- Mexico is making its strongest effort yet to counter the flow of arms across its northern border.
- But Mexican criminal groups also appear to be sourcing new weaponry from farther south.
- The flow of weapons facilitates cartel turf wars and has driven killings in Mexico to record levels.
CULIACÁN, Mexico – While the Mexican government is trying to win a first-of-its-kind lawsuit against top US gun manufacturers over the flow of arms across Mexico’s northern border, Mexican criminal organizations are starting to use a new route to get a new kind of weapon.
According to sources inside the Sinaloa Cartel and to details gleaned from recent arms seizures, cartels are increasingly sourcing their weapons from Central America. That southward shift is picking up as the Mexican government makes one of the strongest attempts yet to stop arms trafficking from the US into Mexico.
The Mexican government’s suit accuses US gunmakers of fueling the bloodshed between cartels in Mexico by facilitating illegal weapons trafficking into the country. Thirteen US states, the District of Columbia, and two Caribbean countries have backed the $10 billion lawsuit.
From 2015 to 2020 Mexico recovered and submitted more than 100,000 firearms to the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, according to official figures from ATF.
An arms trafficker for the Sinaloa Cartel who operates from Sinaloa’s capital city, Culiacán, said recent attempts by the Mexican government to stop the illegal flow of firearms southbound from the US are “somewhat” affecting his business and the cartels’ ability to arm themselves.
The government’s “actions are slowing down our job, but we haven’t stopped at all. We are finding new ways, including the back door: Central America,” the trafficker, nicknamed “El Güero,” told Insider, asking not to be identified for personal security reasons.
Mexican criminal groups have long been associated with foreign-made weapons like the AK-47 and M16, but, according to El Güero, it is now more common for sicarios, or hitmen, to use the Galil ACE, an Israeli rifle that is manufactured in Colombia. The Galil ACE is an official weapon for Mexican and Colombian law enforcement.
“The Galil is not the best one, but it does the job. I still get more requests to get cuernos, but when there is none available, a Galil from Central America is enough,” El Güero said, referring to “cuerno de chivo,” a nickname for the AK-47 meaning “Goat’s Horn.”
There is another thing El Güero likes about the Galil: It is the only rifle in Mexico that is not officially restricted to use by the army, meaning its not automatically illegal to have one.
A regional arms market
A recent report by the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) details at least 45 points between Mexico and Guatemala used by arms traffickers to smuggle weapons northward, most of them over land or by sea.
The report states that most of these firearms belonged to militaries or police forces before they were sold or smuggled onto the black market.
Traffickers from Central America use established businesses as intermediaries between law enforcement acquiring the weapons and illegal arms traffickers. Nicaragua has recently been a main source for these kind of weapons, the report says.
El Güero said his main source for the Galil rifles is Colombia, since the weapon is made there and guerrilla forces and criminal groups in that country have “easy access” to them.
“It’s easier for me to get them from Colombia than from somewhere else,” such as Central America, “although the price is almost 50% more expensive than the arms I get from the US,” El Güero said.
Police and military forces in the region regularly report such weapons missing or stolen.
In January, Colombian authorities reported 22 Galil rifles stolen from a local police department. In October 2021, another local police station reported five Galils missing. Six months earlier, five “disappeared” from a local military hospital, and a month before that six were stolen from a military base in Valle de Cauca municipality.
In late 2020, El Salvador’s National Police also reported an uptick in the recovery of stolen official firearms, most of which were 5.56 mm rifles, including M16s and Galils, according to an official press release.
Mexico’s police forces are also a common source for firearms acquired by criminal organizations.
In 2020, Mexico acquired more than $41 million worth of military equipment, including automatic weapons, guns larger than .50 caliber, ammunition, and explosives, according to the US State Department’s most recent military assistance report.
“There is always an issue of Mexican security forces committing human-rights abuses and perpetrating massacres and of guns being sold, robbed, [or] taken” and ending up in the hands of cartels, said journalist and author Ioan Grillo.
The most common acquisition method involving security forces is military members selling seized guns back to criminals, added Grillo, author of a recent book about arms trafficking, “Blood, Gun, Money.”
“I personally spoke to a guy who was a soldier with the Mexican army, and he sold guns illegally, but [they] mostly were guns seized by the army or the police,” Grillo said.
While annual homicides in Mexico has declined from a record of 34,690 in 2019, the number is still well over 30,000 a year. A driving factor behind the high level of killings is rising violence related to criminal organizations.
El Güero said Mexican criminal groups are now at war, which calls for “a ton of firearms.”
“Being at war is expensive, but there is money for everyone in this business, so if we don’t get enough [firearms] from the US we have to get them from other countries, and even from Mexico itself,” he said.