Swimming Up The Iron River: Mexican Government Files Appeal in Legal Battle Against U.S. Gun Industry [Article]

Soldiers stand next to ammunition and plastic bags containing cocaine and weapons seized at the village of Guayabal in Veracruz on March 6, 2012. (Photo by Yahir Ceballos)

On March 15 the Mexican Government filed an appeal to their lawsuit alleging several U.S. firearm manufacturers were responsible parties regarding the trafficking of illegal firearms into Mexico. These firearms are often exchanged along with illicit drugs by criminal and cartel organizations; the flow of firearms from the U.S. to Mexico has become colloquially known as the Iron River. Mexico has strict gun control in the country but over the border, many states in the U.S. have lax regulation of firearms, allowing for straw purchases and untraceable sales with little to no required background checks. For some perspective of scale, in 2019 alone, Mexico claims over 17,000 homicides involving U.S.-made firearms occurred with an average of 200,000 U.S. guns being trafficked into Mexico annually. Though success seems very unlikely, the Mexican government hopes this lawsuit can help apply pressure on private U.S. gun dealers who play a role in Mexican gun violence.


The first lawsuit, which is now being appealed, was filed in August of 2021 and sought $10 billion in damages from U.S. gun manufacturers like Smith & Wesson. That case was dismissed last Fall; the judge said Mexico’s claims do not overcome the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act of 2005 (PLCAA), which explicitly protects the majority of the gun industry from being held liable in court over illegal usage of their firearms. The Mexican government has since filed a second major lawsuit in an attempt to hold not just manufacturers, but gun suppliers, accountable for Mexican gun violence carried out with U.S.-made firearms as well as seek some financial damages. Mexican Foreign Affairs Secretary Marcelo Ebrard hopes for more promising results going after gun dealers as opposed to manufacturers; however, both groups are protected under PLCAA, which indicates the likelihood of another dismissal.


While it is undeniable that U.S. guns have been used by Mexican cartels to conduct illegal and violent activities, the fault does not lie solely with the firearm suppliers themselves. Outside the direct criminal perpetrators, some fault lies in the U.S. federal and state governments for failing to prevent cartel members or their supporters from attaining firearms in the first place. The Center for American Progress has argued in favor of universal background checks for all gun sales and restrictions on bulk purchases, regulations opposed by the pro-gun lobby group the National Rifle Association, to reduce the potential of arming cartel groups. Another group at fault are the Mexican and U.S. security officials regarding the lack of efficient and consistent vehicle searches at the U.S.-Mexico Border, which sees an average of 200,000 cars or half a million people cross legal ports daily. Increasing vehicle searches would reduce the ease of firearm trafficking but would come at the cost of slowing traffic flow along the busiest land border in the Western Hemisphere. Finally, it seems the Mexican government could also be fueling the gun trafficking issue itself. Vice News recently reported on leaked emails from the Mexican government that indicate weapons deals and information exchanges may have occurred between the Mexican military and the cartels. It is interesting to note that that story began unfolding prior to the Mexican government’s second lawsuit.


Given the aforementioned legal obstacles Mexico faces regarding this case, it is difficult to see these moves as directly beneficial toward reducing gun crime in Mexico. While these lawsuits had been supported by 13 U.S. attorneys general and were lauded as unprecedented, they are being dismissed for the simple notion that U.S. federal law shields gun manufacturers and dealers from being held legally responsible for illegal usage of their products. As gun violence remains an ongoing problem in Mexico, the government is not solely relying on legal cases to address the influx of U.S. firearms. The U.S. & Mexican governments regularly engage in a high-level security dialogue, which often addresses firearm trafficking as a major issue that both nations could collaborate more closely to reduce. Mexico may not ultimately win in court, but filing these cases has some value in further highlighting the domestic and foreign dangers posed by lax firearm regulation in the U.S. outside these high-level talks. Mexican Foreign Affairs Secretary Marcelo Ebrard stated that the lawsuits have “received worldwide recognition and has been considered a turning point in the discussion around the gun industry’s responsibility for the violence experience in Mexico and the region.”


We at Change the Ref are not just waiting on these legal battles to unfold but are working in coalition with groups like Newtown Action Alliance, Global Action On Gun Violence, Stop US Arms To Mexico, and the European Network Against the Arms Trade to bolster international solidarity and the voices of those impacted by gun violence. Back in February the coalition organized and met with government officials in Mexico and this week convened again at the Center For American Progress in DC to further the fight against arms trafficking and gun violence. As more families are impacted by gun violence at home and abroad, we will continue to work with our partners to raise the issue of gun violence with any and all responsible institutions, regardless of if they are the users, makers, sellers, or traffickers of guns.