Drugs, Guns, and the Outsourcing of Violence to Latin America

A Los Angeles Times editorial by Iain Overton, an expert on U.S. gun culture, published this morning (read here) discusses the often overlooked international effects of domestic gun policy. As many Mexicans and Central Americans know, United States domestic policy often has a huge effect on these neighboring countries, perhaps nowhere more clearly than in drug policy and immigration policy. Overton writes:

More insidious, though, is how the licit American gun industry affects the illicit Latin American gun market. The ease with which guns can be purchased in the U.S., and the fact that many sales may be conducted without background checks, has deep consequences. The majority of guns found in Mexico and Central America are from the United States. It is estimated that more than 250,000 guns flow south of the border into Mexico — a country with just one official gun retailer — every year. Roughly 45% of U.S. firearms licensees are believed to rely on Mexican trade for their survival. To the north, Canada estimates that 50% of the guns used in crime in Ottawa were smuggled across the border.

In 2014, El Salvador had almost 4,000 killings, a rate of about 62 homicides per 100,000 (in the U.S. it is about 4 per 100,000). Most of these slayings were committed with guns — and about 50% of guns traced in El Salvador that year came from the United States. The lifting of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban in the U.S. in 2004 resulted in more than 2,600 estimated additional homicides in Mexico.

These statistics make it clear that domestic gun policy which makes it easy for Americans to purchase firearms is dangerous not only within the United States, but also enables violence outside the country. In the U.S., conservatives who support gun rights are also the first to disparage immigrants, and Mexicans and Central Americans in general, as violent criminals. Yet they oddly overlook the fact that those very same guns that are sold easily in the U.S. actually cross the border and serve to increase violence in Mexico and Central America. While presidential hopeful Donald Trump’s platform incredibly accuses the Mexican government of “taking advantage of the United States by using illegal immigration to export the crime and poverty in their own country,” it seems that exportation of American guns actually increases violence in Mexico, and not the other way around.

Not only do U.S. guns enable violence in Central America, but it has been extensively shown that both U.S. drug policy–the “War on Drugs”–and American Free Trade policies such as NAFTA have contributed enormously to drug cartels and drug-related violence in Mexico and Central America. As Carmen Boullousa and Mike Wallace describe in A Narco History: How the United States and Mexico Jointly Created the “Mexican Drug War,” U.S. drug prohibition policies and border policies have combined to heighten drug violence in Mexico. At the same time that the United States ships guns south to Mexico, under the oversight of lax firearms laws that permit just about anyone to buy a gun in this country, conservative politicians capitalized on this very same U.S.-promoted drug violence in Mexico to both criminalize Mexicans and immigrants as “criminals and drug-dealers,” and also to justify looser gun restrictions, to protect Americans from such “criminals.”

What is happening here? The real winners are gun manufacturers, who are making money by selling firearms. It is in their best interest to promote drug violence and rhetorics of fear so that their sales keep going up, and in their worst interest to decriminalize drugs or to create a less violent border policy that does not criminalize and rely on violence to supposedly discourage migrants from crossing. Migrants who in many cases are crossing to escape drug-related violence in their home countries in the first place.

American drug policy outsources violence to Mexico and Central America while criminalizing the very migrants who suffer most from such policies. Gun rights advocates overlook the ways that firearms increase violence not only in the U.S., but also in neighboring countries. It is time that Americans understand how our domestic policies affect our southern neighbors, and create policy that genuinely benefits people north and south of the border. One step could be curbing gun access to the benefit of all of us. Another step could be to stop criminalizing migrants, when the violence they are fleeing in their native countries is so inextricably tied to U.S. policy. Iain Overton’s article reminds us that so-called “domestic” policies often have international effects. Issues like drug violence are not problems intrinsic to Latin America that North Americans should simply avoid and disdain, but rather internationally overdetermined crises that the United States has largely helped provoke, and should also try to resolve, starting with changing our own internal policies such that they do not outsource our violence and policy disagreements to be played out with machine guns in the territory of our southern neighbors.


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