American guns smuggled into Mexico are fueling violence. Will US pass stricter legislation?

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An AK-9 assault rifle. Journalist Leon Krauze says guns, especially assault weapons, are being bought in the U.S. and then smuggled into Mexico, which is fueling violence involving drug cartels. Photo by Macaque123 (CC BY-SA 4.0).

The Biden administration is scrambling to try to deal with the rising numbers of migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border. Many of them are children coming alone without parents. President Biden’s Republican critics call it a crisis that he created by reversing former President Trump’s  immigration policies. 

Leon Krauze, a columnist for the Washington Post and a reporter for Univision, says another crisis has been playing out along the border for years, although it gets very little attention in the United States. That’s the flow of guns, especially assault weapons, that are being bought in the U.S. and then smuggled into Mexico, which has been fueling violence involving drug cartels.

KCRW: How extensive is this gun smuggling?

Leon Krauze: “The number of guns that have been smuggled from the United States to Mexico, we're talking at least of 160,000 guns. But according to the numbers of the Mexican government, we could be talking of up to 2 million weapons. And the effect they've had really can't be exaggerated.” 

Are these weapons being bought legally in the United States on the open market?

“They are. In the recent years, we have people who have bought hundreds of assault weapons without raising an eyebrow in the United States. They are then smuggled into Mexico, where they fall into the hands of criminals. That's basically the reason behind 30,000-plus murders in Mexico every single year. Even during 2020, the year of the pandemic, Mexico broke all records. One of the biggest factors are these guns that are arming the cartels.”

The House of Representatives this month approved a bill on universal background checks. How would this affect gun smuggling?

“Smugglers have used this loophole, what is known as the private sale exemption for background checks, for years. You can buy a gun from another private individual without having your background checked in the United States, and that includes basically all kinds of weapons. 

The Mexican government told me, for a recent piece for The Washington Post, that requiring background checks from gun buyers would be a positive measure. But the real change would come if the ban on assault weapons was reinstated in the United States. That would be a game changer.”

I think a lot of people would say, “Drug cartels are very savvy, they're plugged in all over the world, and they have tons of money. If they're not buying the weapons in the U.S., they'll just get them someplace else.”

“It’s very, very difficult to get them somewhere else, or at least much more difficult. Journalist Ioan Grillo, who is one of the biggest experts on this matter, describes this as … an iron river. And that's exactly what it is. When you look at the violence in Mexico, there are two factors. First, of course, drugs flowing north. But then in an equal measure, guns flowing south.”

Gun control advocates in the U.S. have been trying to get the assault weapons ban reimposed for years. What are the chances of getting it through a divided Senate?

“When Sandy Hook happened, I remember thinking, ‘If this doesn’t change things, nothing will.’ And I still believe that to be the case. I blame the media a little bit. I think that it's our role to tell the stories. I don't know if the American public really understands what these weapons have done to Mexico for a long, long time, and what are the real numbers behind this violence in Mexico.

… This is very controversial but I'll say it. Some of the pictures of those massacres caused by assault weapons, I mean, what would happen if people saw what happened in Las Vegas? What happened in Sandy Hook might be taking it a bit too far, but can you imagine? I mean, I remember Eric Holder, the attorney general for Obama, saying that seeing those pictures simply changed him completely.”

Another background check bill in 2019 was approved by the House, but it didn't come up for a vote in the Senate. Are you concerned that we might be looking at a replay?

“I am actually quite hopeful when it comes to this particular issue of background checks because even Senator [Joe] Manchin ... even the more conservative wing of the Democratic Party has been very clear as to the need for stricter gun control measures in the United States. 

I am certainly not hopeful in the least when it comes to the Republican Party. But we'll see. There are enough votes in the Senate with the Democratic Party to pass this. I hope that it becomes legislation. It could really make a difference [for] both Mexico and the United States.



Chery Glaser


Darrell Satzman