Ioan Grillo: Mexico’s murder problem starts in America’s gun shops

In this photo provided by the Sonora state Health Secretary, children of the extended LeBaron family, who were injured in an ambush are taken aboard a Mexican Airforce helicopter to be flown to the Mexico-U.S. border, from the border between the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Sonora, Monday, Nov.4, 2019. The children were injured when drug cartel gunmen ambushed three SUVs along a dirt road, slaughtering six children and three women, all U.S. citizens living in northern Mexico, in a grisly attack that left one vehicle a burned-out, bullet-riddled hulk. (Sonora state Health Secretary via AP)

Mexico City • The seven-month-old baby Faith Marie Johnson survived hours without food and water in a bullet-ridden SUV in northern Mexico until her family members arrived. She had miraculously escaped the bullets flying around her. Her mother was among the three women and six children killed on Monday when gunmen ambushed their cars after they left a nearby Mormon community. Five other children survived being shot in the back, jaw, leg, wrist and chest.

Those killed were all American citizens. The attack has sparked outrage from Mexico to Utah to the White House and focused American attention once again on violence south of the border.

Mexican prosecutors blamed cartels fighting a turf war over the lucrative routes smuggling drugs to Americans for the massacre. They said the Mormon families may have been targeted in a case of mistaken identity. Members of that Mormon community have also been outspoken against crime, including Julian LeBarón, who helped rescue the baby from the car. I found LeBarón to be one of the most inspiring speakers at a series of protests against violence I followed across Mexico in 2011. But the violence has only gotten worse since then.

President Trump responded to the attack on Monday with a series of tweets, calling the cartels “monsters” and offering to help defeat them.

“The cartels have become so large and powerful that you sometimes need an army to defeat an army!” he wrote. “This is the time for Mexico, with the help of the United States, to wage WAR on the drug cartels and wipe them off the face of the earth.”

The president was correct that Mexico’s drug cartels are immensely powerful and engage in monstrous attacks on civilians, which have caused a humanitarian catastrophe here. But he did not say that the United States had already been helping to bankroll a Mexican military crackdown on traffickers since 2008 under a plan known as the Merida Initiative. And perhaps more important, he failed to mention that cartels sow their terror with American guns.

Between 2007 and 2018, more than 150,000 firearms were definitively traced from Mexican criminals to gun stores and factories in the United States. Many times more are believed to still be in the hands of the cartels. Last year, 70 percent of the weapons that Mexican security forces captured and submitted to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, or A.T.F., were confirmed to be made or sold in the United States.

The weapons include thousands of Kalashnikovs and AR-15s, which the cartels can convert to fully automatic, as an A.T.F. firearms expert explained during the trial of Joaquin Guzman, known as El Chapo, a Mexican drug kingpin now in a maximum security federal prison in Colorado. They also include hundreds of .50-caliber sniper rifles, which fire bullets the size of knives that can cut through armor.

On Oct. 17, cartel thugs used these types of rifles to attack Mexican troops after Guzman’s son was arrested in the city of Culiacán; an army video shows a soldier’s leg blown off. In another massacre last month, gangsters fired .50-caliber bullets in an ambush that killed 13 police officers in the state of Michoacan.

These outsized weapons are sold in shops in several states throughout the United States. ATF agents have caught several people involved in smuggling them to Mexico, including one couple sentenced last month in Tucson, Ariz.

Trump agreed to fight the gun trafficking on a call with President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico on Oct. 19, according to Mexican officials. But if he really wants to do that, he needs to back proposals in Congress that have widespread support among Americans. These include the Bipartisan Background Checks Act, a bill that would close a loophole that allows traffickers to get weapons, which the House approved in February but the Senate has stalled. A poll published in July found that 89 percent of respondents support mandatory background checks for gun purchases.

Other measures Trump should support include a bill to make it harder to steal firearms from shops and another bill that would make it harder to build weapons from kits. None of this legislation would stop law-abiding Americans buying firearms, but these bills would make it tougher for cartels to arm up — and continue murdering people.

Of course, the sources of Mexico’s crime problem are complex. And the government here has work to do, too, including making greater efforts to fight the corruption and impunity that enable cartels. To start, López Obrador needs a coherent security strategy; his call for “hugs not bullets” is clearly not working. But it is so much more difficult for the Mexican security forces to get the edge over gangsters who blow through their vehicles with .50-calibers and have an unlimited supply of rifles.

Trump has a point when he says that cartels are a bloodthirsty menace that can be compared to an army. But to act on that, he needs to reduce the iron pipeline of gunmetal that makes them so formidable. That power is in his hands.

Ioan Grillo

Ioan Grillo, a contributing opinion writer to The New York Times, is the author of “El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency” and, most recently, “Gangster Warlords: Drug Dollars, Killing Fields and the New Politics of Latin America.”