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How American Guns Lead to Death in Latin America


When racists talk about “protecting our borders” and stopping immigrants from coming to the U.S., it’s the biggest act of intentional self-denial and ignorance in history. Nearly every reason for migration from Mexico and Central America is directly related to the United States, even if the U.S. is not wholly responsible. When we dump our cheap corn on Latin American markets, we force people off their farms and into the cities or the only place where they can make decent money: the U.S. When climate change forces farmers in ecologically sensitive areas of Central America off their farms because coffee is no longer a product that can be consistently grown, it’s not their carbon burning that is causing it, it’s ours. When the U.S. supports right-wing dictatorships in El Salvador and Guatemala and Honduras and overthrows governments and destabilizes politics, it creates conditions of violence that force people north. When Americans snort as much coke as they possibly can, it creates the reasons for continued violence that force people north. And when Americans refuse to have even the most basic gun laws, it sends a flood of high-powered weapons south that provide the tools of that violence.

North of the border, the .50-caliber sniper rifle is the stuff of YouTube celebrity, shown blasting through engine blocks and concrete walls. Deployed with U.S. troops to foreign wars, it is among the most destructive weapons legally available in the United States.

But every week, those rifles are trafficked across the border to Mexico, where increasingly militarized drug cartels now command arsenals that rival the weaponry of the country’s security forces. In many cases, criminals outgun police.

After years of failed U.S. and Mexican efforts to curb arms trafficking, groups such as the Jalisco New Generation and Sinaloa cartels are showcasing the military-grade weapons in slick propaganda videos and using them to defeat security forces in battle.

In a country with just a single legal gun shop, on a military base in the capital, roughly 2.5 million illicit American guns have poured across the border in the past decade, according to a new Mexican government study. That flood has been a key accelerant in the security crisis now confronting the country. The cartels are using assault rifles to kill record numbers of police officers — 464 in the first nine months of 2020 alone — and smaller armed groups are fueling historically high homicide rates.

Mexican officials, in rare public criticism, are now venting their frustration at what they say is the U.S. failure to stop the flow of .50-caliber rifles. At a time when the United States is pushing Mexico to target cartels more aggressively, U.S. laws that make .50-calibers and other destructive weapons easy to buy, along with a lack of enforcement at the border, are enabling those groups to expand their influence and activities in the country.

It is not just my preferred policy to allow basically unlimited immigration from Latin America. It’s a moral duty just to begin to make up for the horrible damage that the United States continues to commit south of the border.

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