Credit : Luis Vallejo).

KEY FINDINGS

  • At least 86 out of 119 journalists and media workers killed in Mexico since 2000 were killed by firearms.
  • Between 2008 and 2018, the Mexican Army sold 205,395 European and Israeli firearms to local police, including to police with a documented history of human rights violations and collusion with cartels.
  • European companies that sell weapons to Mexico may have also bypassed EU export laws, which require end-user certificates to be signed for all weapons exports to Mexico, according to a new report.
  • NGOs estimate as many as 60 percent of weapons trafficked across the US border into Mexico were first imported into the US.

 

Around 6:00 a.m. on November 9, 2020, Luis Vallejo received a call from a municipal police officer. “Human remains,” the officer told him, had been found in Villa Salamanca 400, a neighborhood in the city of Salamanca, Mexico.

A crime reporter for PuntoCero Noticias, Vallejo has become accustomed to reports like this in recent years, as the levels of insecurity and violence in Guanajuato, a state in central Mexico, have risen to previously unseen levels.

Usually reporters in this part of Mexico arrive at crime scenes in groups of at least two to minimize risk. He dialed his friend and colleague Israel Vázquez, a reporter for the local paper El Salmantino, to verify whether the information was true or false. But Vázquez didn’t pick up.

Vallejo waited for 10 or 15 minutes before hopping into his truck and driving to Villa Salamanca 400. Along the way, he noticed an ambulance driving in the other direction.

When he arrived at Villa Salamanca 400, neighbors had gathered around the scene of the crime. “Are you Luis — Luisito — the friend of Israel?” they asked him. “They just shot him.”

Vallejo was shocked. “Everything came crashing down on me,” he told Forbidden Stories over the phone from Salamanca.

The two reporters were life-long friends. Vázquez — known for his careful, diligent reporting — had inspired Vallejo to become a journalist. His energy was contagious, Vallejo said. The 31-year-old was a doting son, active in the community, the father of two young girls.

Vázquez had arrived at the scene of the crime before the police. As he was preparing to broadcast live on Facebook, at least two vehicles drove by and armed men shot him eight times. As he was lying on the ground he was shot another three times. Police found bullet casings from two guns — 9 millimeter and .45 caliber — at the crime scene. An unfired armor-piercing 5.56 caliber NATO bullet that Vallejo found at the scene of the crime was produced by a company headquartered in the US state of Minnesota. Vallejo believes that this bullet is most likely related to an incident several days earlier in the same area.

Vázquez was taken to the hospital. Hours later, he died from his injuries, becoming at least the seventh reporter killed in Mexico in 2020 — the most dangerous non-conflict zone to be a journalist.

Journalist Israel Vázquez at a Club Léon football match in Guanajuato
(Credit : Luis Vallejo).

Journalist Israel Vázquez on assignment in Guanajuato
(Credit : Luis Vallejo).

On November 15, the state prosecutor announced that two men had been arrested for his murder. According to news reports, they were detained alongside seven other presumed members of a local criminal group. At the scene of the arrest, authorities recovered an arsenal of high-caliber weapons from around the world, according to unofficial sources cited in local news reports, including a US-made DPMS Sportical AR-15, an Israeli IWI Tavor 21 assault rifle, a German Heckler & Koch HK-416 assault rifle, and a modified Huglu XR 7, a semi-automatic shotgun from Turkey. The prosecutor has not yet confirmed whether the two men were arrested at the same time as the weapons were confiscated.

A criminal investigation for “premeditated murder” and “crimes committed against a working journalist” is currently underway.

A wave of journalist deaths

 

Vázquez was the third journalist killed in Mexico in little over a week. On November 2, Jesús Alfonso Piñuelas was gunned down while riding his motorcycle in the state of Sonora. Several days earlier, in Ciudad Juarez, television presenter Arturo Alba was shot dead as he left his shift at the TV show Telediario.

All of them had reported on corruption or crime in some of Mexico’s most violent states. And all of them were killed by firearms.

Nearly 80 percent of the journalists killed in Mexico in the past four years have been killed by firearms, including six of the seven killed in 2020. Overall, at least 86 of 119 journalists and media workers killed in Mexico since 2000 — about 72 percent — have been killed by firearms, a number that has risen over the years, according to Forbidden Stories’ analysis of more than two decades of reports by the watchdog organization Committee to Protect Journalists.

 

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Starting from the murder of journalists, many of them with firearms, Forbidden Stories traced how lethal weapons end up in Mexico. In partnership with Global Exchange, Stop US Arms to Mexico and other NGOs in Europe and Israel, Forbidden Stories and its media partners were given access to an exclusive report, published today, and declassified Mexican Army data that suggests an alarming lack of oversight on legal weapons sales to Mexico from abroad, as well as potential violations of European export laws. Multinational companies headquartered in Germany, Belgium, Italy and elsewhere have shipped hundreds of millions of Euros worth of guns, parts and ammunition, with some ending up in Mexican states with a history of human rights violations and documented collusion with criminal groups. Yet these multinational companies have rarely faced consequences for their arms sales to Mexico, thanks to weak international regulations on firearms exports and impunity in Mexico that makes tracing firearms used to commit crimes back to their origins nearly impossible.

Búho, who runs a small gun repair workshop near Culiacán (Sinaloa, Mexico), repairs a rifle during an interview with journalists from Forbidden Stories and Die Zeit (Credit: Forbidden Stories).

A step ahead of the government

 

Águila picks up one of the guns littered around the small wooden shack. It’s a Heckler & Koch P30L pistol made in Germany — his favorite.

Nearly a dozen others sit nearby amidst spare parts, work tools and an unopened beer. Águila — who describes himself a farmer and a father of four, but who carries a walkie-talkie used by members of the Sinaloa Cartel to communicate securely — indicates them one by one: two AR-15 semiautomatic weapons produced in the US; an Italian Pietro Beretta pistol; an Izhmash rifle from Russia: a Czech .40 caliber; a 12 gauge shotgun, also Russian; a .22 Winchester rifle; a gold-plated Llama pistol made in Spain; and a rifle from a company based in the state of Massachusetts.

The weapons belong to a criminal group within the Sinaloa Cartel.

Journalists from Forbidden Stories and Die Zeit met with Águila at a gun repair shop in the outskirts of Culiacan, the capital of Sinaloa state. The gun repairman who says he works for the Sinaloa Cartel on a “freelance” basis explained how cartels are able to easily procure an impressive array of high-caliber international weapons, enough to match the firepower of the Mexican authorities.

The cartels are always packing more than the government. They always have to be one step ahead

Criminal groups and local rancheros alike come to Águila and his business partner Búho — a camo-clad man who rarely speaks — to have their guns repaired or modified. Here, semi-automatic weapons are converted into automatic weapons — which they call “ráfaga” (“burst”). Parts are added or taken away. Old pieces are replaced.

In Culiacan, the Sinaloa Cartel and other criminal groups, which he calls “la mafia,” are able to obtain almost any weaponry they want, he explained, either through weapons trafficked across the US border or through corrupt local police who resell seized weapons on the black market. This is the case throughout Mexico — in Sinaloa, Guerrero and Guanajuato, among other states, he said.

“The cartels are always packing more than the government,” he said. “They always have to be one step ahead.”

“Águila” tests a modified assault rifle by shooting it in the air (Credit: Forbidden Stories).

European weapons in Mexican cartels

 

It’s not just weapons produced by US companies making their way into the hands of organized crime groups in Mexico.

Between January 2010 and September 2019, 1,925 Beretta (based in Italy), 1,365 Romarm (Romania), 700 Glock (Austria), 130 FN Herstal (Belgium), and 57 Heckler & Koch (Germany) weapons with serial numbers were recovered at crime scenes in Mexico, according to official Mexican Army documents accessed by Stop US Arms to Mexico through a freedom of information request and shared with Forbidden Stories and its media partners.

Military-grade European weapons have been documented in the hands of cartels and criminal organizations across the country.

Security guards working for El Mini Lic, the son of a senior lieutenant in the Sinaloa Cartel, who Mexico’s Special Prosecutor for Attention for Crimes Against Freedom of Expression (FEADLE) presumes to be the intellectual author of the murder of journalist Javier Valdez in 2017, carried a German-produced Heckler & Koch MP5 machine gun, according to Forbidden Stories’s open-source photo investigation. This same model has been sold to Mexican police in more than half of Mexico’s 32 states including Sinaloa, according to the declassified documents shared with Forbidden Stories.

The US version of an FN Minimi assault rifle fired from the front seat of a vehicle by members of the Sinaloa Cartel. This firearm is produced by Belgian company FN Herstal, which also has a subsidiary in the US (Credit: Twitter screen capture).

Two gold-plated Colt pistols posted on an Instagram account that likely belonged to El Mini Lic, the presumed intellectual author of the murder of journalist Javier Valdez (Credit: Instagram screen capture).

Forbidden Stories also documented high-caliber weapons produced by Europe-based companies in the firefight between the Sinaloa Cartel and state and federal police following the attempted arrest of Ovidio Guzman — the son of famed kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán — in October 2019. These included the US-version of an FN Minimi machine gun originally manufactured by FN Herstal in Belgium; an M72-LAW rocket launcher produced by Nammo, a company headquartered in Norway with a US subsidiary in Arizona; and a Russian AK-47. The weapons research organization Armament Research Services identified pistols from Beretta and Glock, companies based in Italy and Austria respectively, among the weapons held by cartel hitmen.

Águila, in Sinaloa, said that the Minimi has become a cartel favorite, along with high caliber weapons produced in the US such as Barrett sniper rifles and M16 machine guns.

Almost all of the journalists in Mexico are killed with foreign weapons

Other cartels have obtained military grade weaponry from abroad. Images from the attempted assassination of police chief Omar García in Mexico City in June 2020 by the Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generacion show a Belgian FN SCAR 17 assault rifle sitting in the bed of a pickup truck.

“This is absolutely not normal to see,” said Bart Libaut, a Belgian researcher who monitored and analyzed the social networks of Mexican criminal organizations for the Cartel Project. “We’re looking at military equipment.”

Some of the European weapons flooding the market in Mexico have also been documented in the killings of journalists in Mexico.

José Armando Rodríguez Carreón who worked for El Diario de Ciudad Juárez, was killed with 10 nine millimeter bullets in 2008. Laura Angelina Borbolla, a former official at FEADLE, maintains that the journalist was killed with a Beretta pistol. Jaime Guadalupe González Domínguez was killed on March 3, 2013 in Ojinaga, in the northern state of Chihuahua. According to news reports, the killers fired 18 shots at the journalist with a Five-SeveN, a gun produced by Belgian company FN Herstal that’s colloquially known as the “mata-policias,” or “cop-killer.”

“Almost all of the journalists in Mexico are killed with foreign weapons,” Borbolla told Forbidden Stories.

Lethal legal sales

 

The wave of journalist deaths comes as part of a steady rise in violence across Mexico that many attribute, at least in part, to the government’s own security policy. Since the mid-2000s the Mexican government has armed itself to the teeth with high-caliber weaponry in an arms race against criminal groups, a militarized policy that has only seemed to add fuel to the fire, critics say.

Weapons sold legally to these same authorities may have been used against human rights defenders, journalists and civilians, according to a new report by Global Exchange, Stop US Arms to Mexico and other NGOs, published today.

READ THE “DEADLY TRADE” REPORT IN ENGLISH OR IN SPANISH

 

Stop US Arms to Mexico gave Forbidden Stories access to thousands of pages of declassified documents showing weapons purchased by the Mexican Army (SEDENA) — the country’s only licensed firearms importer — and resold to states across Mexico.

According to these documents, between 2006 and 2018, at least 108,000 Beretta (Italy), 68,000 Glock (Austria), 23,000 IWI (Israel), 19,000 Heckler & Koch (Germany) and 1,000 FN Herstal (Belgium) weapons were sold to state and local police in Mexico.

European weapons have been regularly sold to states with a documented history of human rights violations, enforced disappearances and suspected collusion with drug cartels, these documents show.

EU export laws for weapons sales may have also been bypassed, according to the report. The Mexican army is required to submit end-user certificates to exporting companies showing the final users of all weapons exports. Between 2008 and 2018, 44,293 weapons were reported in end-user certificates released to Stop US Arms in response to a freedom of information request and shared with Forbidden Stories. During that same time, however, receipts from weapons sales from the Mexican Army to state and local police show 205,395 European and Israeli firearms — more than four times as many.

One-thousand-sixty-four FN Herstal firearms were sold to Mexican police between 2009 and 2013, yet just 847 weapons were reported in end-user certificates during that same time period. Not a single end-user certificate was submitted to Beretta between 2013 and 2019. Meanwhile, receipts sent from the Mexican Army to local and state police show sales of at least 28,156 Beretta weapons between 2014 and 2018.

They clearly know that weapons are going to states like Guerrero and Veracruz and Tamaulipas and Chihuahua that have long, well-documented histories of corruption and human rights abuses and impunity. In our view, they’re culpable

Veracruz — the Mexican state with the highest number of journalists killed since 2000 and where at least 15 human rights violations by “death squads” trained at the state’s police academy were committed during the six-year governorship of Javier Duarte — has regularly received weapons and ammunition from a number of European companies.

Senior US law enforcement officials said that the many killings and disappearances in Veracruz during Duarte’s time as governor, including of local journalists, could not have taken place without his complicity with the drug cartels and corrupt police forces believed to have carried them out.

“I’ve seen governors over my time involved in embezzlement and violence but he stands head and shoulders over all of them,” said one senior DEA official with extensive tours in Mexico.

End-user certificates filed by the Mexican Army show Benelli, a weapons manufacturer based in Urbino, Italy, that’s part of the Beretta Group; FN Herstal in Belgium; and Glock in Austria, among the companies who knowingly sold weapons and ammunition to Veracruz during this time. Police in Veracruz were also sold at least 8,219 Beretta pistols, rifles and machine guns between 2006 and 2018, though no end-user certificates appear to have been signed.

A Pietro Beretta pistol made in Italy. Between 2010 and 2019, 1,925 Beretta weapons were recovered at crime scenes in Mexico (Credit: Forbidden Stories).

Between 2010 and 2016, local and state police in Veracruz are suspected to have carried out at least 202 enforced disappearances, including the disappearance and presumed murder of Christian Téllez Padilla — for which the UN, in a first, declared Mexico guilty nearly 10 years later — and the disappearance of five students who were pulled over by armed state police and presumably handed over to members of Los Zetas in a well-known case called “Tierra Blanca.”

“In most cases where we have documented enforced disappearance, there is always this collusion between the state authorities and organized crime and there is always the exchange of weapons between these two entities,” Erika Guevara-Rosas, the Americas director for Amnesty International, said.

 

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Yet international weapons manufacturers are equally undiscerning when it comes to selling to states with a long track record of human rights violations, according to John Lindsay-Poland, the director of Stop US Arms to Mexico.

“They clearly know that weapons are going to states like Guerrero and Veracruz and Tamaulipas and Chihuahua that have long, well-documented histories of corruption and human rights abuses and impunity,” he said. “In our view, they’re culpable.”

(Image: Agir pour la Paix)

In the state of Guerrero, municipal police involved in the enforced disappearance of 43 students near the city of Iguala on September 26, 2014 carried a number of weapons produced abroad, including firearms produced by Heckler & Koch and Beretta. A chemical analysis of guns carried by Iguala police conducted on September 29, 2014 and shared with Forbidden Stories, confirms that at least seven Heckler & Koch and 19 Beretta firearms had been recently fired.

The flow of international weapons to this state did not stop there. Israeli Weapons Industries has repeatedly sent weapons to Guerrero, including at least one shipment of firearms in March 2015, less than half a year after the students were forcibly disappeared by Iguala police.

Neither IWI nor the Israeli Department of Defense wished to be interviewed for this story, citing Israeli export control laws and regulations that prohibit sharing information about specific export licenses.

“All of IWI’s defense export activities are in full compliance with the Israeli export regime and are backed with the proper export and marketing licenses as required by the law,” a spokesperson for IWI wrote in an email.

An institutional problem

 

State involvement in human rights abuses in Mexico appears to be systemic and involve every level of the military and police, according to human rights experts.

Between the end of 2006 and 2013, the NGO Human Rights Watch documented 249 disappearances committed in Mexico. In 149 of those cases — more than half — they found “compelling evidence that state actors participated in the crime, either acting on their own or collaborating with criminal groups.”

This included, they note, every level of security forces: the Army, the Navy, as well as federal, state and municipal police.

When someone at the top is involved in organized crime, the problem is institutional

The Mexico Violence Resource Project estimates that nearly half of threats against journalists came from authorities, versus 5 percent by criminal groups.

Yet these authorities have nearly unlimited access to guns and ammunition with relatively little oversight.

The Mexican Army, which is responsible for all weapons imports and reselling of weapons to local and state police, has also been implicated in human rights violations.

Of the 204 “serious human rights abuses” brought to Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission between January 2007 and June 2017, roughly three-quarters of those were committed by the Army and Navy, according to a freedom of information request cited in the Stop US Arms report released today.

In the state of Jalisco alone, more than 350 human rights violations complaints were brought against the Army between 2006 and 2017, including the 2010 disappearance of six people in Jilotlán de los Dolores, which has been documented by Human Rights Watch.

(Image: Agir pour la Paix)

In October, General Salvador Cienfuegos, who served as Defense Minister under President Enrique Peña Nieto, was arrested in the US on drug trafficking charges. The charges were later dropped and Cienfuegos was allowed to return to Mexico to be investigated. During the six years he was at the Army’s helm, more than 100,000 weapons were sold to police in Mexico.

“The evidence that Cienfuegos was involved in organized crime lends a whole new aspect to this issue,” said Lindsay-Poland. “SEDENA, after all, concentrates enormous authorities over firearms in Mexico – acquisition through imports, production, use in operations, sales to police, sales to citizens, confiscation of illegal weapons, keeping weapons registry, issuing licenses.”

“When someone at the top is involved in organized crime, the problem is institutional,” he added.

SEDENA did not respond to questions sent by Forbidden Stories and its partners.

‘Lost’ and ‘stolen’

 

Weapons sold legally to state and local police also risk being diverted into criminal networks, Forbidden Stories has found.

Between 2000 and 2015, more than 20,000 weapons were lost by or stolen from federal, state and local police, according to Mexican Army data released in response to a freedom of information request. In Guerrero and Tamaulipas, two of the most violent states in Mexico, 20 and 10 percent of weapons, respectively, were lost between 2006 and 2017. Other states with a documented history of collusion with cartels, journalist killings, and enforced disappearances — such as Veracruz, Jalisco and Sinaloa — also lost hundreds of weapons during that time, or about 5 percent of weapons sold to each state.

Presumably, at least some of the weapons that are lost or stolen end up in the hands of cartels and criminal networks.

“In Mexico, it’s super easy to get a weapon,” Vania Pigeonutt, the cofounder of Matar a Nadie and a journalist who works in the state of Guerrero, said. “Even the police, the army can sell you a weapon.”

Priscila Pacheco, a lawyer whose father, journalist Francisco Pacheco Beltran, was shot to death in Guerrero in 2016 echoed this.

Journalist Francisco Pacheco Beltrán at a look-out point near Taxco, Guerrero (Credit: Priscila Pacheco).

“In reality a lot of those weapons are supposed to be exclusively used by the military and public security forces,” she said. “So then who is putting them in the hands of organized crime?”

Nonetheless, local and state police that regularly lose weapons nonetheless face no consequences, according to Lucía Chávez, a researcher at the human rights NGO Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights.

“The rule is that SEDENA can’t sell more weapons [to a state] than there are police officers [in that state],” she said. “But what we’ve been told — although we don’t have data on this — is that in reality there are no consequences for police who lose or have a weapon stolen.”

A profitable business and a blind eye

 

Multinational weapons companies based in Europe have meanwhile raked in millions of Euros in arms sales, capitalizing on the Mexican Army’s desire for military-grade weapons and ammunition.

Arms Trade Treaty reports from between 2015 and 2020 show direct weapons exports from a dozen European countries to Mexico, including Italy, Belgium, Austria, Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia, France, Portugal, Turkey, Switzerland, Finland and the UK.

Between April 2015 until April 2020 the Belgian arms manufacturer FN Herstal, which is owned by the Walloon government, sent 54 separate shipments to Mexico for a total value of almost 50 million USD, according to trade data accessed by Forbidden Stories.

“If you compare the graphic of homicide rates in Mexico with graphics of licenses approved in Belgium this coincides quite obviously,” said Mattijs van den Bussche, an activist at Vredesactie (Peace Action) in Antwerpen. “This is not to imply that Belgian weapons cause the homicide rates, but it does mean that the Belgian government — or the Walloon government in this case — doesn’t consider the security context in Mexico.”

Elio Di Rupo, the Minister-President of Wallonia, did not wish to respond to an interview with Forbidden Stories, but a spokesperson affirmed in an email that “since 2014, in light of the involvement of Mexican police in the murder of 43 students, export licenses are only given to the Mexican Army and not to the police.”

He added that Minister-President’s office is “particularly attentive” to licenses for weapons shipped to Mexico.

(Image: Agir pour la Paix)

Contacted by Forbidden Stories, an FN Herstal representative wrote in an email that it is “not in our company policy to issue comments to the press.”

“We confirm to you that FN Herstal monitors in the strictest respects its control regulations as applicable in this field,” the representative added.

The company declined to comment on specific exports or end-user certificates.

Beretta, in Italy, also sent more than 50 million Euros worth of weapons to Mexico between 2007 and 2018, including SCP 70/90 automatic assault rifles, ARX 160 assault rifles and GLX 160 grenade launchers.

Italy counts among the European countries with the strictest export requirements for firearms and other conventional military weapons. The country signed on to the international Arms Trade Treaty in 2013 and has ratified the EU Common Position 2008/944 CFSP, which puts into place a number of requirements for international weapons exports, including denying licenses if weapons risk being used for internal repression or violations of international humanitarian law.

It’s not only a matter of economic impact. The cultural part is huge. The kindergarten is named after Beretta, the school is named after Beretta

But because Mexico is not considered to be engaged in an internationally-recognized armed conflict, exports are nearly always approved, according to Giorgio Beretta (no relation to the company), an expert at the Permanent Observatory for Small Arms (OPAL). He said that UAMA, the Italian export authority, has never released or disclosed any denied exports — to Mexico or elsewhere.

“Since UAMA has a legalistic approach […] UAMA tends to consider the risks but in the end it will allow the export,” he said.

UAMA did not respond to multiple interview requests.

Beretta and other subsidiaries based in northern Italy, like Benelli, play an important economic and cultural role, making it harder to mount campaigns against them, activists say.

“It’s not only a matter of economic impact,” said Francesco Vignarca, an activist at the Italian Network for Peace and Disarmament. “The cultural part is huge. You know, the kindergarten is named after Beretta, the school is named after Beretta. Everything — the parks to the flowers in the park — exist because Beretta sponsors them.”

Even the local Catholic priest in Val Trompia, the suburb of Brescia where Beretta is based, must be approved by the Beretta family, he added.

“We regret to inform you that we are not interested to release interviews and/or comments regarding the below issue,” a representative for Beretta wrote in an email responding to a request for an interview from Forbidden Stories and its media partners.

Even countries that sell relatively few weapons to Latin America — such as the United Kingdom — have seen exports to Mexico increase in the past decade and a half.

According to statistics from Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), UK export licenses to Mexico increased from 58 in 2008 to 350 in 2017. Mexico is listed as a “priority market” for arms exports for the UK. In early 2015, just months after the 43 students were forcibly disappeared in Guerrero, the UK ambassador to Mexico told a journalist for The Guardian: “In the long term we would aspire to become a player in Mexico’s military procurement.”

While most of the UK’s weapons exports were for large-scale military equipment, the UK also shipped 4 million pounds of small arms to Mexico during that time. This also included three open export licenses, which typically last for about five years and don’t limit the number of exports that can be made, meaning the number of weapons exports could be higher.

“That’s 4 million pounds too many in our opinion,” Andrew Smith, an expert at CAAT, said.

Other European companies have responded to European export laws by moving production to the US. In 2020, Sig Sauer, a fully German-owned brand headquartered in Eckernförde, exported more than 50,000 pistols to Mexico’s newly formed National Guard from its factory in New Hampshire. The company had already shipped more than 10,000 pistols from the US to Mexican police between 2011 and 2019, according to end-user certificates submitted to the US State Department.

Sig Sauer, Glock, and IWI have all exported weapons directly to the Mexican Army from their US subsidiaries, according to State Department documents accessed by Stop US Arms to Mexico and shared in the new report.

A porous border

 

All of the international companies that sell weapons to Mexico — including Beretta, Glock, FN Herstal and IWI — also sell weapons to the United States, the primary source of illegal weapons trafficking to Mexico. Many of them have established subsidiaries that produce weapons in the US for American consumers, such as FN America and IWI US.

Mexican authorities insist that most of the European weapons trafficked across the border and ending up in the hands of cartels are first sold in the US, according to a high-level official in Mexico’s Foreign Secretary office.

“In Mexico, there are illegal weapons that come from the United States with a European patent,” the official said.

Estimates for the number of firearms trafficked across the US border to Mexico vary, with some suggesting that as many as 213,000 weapons illegally make their way into Mexico every year.

The proportion of high-caliber, military-style weapons flowing across the border has increased since 2004, when the US congress under President George W. Bush allowed a bill banning the sale of assault rifles — signed in 1994 by his predecessor Bill Clinton — to lapse, Cecilia Farfan Mendez, the cofounder of the Mexico Violence Resource Project, told Forbidden Stories.

A close up of the Saiga-12 assault rifle made in Russia (Credit: Forbidden Stories).

Weapons are typically bought by so-called straw purchasers — legal buyers who purchase automatic or semi-automatic weapons at gun shops — and then either walked, driven or flown across the border, where they enter illicit markets.

Officials in the US and Mexico call this “ant trafficking,” according to Thomas Chittum, assistant director for field operations at the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF).

Trace data from ATF suggests that about 70 percent of weapons recovered at crime scenes Mexico between 2014 and 2019 came from the US. But many of these weapons were first imported to the US by international manufacturers before being trafficked across the border.

The drug trafficking organizations can threaten the authority of the Mexican government because they are able to get all of the weapons they need

As part of an ongoing project, the Violence Policy Center, a think-tank based in Washington D.C., has analyzed more than a decade of federal court documents accessed through the online court filing system PACER showing firearms trafficking destined to Latin America. Of the roughly 6,400 weapons in this database — shared exclusively with Forbidden Stories and its media partners — just under 60 percent of weapons where the origin was identifiable were first imported into the US before traffickers attempted to bring them to Mexico and South and Central America, suggesting the actual number of European weapons circulating in criminal networks in Mexico could be higher than previously thought.

Nearly 10 percent of the weapons in the Violence Policy Center dataset came from one company alone: FN Herstal. Hundreds more were produced in Europe, including by Romarm in Romania, Glock in Austria, and Izhmash in Russia.

Weapons from Europe are imported legally into the United States by companies like Century Arms, explained Kristen Rand, a researcher at the Violence Policy Center. They are then sold to gun shops across the country where they are bought by straw purchasers and trafficked across the border.

Cheap AK-style brands like the Romanian-produced WASR-10 are particularly popular with drug cartels in Mexico, she said. Yet, these weapons continue to be imported into the US with relatively few restrictions, thanks to a loophole in the 1968 Gun Control Act that allows for these weapons to be imported as hunting and sports equipment and not as military weapons.

“We have this completely unregulated, out of control industry that is wreaking havoc on our neighboring country,” Rand said. “The drug trafficking organizations can threaten the authority of the Mexican government because they are able to get all of the weapons they need.”

Despite advances, impunity kills

 

Chittum, at ATF, said that energy for fighting weapons trafficking to Mexico was at a decade-long high, noting that the past year was “the most significant firearms tracking activity I’ve seen in probably 10 years.”

In Europe, lawmakers called for stronger coordination on end-user controls in a September report approved by the European Parliament.

But on the ground, Mexican journalists and human rights activists note that while weapons exports and trafficking are both concerning, a bigger problem is the lack of proper investigation into violence.

We don’t want him to be just another cold case

The question of firearms is “secondary” to that of impunity, Vania Pigeonutt, at Matar a Nadie, said.

“The origin of the violence is in the production of weapons, but the real key is the impunity,” she said. “It can be with a .22 caliber, it can be with a ‘cuerno de chivo’ [AK-47], it can be with an AR-15, many types of pistols, but the result for us is that there is no investigation, we don’t even know who gave the order [to kill].”

Only 6 percent of all homicides in Mexico between 2010 and 2016 were resolved. For journalist killings, that number was only slightly higher — about 10 percent.

Investigations into arms trafficking in Mexico are also rare. Between 2010 and 2018 just 122 weapons trafficking cases were concluded, according to the Mexican Attorney General’s Office’s response to a freedom of information request by Forbidden Stories. Another 539 were launched between January of 2016 and May of this year, with a peak in 2018.

Despite the arrest of the two presumed hitmen in Guanajuato, local journalists have continued to call for greater clarity on the circumstances behind the killing of Israel Vasquez, as well as potential intellectual author or authors of the crime and the weapons used in his murder.

Protesters marched across Salamanca in the days after the journalist was shot to death. The initial government response — blaming Vázquez for reporting early in the morning in a dangerous neighborhood — only seemed to aggravate the situation.

“The people of Salamanca are demanding justice for Israel — for the loss that he left as a brother, son, father and friend,” Vallejo said. “We don’t want him to be just another cold case.”

Protesters gathered in Salamanca on November 11 to protest the killing of journalist Israel Vazquez in Guanajuato. (Credit: Veronica Espinosa/Proceso)

 

Additional reporting by Veronica Espinosa (Proceso) in Guanajuato, Jules Giraudat (Forbidden Stories) and Amrai Coen (Die Zeit) in Sinaloa. Interviews contributed by Dana Priest (The Washington Post), Nina Lakhani (The Guardian) and Mathieu Tourlière (Proceso).

 

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