Tepito is the Casbah of Mexico City, shadowy and serpentine, its back alleys vanishing into sinister dead-ends. Here underground tunnels lead to thieves’ dens, and clandestine warehouses are stuffed with stolen goods. You do not want to be caught out after dark in this “barrio bravo” when it crackles with gunfire. So far in 2003, 32 bullet-riddled corpses have turned up on these mean streets in a battle for control over the flourishing drug trade. Tepito is Mexico City’s hottest drug “plaza,” the city’s pirate goods capital and, as even a casual observer might conclude from the number of gun deaths here, a world-class weapons bazaar.
Indeed, Tepito is as much an international weapons market as Peshawar, Pakistan—German, Israeli, Russian and Brazilian manufactured arms are hawked here—not to mention the 80% of the inventory that is smuggled south from the United States.
“What do you need?” our guide Flaco wants to know. His catalogue lists Glocks, a Barretta 9 mm and .357 Magnums in the 3,000 peso range (US$300), but Flaco has a line of discount handguns too—“armas calientes” (hot guns) that have been recently used in the commission of a crime. Very realistic toy guns are also available from your better street vendors. These are helpful in facilitating street hold-ups, of which 109 are reported each day in Mexico City.
Given enough time, Flaco claims he can deliver anything from a “Saturday Night Special” to a bazooka. AK-47s, known in Mexico as Cuernos de Chivo” (“Goat Horns”) and M-16s run between 4,000 and 15,000 pesos depending on accessories. The gun dealer points out a compact little Uzi with a 1,200 peso price tag “a very popular item.” Flaco boasts he can furnish grenade launchers with appropriate ammunition. For US$20,000, he figures he can equip a guerrilla unit of 20. All goods are guaranteed and deliverable to your doorstep within five days.
Tepito is hardly Mexico’s only gun market. The entire northern border has to be considered a grand tianguis (swap meet) for gun enthusiasts. The rule of thumb is that the drugs go north and the weapons south. An enterprising dealer can legally buy one automatic weapon each day in El Paso, Texas, smuggle it across the river and pass it on for three times the U.S. price. The weapon then joins the arms stream south.
With concern for public safety running at the top of the list as politicians look toward future elections, the political parties are talking up gun control. But the measure contemplated by the once-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and President Vicente Fox’s right-wing National Action Party (PAN) is a peculiar form of gun control. In fact, it would allow citizens to own up to five guns per domicile for “the legitimate defense of his or her person and property.” Multiple domicile owners—Benjamin Arrellano, the imprisoned capo of the Tijuana cartel, listed 70 homes—could legally amass arsenals under the proposed “gun control” legislation.
The new law would for the first time license commercial gun shops, encourage commercial sales and establish norms for weapons manufacturing—although most weapons will continue to be imported from U.S. manufacturers. The above-ground weapons and ammunition trade between the United States and Mexico is legitimized by its inclusion in NAFTA.
The PRI-PAN “gun control” bill faltered at the final hour in the outgoing congress but is expected to be reintroduced as the new legislature convenes this fall. The legislation was sponsored by two PRI retired generals, Alvaro Vallarta and Ramón Mota Sánchez, a gun-loving duo who political wags compare to Charlton Heston, the venerable former president of the U.S. National Rifle Association.
Actually, Mexico’s Constitution proclaims the right of its citizens to bear arms, but only of a caliber inferior to those weapons declared to be “exclusively for the use of the military.” Since the Mexican revolution and the drafting of the 1917 Constitution, the military has regulated arms use in Mexico.
At present, a gun owner must be registered with the military and prove him or herself of “good moral character” to obtain a gun permit. Under existing gun laws, farmers are permitted to own one shotgun or a .22 caliber rifle for hunting, but sporting clubs can negotiate special licenses with the military for the use of high caliber weapons.
Despite the push to pistolize the populace, many Mexicans think the new gun control law is really a bad idea. With one family in three wracked by domestic violence, daily Reforma columnist Miguel Angel Granados Chapa predicts the five-gun limit will be a surefire formula for spousal homicide.
From 1990 to 2001, 108,000 Mexicans died as the result of firearms misuse. According to numbers developed by a congressional investigating panel, 87,000 of these killings were deliberate, another 11,000 “accidental” and 8,000 self-inflicted. The numbers are going to skyrocket with the five-gun legal limit, warns Granados Chapa.
Unlike the gun-toting U.S.A. where gun tragedies are pandemic, Mexico, most probably because weapons are highly regulated, is not accustomed to one-man mass-murder sprees. Just across the border a deranged U.S. vet once opened fire with an automatic weapon on Mexican families snacking at the San Ysidro, California McDonald’s a few yards north of Tijuana. Twenty-one were killed, mostly kids. Mass murder in Mexico is generally perpetrated by those who control the weapons: the military, paramilitaries and police. But U.S.-style killings will soon be coming to Mexico compliments of NAFTA if U.S. gun manufacturers push the five-gun-limit “gun control” law through Mexico’s congress.
Such NAFTA-induced mass murder is “lunacy,” grumbles Mexico City Secretary of Government Alejandro Encinas. With 2.13 homicides daily on its hands the left-leaning Mexico City government is strongly opposed to the generals’ new gun law. “I have 541 criminals in jail today on firearms violations,” Encinas rues. “I would have to turn them loose under the new gun law.” The United States is seeking to export its gun culture to Mexico, charges the capital’s Human Rights Ombudsman Emilio Alvarez Icaza, but “I don’t really think we want to buy it.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
John Ross is an independent reporter based in Mexico City. He will write about the tenth anniversary of the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas in the next issue of the NACLA Report.