EL PASO --What was supposed to be a routine search by Mexican National Guard troops is under investigation after an 18-year-old U.S. citizen was shot and killed in Ciudad Juárez.
Juan Carlos Medina died near the Paso del Norte Bridge after crossing from El Paso in the early hours of Nov. 20. Medina’s relatives say he was killed while trying to flee and want authorities to check surveillance cameras in the area. Mexican National Guard soldiers say they found two handguns in the teen’s backpack, according to Chihuahua state investigators.
One gun is described as “brown camouflage with stars,” with “Made in USA Glock in Smyrna Ga.”stamped on it. The other handgun was black and was labeled “made in Austria Glock in Smyrna Ga.,” according to the Chihuahua State Attorney General’s office.
While it is not clear why Medina may have been carrying the two handguns, bringing guns into Mexico is illegal.
Small scale smuggling of weapons across the border happens on a regular basis, according to Mexican officials who refer to it as “trafico hormiga,” where weapons are trafficked into Mexico as if by an army of ants.
In an effort to reduce gun smuggling, the Mexican government is suing a group of gun manufacturers -- including Glock, Barrett Firearms Manufacturing, and Colt’s Manufacturing -- in the United States. A hearing in the case was held last week in Boston.
“We are sure that we have a very strong case that will set a very big precedent,” said Mauricio Ibarra Ponce de León, Mexican consul general in El Paso.
CiudadJuárez has experienced gun violence for decades, leaving thousands dead.
Lawyers for the gun manufacturers asked a federal judge to dismiss the lawsuit. They claim Mexico fails to show “the manufacturers' business practices are the cause of injuries inflicted by Mexican drug cartels” and that Mexico’s “alleged harms are derived from other victims.”
Mexico argues in the lawsuit the gunmakers are “not accidental or unintentional players but rather deliberate and willing participants reaping profits from the criminal market they knowingly supply” and that results in “shattering consequences” to the government and Mexican citizens.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation, the firearms industry trade association’s leader, blamed Mexico for those consequences.
“The Mexican government should focus on bringing the Mexican drug cartels to justice in Mexican courtrooms, not filing a baseless lawsuit in an American court to deflect attention from its disgraceful and corrupt failure to protect its citizens” Lawrence G. Keane, NSSF senior vice president, said in an emailed response to a request for comment on the lawsuit.
The Mexican government accuses U.S. gun makers of “persistently providing a torrent of guns to drug cartels” and estimates half a million firearms are smuggled south of the border every year. The cache of smuggled weapons includes the Barrett .50 caliber rifle, which has been used against the Mexican military.
“In just a few years it damaged 15 military aircrafts, costing the Mexican government over $40 million,” Ibarra Ponce de Leon said.
Mexico has some of the strictest gun-control laws in the world and only one authorized official firearms store in Mexico City, which is run by the military. But the country has a thriving black market and Mexican officials estimate at least 70 percent of guns at crime scenes are traced to the United States.
During outbound searches of people and vehicles headed to Mexico, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers seized 375 guns between October 2020 and July of this year, according to the most recent figures available from CBP. That tops the last year’s total figure of 355 for the entire fiscal year.
This year, Laredo leads in guns confiscated at the border with 279 weapons. In El Paso 26 guns were discovered by CBP. The sporadic searches by CBP officers and Mexican customs agents only catch a fraction of the contraband guns at the border, U.S. and Mexican officials acknowledge.
In the lawsuit Mexico’s government accuses gunmakers of marketing “military-style” weapons and super pistols commonly smuggled into Mexico. “They market them so that they’re appealing to the criminal organizations. They market them with names such as El Jefe or Emiliano Zapata,” Ibarra Ponce de Leon said.
Zapata, one of Mexico’s revolutionary leaders, is among those featured on guns that investigators say are prized by cartel bosses. Some of the elaborately engraved weapons have been seized in Mexico during law enforcement raids and arrests.
As it wages a court battle Mexico is coping with gunfights on its streets and violent clashes with well-armed cartels.
Victor Avila, a former agent with U.S. Homeland Security Investigations, experienced cartel firepower first hand. He and fellow agent Jaime Zapata were ambushed by gunmen for the Zetas cartel in central Mexico in 2011. Zapata died during the attack.
Avila details his experience as a U.S. federal agent working cases in Mexico in his new book “Agent Under Fire.”
“As you know it’s illegal to bear arms in Mexico, yet the cartel freely does it,” Avila said. “I no longer refer to them as drug cartels because they’re not just that, they have become in my eyes, and I write about it in my book, foreign terrorist organizations. They’ve terrorized the country of Mexico.”
According to Avila, the AK-47s fired at him and his partner were sold in Texas. But he does not see Mexico’s lawsuit against U.S. gunmakers as the answer to reducing bloodshed.
“I’m not sure what they’re trying to accomplish…I think their focus should be shifted on the cartels themselves,” he said.
Mexico’s government says fighting cross-border criminal organizations is a shared responsibility with the United States -- whether it involves drug or arms trafficking.
“This is a vicious circle of violence, a vicious cycle of violence because the guns that go south of the border are directly connected to the drugs that are brought into the United States,” said Lleva Jusionyte, a professor at Brown University whose research includes gun laws and violence in Mexico.
Jusionyte says guns from the United States in Mexico also spur migration as people fleeing violence seek asylum in the United States.
“We can’t really understand the U.S. as separate from Mexico when we think about the regional economy of violence,” she said.
Sometimes that violence involves guns pointed toward the United States from Mexico. This year Border Patrol agents in California and Texas have come under fire from the Mexican side of the border.
In one incident last summer, an agent in El Paso took cover after a gunman in Mexico fired 20 rounds from a rifle. Both the FBI and the Chihuahua State Attorney General’s Office are investigating this incident and another occasion in which shots were fired from Mexico at a Border Patrol agent in El Paso.
Mexico’s government expects to be back in court in January. In the meantime, an effort to take some guns off the streets of Ciudad Juárez is underway now.
A guns-for-cash exchange started Nov. 23 and runs through Dec. 21. Residents are encouraged to turn in weapons “no questions asked” at designated locations in Ciudad Juárez where soldiers destroy the guns on the spot.
The private-public initiative includes the municipal government, the Fideicomiso para la Competitividad y Seguridad, and CANACO, the chamber of commerce in Ciudad Juárez.
CANACO President Rogelio Ramos said “the goal is to prevent the loss of lives in the city.”