Bad Neighbors

Bad Neighbors

Mexico’s drug violence is getting worse. But blaming U.S. gun laws for these ills isn’t appropriate.


As the carnage from the drug violence in Mexico mounts and is finally causing political leaders and the media in the United States to pay attention, Mexico's own leaders exhibit ever greater delusional tendencies about the problem. The most glaring example was Mexican Attorney General Eduardo Medina-Mora's February 26 comment that the record-setting bloodshed in Ciudad Juarez and other cities was actually a positive sign. The increased violence, "is not reflecting the power of these groups," Medina-Mora stated. "It is reflecting how they are melting down."

He had better hope that they don't "melt down" more, or it may not be safe to venture anywhere in Mexico. Just a few weeks before the attorney's general's optimistic assessment, the Marine commander at Camp Pendleton barred his troops from spending their leave time in Tijuana because the city had become too dangerous. The U.S. State Department has issued new travel alerts warning American businesspeople and tourists about the growing risks of travel in Mexico. Several American colleges and universities have likewise urged their students to avoid going to Mexico for spring break.


Washington Times correspondent Sara Carter reports that a high-level source in the Pentagon concludes that the two leading drug-trafficking organizations, the Sinaloa and Gulf cartels, now field more than one hundred thousand armed foot soldiers. That figure does not take into account the enforcers at the disposal of the smaller cartels. Adding their personnel to the mix would likely bring the total to one hundred forty to one hundred fifty thousand. In short, the forces the drug gangs can deploy are now nearly as numerous as Mexico's one hundred eighty-eight thousand man army.

And the gangs are well-armed, which leads to the second manifestation of delusional thinking on the part of Mexican authorities. President Felipe Calderón and other leaders insist that "lax gun laws" in the United States are largely responsible for the violence the drug cartels are inflicting. Medina-Mora typified that view, saying: "I think American [gun] laws are absurd" because "they make it very easy for citizens to acquire guns."

Gun-control advocates in the United States have encouraged the Mexican government's search for scapegoats. A New York Times editorial encapsulated the logic of strengthening the restrictions on firearms as a way to more effectively wage the war on drugs south of the border. "Mexico has no hope of defeating the traffickers unless this country is also willing to do more to fight the drug war at home-starting with a clear commitment to stop the weapons smugglers."

Even some U.S. political leaders have accepted the Mexican government's explanation for the surging violence. Last summer, the Bush and Calderon administrations announced a new program, the Armas Cruzadas (Crossed Arms), to stem the flow of guns from the United States to Mexico. Senator Charles Grassley defended the initiative, saying: "As drugs come into our country, money and illegal firearms go out. We owe it to our neighbors to help cut down on outbound smuggling."

The notion that the violence in Mexico would subside if the United States had more restrictive laws on firearms is devoid of logic and evidence. Mexican drug gangs would have little trouble obtaining all the guns they desire from black market sources in Mexico and elsewhere. After all, the traffickers make their fortunes operating in a black market involving another product and they have vast financial resources to purchase whatever they need to conduct their business. Even assuming that the Mexican government's estimate that 97 percent of the weapons used by the cartels come from stores and gun shows in the United States-and Mexican officials are not exactly objective sources for such statistics-the traffickers rely on those outlets simply because they are easier and more convenient, not because there are no other options.

One could close every sporting goods store in the southwestern states, and the measure would not disarm the drug gangs. Indeed, many of the most lethal weapons the cartels employ, such as machine guns and grenade launchers, are already illegal. If Washington and the various state governments adopted the firearms "reforms" that Mexico City is demanding, the principal result would be to inconvenience law-abiding American gun owners and merchants.

Attempts to lay the blame for Mexico's chaos at the door of U.S. gun laws are either naive or a cynical exercise in excuse making. Tightening firearms laws in the United States (even if that were politically feasible) is not a solution to the violence in Mexico.

Mexican leaders need to face some troubling realities. The cartels are not melting down. They are growing stronger and pose an increasing threat to the stability of the Mexican state. Growing levels of violence are not indicators of desperation, but of power and arrogance. Seizures of large drug shipments (another "positive" sign Mexican authorities have recently touted) merely show that large quantities of drugs are in the supply pipeline, not that the cartels are on the ropes. And using U.S. gun laws as a scapegoat for Mexico's problems is not a constructive policy.

The Calderón government can, of course, continue to indulge in such fantasies. But if it does, the threat posed by the cartels will become even worse. Despite some hysteria in the United States, Mexico is not yet on the brink of becoming a "failed state." If Mexican leaders persist in attitudes that amount to little more than wishful thinking, however, such a terrible outcome is not out of the question.


Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of eight books on international affairs, and the author of a new policy study, "Troubled Neighbor: Mexico's Drug Violence Poses a Threat to the United States." He is also a contributing editor to The National Interest.