Thursday, April 02, 2009

Mexican Gun Control is the True Source of Violence

Much has been made lately of the supposedly sky-rocketing violence in Mexico associated with the drug trade. Mexican officials have been laying much of the blame for their domestic problems at the feet of the U.S. and the rights of Americans to purchase and own firearms. In today's online Christian Science Monitor (CSM) it was stated that "90% of guns recovered in Mexico are traced back to the U.S." American gun owners are rightly concerned that attempts to help Mexico fight criminal drug cartels may be used as a pretext for abridging our 2nd Amendment rights.

Mexico has a real problem with drug gangs and drug-related violence. It has bigger problems with social inequality. These same problems exist in the U.S. in places where poverty, gun prohibition and gun violence overlap. There is no reason to extend the size of these pockets of violence and failed public policy by increasing gun prohibition in any way either in the U.S. or abroad.

Behind the self-righteous indignation of Mexican officials and the earnest hand-wringing by anti-gun politicos in the U.S., reality is taking a beating. It's time to look at a few facts about what really causes violence and why so many guns in Mexico are traced back to the U.S.

Today's CSM article is a good place to start. Along with repetition of the talking points officials on both sides of the border keep regurgitating, the CSM had this to say:

It is no small task to access a gun in Mexico, at least legally. There are no commercial guns stores – those who want guns for self-protection or hunting must petition to the Mexican defense department. Intense background checks including psychological exams are carried out. Most of the guns in delinquents' hands in Mexico cross its borders illegally and circulate on the black market.
If you have ever traveled through Mexico--and no, spring break in Cancun doesn't count--you will have noticed a few things:

First, as noted above, Mexico has almost a complete ban on legal ownership of firearms because it doesn't trust its citizens. This is certainly the case since the 1968 student uprisings, though it has done little to prevent subsequent uprisings, such as the indigenous movement in Chiapas in the mid 1990s. At the same time, Mexicans--especially the poor--know that their police will not protect them and do little to address actual crime. Crime is rampant, especially in places like Mexico City and in rural areas in the south. Disarmed population + poverty + inept/corrupt police = crime wave. This is a true source of the strength of criminal gangs in Mexico, just as it is the true source of entrenched criminal cultures in many parts of the U.S. But law-abiding Mexicans can also take steps to protect themselves from these criminal cultures--and these steps include purchase and ownership of firearms, even if these are technically illegal. You might not see them on the streets, but you do see firearms in private hands in Mexico. Don't assume the "90%" of weapons mentioned above is exclusively weapons seized from drug gangs--lots of Mexicans own guns in spite of laws against it. Given the crime there, wouldn't you?

Second, the border crossings into Mexico are virtually unguarded. This includes going into Mexico on foot from the north, by boat from the south or any other way you care to enter the country, including driving in from the U.S. I used to drive down to Juarez on a regular basis and I can attest I was never seached going in either on foot or in my car. I once traveled by canoe from Tenosique, Mexico into Guatemala and the border patrols in the jungle along the river were non-existent--and this was during a period of open rebellion in Chiapas. If Mexico wants to stop illegal imports, they could start by patrolling their own border, but this isn't possible as long as it is a political and economic necessity for them to keep the borders as open as possible to allow the transit of economic migrants, e.g. undocumented workers.

Third, Mexico for the most part has two economic classes--ultra-rich and utterly poor. Mexican gun control is about keeping the poor and their sympathizers from taking economic reform into their own hands (Remember "Tierra y Liberdad"?) Mexican millionaires & billionaires are protected by a large state apparatus, including the military and police, that includes protectionist laws for monopolies on such things a telecommunications and natural resource extraction. Poverty and educational inequality facilitates the creation of a permanent criminal underclass. This is especially so when the poor are made doubly powerless via disarmament.

Fourth, the police forces (and many individual police officers) work largely to maintain the existing social order. In places like Oaxaca or farther south in Chiapas, the police more or less openly murder peasants trying to maintain access to land and even murder or otherwise repress more "middle class" labor leaders such as teachers working to achieve a more equitable society. For many people, the police simply are not an option or ally in fighting crime or in trying to protect yourself; disarming victims only makes it worse.)

Fifth, guns do not cause violence. I know this seems counter-intuitive to many people, but it's true. Mexico is a violent country, and from what we hear it is getting more violent. But in the last year for which murder statistics are available, the murder rate in Mexico was only half of what it is in Puerto Rico and less than a third of what it is in Belize. (Why is there no outcry to stop the violence on Puerto Rico, which the U.S. has much more direct responsibility for than Juarez?) By contrast, the murder rate in the U.S., where we are supposedly awash in guns, was only half that of Mexico.

My experience in traveling abroad is relevant on this point--I used to work in Yemen. Yemen is generally thought of as a dangerous place due to politically motivated kidnappings and occasional violence between the central government and local political or tribal groups asserting their traditional authority. EVERYONE in Yemen owns and carries a firearm, often fully automatic, as well as large daggers. Finding people with stashes of hand grenades isn't unusual. And yet, the murder rate in Yemen is lower than that in the U.S. and barely a third of that in Mexico, where gun prohibition has been the law for decades. How could this be so? The answer is that Yemen has a more stable social structure than Mexico, and, I would add, does not have gun control. Together these factors allow people to protect themselves--you just don't murder somebody in Yemen because their family--not the government--will get you for it. My point is not the relative cultural strength of the U.S., Mexico and Yemen, all three of which have their own strengths and weaknesses, but rather that the simplistic equation of guns = violence is exactly that.

If the U.S. wants to truly help stabilize Mexico--as well as our own economic and social structure--we should be a good neighbor and pressure them to enact a broader set of legal and economic reforms. What we should not do is to further enhance the ability of Mexican elites to monopolize the use of violence in maintaining an unjust social order through gun control.

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