.50 caliber rifles seized by the Mexican government from criminal groups on display in Mexico City on August 1, 2017. Photo: BERNARDO MONTOYA/AFP via Getty Images.
MEXICO CITY— Mexico sued leading gun manufacturers in Massachusetts federal court on Wednesday, alleging they are “actively facilitating the unlawful trafficking of their guns to drug cartels and other criminals in Mexico.”
The lawsuit names among others Smith & Wesson, Beretta, Century Arms, Colt, Glock and Ruger. Their guns are the ones most often recovered in Mexico, according to the complaint from the Mexican government. It also lists Barrett, “whose .50 caliber sniper rifle is a weapon of war prized by the drug cartels,” and the Boston-area wholesaler “Interstate Arms,” which sells the guns of all but one of the companies.
The legal action appears to be the first of its kind and comes after years of complaints by the Mexican government that the U.S. has failed to effectively address the trafficking of arms from the U.S. to Mexico.
While Mexico has just one gun store in the country and issues fewer than 50 permits per year, an estimated half a million guns flow into Mexico annually from the U.S., the lawsuit alleges. In 2019, 17,000 Mexican citizens were murdered with guns manufactured in the U.S. — compared with only 14,000 American citizens, the complaint says.
“Defendants are not accidental or unintentional players in this tragedy; they are deliberate and willing participants, repeating profits from the criminal market they knowingly supply — heedless of the shattering consequences to the Government and its citizens.”
None of the companies immediately responded to a written request for comment.
The lawsuit was filed one day after the two-year anniversary of the mass shooting at a Wal-mart store in El Paso, Texas that killed 23 people, including eight Mexicans. At the time of the massacre, Mexican officials said they were considering trying to extradite the shooter to face charges of committing terrorist acts against Mexicans in the U.S. That didn’t come to pass, but Wednesday’s lawsuit is the Mexican government’s strongest official move yet to try and stem the iron river of guns through its borders.
“We want the companies that are being sued to compensate the government of Mexico for the damages caused by its negligent practices,” Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said in a press conference. He said the suit also seeks to force the companies to “develop and implement rational and verifiable standards to monitor and discipline distributors.”
The amount of damages Mexico is seeking would be determined during the course of the lawsuit, Ebrard said. Alejandro Celorio, legal adviser to the foreign ministry, estimated that it could be in the range of $10 billion — an amount aimed at covering direct damages like loss of life as well as indirect damages like psychological harm, hospital expenses and even bullet-proof vests for law enforcement officials sent to fight heavily-armed cartels.
Celorio acknowledged the legal action is unusual and, perhaps, a long shot. A 2005 federal law in the U.S. shields gun manufacturers and sellers from most lawsuits when their guns are used in a crime. But recent court victories against gun manufacturers suggest the tide is shifting, Celorio said.
In 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed a lawsuit to proceed against the manufacturer of the assault weapon used in the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre that killed 20 first-graders and six educators.
In July, a California judge ruled that victims of a 2019 synagogue shooting in San Diego could sue the maker of the semi-automatic rifle that sold it to the teenage shooter. The victims allege Smith & Wesson negligently marketed the rifle to young people on social media and knew that its AR-15 rifle could be easily modified into a machine gun.
“The lawsuit is probably a long shot in itself but they could get a sympathetic judge and jurors, and it could have an impact,” said Ioan Grillo, author of Blood Gun Money: How America Arms Gangs and Cartels. More immediately, he said, “it puts this issue of firearms trafficking from the U.S. to Mexico in the news and helps create that pressure for the US to take action.”
Bonnie Klapper, a former federal prosecutor and expert on drug enforcement and legislation, said Mexico will have a tough time getting around the 2005 federal legislation shielding gun companies.
“Will the lawsuit succeed? It’s a brilliant idea. If nothing else, it will shine a light on how dirty this industry is and how messed up and ineffective U.S. policy is,” she said. “We treat Mexico like a dumping ground for our guns and then condemn Mexico for the drug-related gun violence that spreads into the U.S.”
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