by Eugenio Weigend
Recent debates have discussed the possibility of legalizing marijuana in Mexico City as an answer to the increasing number of violent crimes (such as the kidnapping of eleven young men from a bar in one of the most-frequented tourist zones of the city). In fact, a bill will be presented to Congress proposing policies to address the regularization of marijuana. However, fingering drugs as the main cause of the recent wave of violence in the country leaves out other significant causes that must be considered in order to understand the current situation. It is true that drugs represent a public health issue; therefore, it is reasonable to debate their regulation. Nevertheless drugs are not the root of insecurity.
Mexico has undergone more than seventy thousand executions, an increase in kidnappings, violent robberies and even the assassinations of more than thirty city mayors since 2004. Although these facts have affected the public perception of security, it is also true that drugs have been present in our country for at least a century without generating such high rates of violence. Several areas of crime, such as violent robbery and kidnapping, have little to do with the illegal narcotics industry. These facts stress the urgent need to turn up other factors to help explain the recent increase in high-impact crime.
Some organizations such as the Washington Office of Latin America (WOLA) have emphasized that firearms, not drugs, are the factor that has most contributed to this outsized increase in violence. Moreover, the expiration of the Assault Weapons Ban in the United States in 2004 has had a direct impact on rising crime. The transfer of assault weapons from the US to Mexico merits particular study, since it is precisely in 2004 that the pattern of high-impact crimes began to change in the Northern states of Mexico, with the first assassination of a city mayor in more than ten years taking place in that year.
In reality, criminal organizations’ have had easy access to high caliber firearms since restrictions on manufacture and sale of these types of arms have been relaxed. According to the United States’ Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), 77% of the firearms that have been used in Mexico come from north of the border. In fact, the correlation between the manufacture of guns reported by the ATF and the number of violent crimes in the North of Mexico is conspicuously tight.
During his most recent visit to Mexico, President Barack Obama recognized that the illegal flow of firearms from the United States into Mexico has contributed significantly to the violence that Mexico is experiencing. Recognizing US responsibility has been an important step in establishing strong bilateral relations. However, the president’s discourse must be backed-up by action, strategy, and policy designed to address this particular issue. In spite of the reemerging debate over the regulation of firearms since the 2012 tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, the conditions in the US have not tended towards a reduction in the flow of illegal firearms. The possibility of reinstating the Assault Weapons Ban was abandoned at the beginning of 2013 by the same democrats who promoted firearms regulation. Also, other regulations such as the Machin and Toomey amendment (US senators), that proposed a background check to firearms buyer, could not obtain a majority of votes during last April.
In addition, the manufacture of firearms has increased significantly in the border states of Arizona and Texas in the past six years. Thus, the conditions necessary to reduce the illegal flow of firearms face a complex and multifaceted challenge, which has not contributed to creating the scenario needed for cooperation between the two countries to address this issue.
In spite of the absence of the real cooperation needed to follow up on the discourse of shared responsibility, Mexico can implement actions at the international level to strengthen and deepen the cooperation with the United States with a long term perspective. However, during this process, Mexico must take unilateral action at home. To start, it must change its strategy from a drug fight to a firearm fight. An important step would be to include this topic on its own National Agenda, since the National Plan 2013-2018 does not include any strategies to deal with this issue. This shift in the agenda would imply an according redefinition of budgets. Once this topic is addressed at the macro-level, the country must create stronger programs to protect the border with the United States using intelligence to identify illegal networks that feed organized crime with firearms.
In short, Mexico must look out for the security and the wellbeing of its population and this must become a priority for the present administration, rather than fighting drugs. The current situation in the country has even been named a Drug War in the United States, when in reality the main element generating violence and the common denominator in all high-impact crimes is firearms. The best answer for Mexico is to unilaterally re-direct its aim toward the detention of the flow of firearms across the border and stop the fight to reduce drug markets.
(This piece was originally written in Spanish at Excelsior.)