Free Trade Firepower: The Growing Hemispheric Gun Trade

Legal U.S. firearm sales to Latin American countries are on the rise, arming violent actors in Mexico, Guatemala, and elsewhere. U.S. gun export policies need more than tweaking.

November 9, 2023

A marine with the Mexican Naval Infantry Forces Zodiac Battalion participates in a training exercise in Pendleton, California in 2015. (Defense Visual Information Distribution Service, Public Domain Media)

Recent events from the deadly mass shooting in Lewiston, Maine to Israel’s bombardment of Gaza should demonstrate clearly that more weapons are not making the world safer for anyone. But you would never know it from the growth of U.S. weapons sales to Latin America. According to U.S. trade data, in the first eight months of 2023, annualized U.S. exports to Latin America of guns, munitions, and parts increased by 74 percent since 2021.

President Joe Biden has repeatedly called on Congress to enact a proposed ban on the domestic sale of assault rifles, which are the weapon of choice for both mass shooters in the United States and for criminal organizations in Mexico and elsewhere who seek to control territory. But the Biden administration has not acted to curb the export of such rifles overseas, leading Senator Elizabeth Warren and other members of Congress to write Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimundo in September regarding the Department’s “lackluster oversight of assault weapons exports and its failure to release data on its approvals of these exports.”

The surge in U.S. firearms sales to Latin America in the last two years is almost entirely accounted for by increases in Mexico and Guatemala. Mexico accounts for 46 percent of all U.S. gun, munitions, and parts exports to Latin America so far this year, data from the U.S. Census Bureau and International Trade Commission show. In the first eight months of 2023, Mexico purchased nearly $60 million in firearms, ammo, parts, and explosives—more than doubling such U.S. exports in each of the last two full years. From January through August, Mexico imported 10,364 military rifles worth over $17 million—three times the annual average of such exports to Mexico over the last four years—and $21 million worth of ammunition.

The military rifles imported by Mexico were primarily shipped in May, June, and July by Sig Sauer Inc., which is German-owned but based in New Hampshire. Jorge Alejandro Medellín, a journalist covering military affairs in Mexico, attributed the spike in Sig Sauer weapons imports to the Mexican Navy’s increased drug war operations and a desire within the U.S. military to make Mexico’s weaponry compatible with its own.

The legal exports add to the illicit flow of U.S. firearms across the border into Mexico, which feeds the violence of criminal organizations responsible for a large part of gun violence in Mexico. An estimated 250,000 guns are purchased each year in the U.S. with the purpose of trafficking to Mexico, leading Mexico’s government to sue U.S. gun manufacturers and dealers. In Central American and Caribbean countries, U.S. guns used by criminal groups come from both illegal trafficking as well as legally exported firearms diverted into the criminal market.

Meanwhile, the annual rate of U.S. exports of pistols to Guatemala has also more than doubled since 2021 to more than 20,000 a year, according to data from the U.S. International Trade Commission. Guatemala’s military and Interior Ministry signed agreements with the U.S. ambassador in 2020 to build up its police forces—the same police that together with private paramilitaries have sought to repress massive pro-democracy protests that began in early October. Guatemala, which places no limits on the number of firearms an individual may legally own, now imports more handguns from the United States than any other country in Latin America—more even than much larger countries such as Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico.

There was also a huge leap this year in ammunition that U.S. companies exported to Ecuador, where gun violence has recently spiked. From 2020 through 2022, Ecuador imported less than 100,000 bullets, yet this year in June and July alone, U.S. exporters shipped more than 18 million bullets to Ecuador. This followed an April decree by President Guillermo Lasso loosening gun laws to allow ordinary civilians to carry weapons.

U.S. firearms exports to Colombia and Brazil decreased this year relative to 2022, but still remained above levels in 2019, before the Commerce Department oversaw U.S. gun exports. In their respective countries, Presidents Gustavo Petro and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva announced new restrictions on gun acquisitions shortly after entering office.

The growing gun imports in the region appear to be driven by three principal forces: the idea that violence will be reduced by more firearms for private individuals or for police; accelerated militarization, particularly in Mexico; and aggressive marketing by the gun industry. Such marketing is backed up by the U.S. Commerce Department, which now oversees U.S. exports of semi-automatic firearms and their parts and bullets since a 2020 regulatory change by the Trump administration.

A “Pause” on Exports

An investigative series published by Bloomberg News this year demonstrated how the Commerce Department has helped broker deals between U.S. gun suppliers and Latin American brokers, especially at the massive annual SHOT gun show in Las Vegas. “Invitees of the US government detailed how Commerce officials booked flights and hotels for Guatemalan firearms shops, scored discounted Cirque du Soleil tickets for Brazilian importers, provided matchmaking services for Peruvian buyers, and helped rush through a visa approval for a politician in Brazil’s “bullet caucus,” a band of National Congress members focused on fighting for gun rights,” Bloomberg reported in October.

Responding to pressure from Congress and the Bloomberg series, the Commerce Department on October 27 announced a 90-day hold on new licenses for exports to non-governmental gun users in some countries. The “pause” aims to “mitigate risk of firearms being diverted to entities or activities that promote regional instability, violate human rights, or fuel criminal activities.”

However, excluded from Commerce’s action are exports to military and police forces that buy U.S. firearms; shipments on licenses already approved; and exports to Israel, Ukraine, and 40 other nations, including Mexico and Argentina, that have signed an arms export control agreement known as the Wassenaar Arrangement. Those countries accounted for about 79 percent of the Commerce-controlled exports in the first eight months of 2023. The measure also does not apply to exports of fully automatic firearms such as military rifles, heavier weapons, and their parts and munitions, which are overseen by the State Department.

Sig Sauer Firearm Sales to Mexico

In March 2015, Sig Sauer obtained an unprecedented license to export up to $265 million of firearms to the Mexican Navy, including a license for Mexico to assemble Sig Sauer rifles from "kits." From then until the end of 2017, Sig Sauer shipped more than $23 million worth of gun parts from the United States to Mexico, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

In April 2020, Sig Sauer exported 50,000 pistols to Mexico for use by the newly formed National Guard, part of Sig Sauer’s global expansion of weapons exports during the pandemic. (On November 8, New Hampshire approved a $33 million loan guarantee to Sig Sauer to expand its military rifle production.) Sig Sauer also exported weapons that the Mexican Ministry of National Defense (SEDENA) sold to a state police unit in Tamaulipas state that was responsible for massacres in Nuevo Laredo in 2019 and of 19 migrants in Camargo in January 2021

In 2020, the German documentary Lethal Exports 2, showed Sig Sauer pistols in Mexico imprinted with “Frame made in Germany.” If weapons and weapon parts produced or developed in Germany were exported via the United States to Colombia, Nicaragua, and Mexico without a license, it would violate German law. In 2019, Sig Sauer executives were convicted in a German court for the illegal export of thousands of pistols that were delivered from Germany to the U.S. subsidiary and from there illegally to Colombia. The court levied a fine on the company for the entire value of the illegal exports—around 11 million euros.

Mexican Navy: Close U.S. Ally

The Mexican Navy is the U.S. military’s closest ally in the armed conflict in Mexico. Yet the Navy—Secretaría de la Marina or SEMAR—is arguably Mexico’s most brutal “security” force. A 2019 study found SEMAR to be significantly more likely than other Mexican security force branches (military and police) to be charged by detainees with having carried out torture while they were in custody during a 10-year period. More than 65 percent of detainees said that they suffered torture while in Navy custody, including asphyxia, electric shocks, burns, and rape.

In 2018, SEMAR was accused of carrying out several dozen forced disappearances in the northern Mexico border city of Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas. After Navy special forces soldiers were removed from Tamaulipas for an investigation of alleged Navy violations, reports of forced disappearances in Nuevo Laredo ceased, according to human rights defenders in the city who spoke to me. After Mexico's National Human Rights Commission found SEMAR responsible for 27 forced disappearances, SEMAR publicly apologized to the victims. However, the SEMAR officers responsible were charged with crimes in only four of the cases of forced disappearance. Evidence also indicates that SEMAR obtained Sig Sauer firearms for the same Marine forces branch implicated in the disappearances.

In 2021, Sig Sauer submitted an export license application for about $5.4 million of fully automatic rifles, overseen by the State Department, for the Mexican Navy. At that time, the House Foreign Affairs Committee put a hold on the license and posed a number of questions to the State Department about the Navy’s history of human rights violations and impunity. The license was delayed. But this year’s influx of military rifles from Sig Sauer appears to have augmented SEMAR’s arsenal.

U.S. export policies need more than tweaking. Any human rights inquiry into the U.S. weapons export business must ask the same question that millions are asking about U.S. support for Israel: how will you prevent U.S. support for human rights atrocities unless you stop the uncontrolled flow of weaponry to those who are committing violence?

John Lindsay-Poland coordinates Stop US Arms to Mexico, a project of Global Exchange.

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