On the “open wound” of border between Nogales, Arizona, U.S.A., and Nogales, Sonora, Mexico (actually one city, divided), a steel-tube fence stretches thirty feet high and miles to the east and west – beyond our seeing. Dozens of people entered a restricted zone beside that wall and enacted a die-in last November, to remember 123 migrants who died in the nearby desert during the previous twelve months, as a result of U.S. “preventive deterrence” border policies. The die-in also honored the lives of people killed or disappeared by U.S.-trained, U.S.-equipped, military and police forces in Latin America.
Six year before, on October 10, 2012, in the same place as that symbolic die-in, a U.S. Border Patrol agent shot his gun through the border wall, downward from an elevated position, and hit 16-year-old José Antonio Elena ten times – in his back, in the back of his neck, and in the back of his head – killing the boy and destroying his body. On November 21, 2018, an Arizona jury declined to call this an excessive use of force, and the agent was acquitted.
For the past three years, each November, this site has been the focus of a pilgrimage and mass resistance to militarism and injustice. For almost thirty years, School of the Americas Watch (SOAW) has led grassroots resistance to U.S. military training of coup leaders and soldiers who commit atrocities in Latin America. Founded by Father Roy Bourgeois, for 25 years SOAW organized an annual mobilization outside Fort Benning, Georgia, site of the U.S. Army School of Americas. During the past three years, SOAW has conducted their annual mobilization as an “encuentro” in Nogales.
Each Nogales border encuentro has provided three days of opportunities for activists and community members to educate each other and create ceremony – across borders; across languages, cultures, and generations; and across migratory statuses and religious beliefs. The encuentro crossed outwardly and inwardly, and it joined the directions. It fed our imaginations and inspired our action.
National borders are used to define nation-states geographically, and states require a capacity for violence. The sociologist Max Weber famously defined the state as “a human community that successfully claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory . . . The state is considered the sole source of the ‘right’ to use violence.” (“Politics as Vocation,” 1946)
The U.S.-Mexico border today expresses state violence graphically. The U.S.-Mexico Mérida Initiative, which is best known for its militarized drug-war policies, also includes programs for a “21st Century Border.” This border is primarily designed for the massive commerce of things: every day, more than 225,000 trucks and cars cross the border from Mexico into the United States. The U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics doesn’t track the number of vehicles that cross into Mexico (a sign of indifference toward illicit southbound traffic), but recent estimates are that 180,000 trucks and cars enter Mexico daily from the United States. This massive two-way movement of goods is one reason that attempting to stop narcotics or firearms trade at the border is generally a losing proposition: it clashes with the priority placed on commerce and profit. This failure of border fortification to stop illicit trade also highlights the fact that border walls and militarization are promoted to instill fear among U.S. citizens: fear of people and things coming into the United States from south of the border.
In many U.S. states, most notably in Texas and Arizona, any adult citizen with enough cash and no felony record can choose among hundreds of gun shops or gun shows, walk in, and purchase a semi-automatic assault rifle – or five, or ten, or twenty assault rifles – and walk out with their purchase. At that point, it is relatively easy to carry the weapons – in a vehicle or even on foot – over the border into Mexico, where criminal organizations continually seek to obtain more assault weapons. Like militaries, criminal organizations need military assets – weapons and trained soldiers – to control their territories. When these organizations control territory, they control its illicit economy, including the movement of drugs and migrants, extortion, theft of oil, and increasingly, legal investments such as mining.
Mexican immigration police, with U.S. urging and support, routinely detain migrants in Mexico and deport them back to El Salvador, Honduras, or Guatemala. Those migrants then seek other northbound routes, which are often controlled by organized crime. These cartels extort large fees from migrants and their relatives, frequently rape women and girls, and have killed, forcibly “disappeared,” or abandoned thousands of migrants. The Mexican state of Tamaulipas, near the Rio Grande Valley, where the Zetas and Gulf cartels operate, is notorious for such violence against migrants. Tamaulipas is also the Mexican state with the largest number of guns recovered at crime scenes, many supplied by gun markets in Houston and small towns in the Rio Grande Valley.
The United States’ problem and obsession with guns thus has deep and devastating consequences well beyond national borders. Guns sold in the United States make life untenable in many Mexican communities, for native-born and migrant families alike.
Public debates about guns in the United States typically only consider the ownership and use of guns by private parties. However, the acquisition of weapons by state agencies is a key area of concern for several reasons – the large number of weapons controlled by police and military forces, the types of those weapons, and the vast exceptionalism afforded to state forces in their use. California, where I live, is known for having strong gun laws, including bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. Yet police are exempt from these bans. Not only have local police forces inherited tens of thousands of military rifles from the Pentagon; they also routinely purchase AR-15s and keep them in patrol cars. Police officers are individually exempt from the ban on personal possession of semi-automatic rifles, which they may keep at home or bring to work with them.
If we believe in the continued existence of the state, if we rely on surveillance cameras tied to armed agencies, such as when we withdraw cash from an ATM, if we choose to call the police, then we are choosing to use firearms, even if they are not in our hands or homes.
Yet, in this society, it is almost impossible to separate ourselves from systems fortified by people with guns. The U.S. retail firearms market is qualitatively and quantitatively different from every other gun market in the world. The United States, with 4.4% of the world’s population, comprises more than 45% of the world’s firearms in civilian possession – an estimated 393 million firearms. This is more than 50 times the number of guns possessed by U.S. police and military forces.
The number of families possessing firearms in the United States has steadily decreased during the last 30 years. The response of the gun industry to this decline is, in part, to promote more legal exports. In Europe, gun exports are increasingly restricted, and European gun manufacturers have responded by establishing gun production in the United States, which is not only more permissive for exporting weapons, but has a major domestic market. Sig Sauer, Glock, Beretta, and FN Herstal are major European gun manufacturers that have set up significant production in the United States, especially in right-to-work states.
While hunting with guns has declined, the number of firearms held by each gun-owning household has steadily increased. In other words, a larger number of guns is more concentrated among fewer people. And those people are disproportionately white men. White men in the U.S. are twice as likely to own a gun as Latino people, African Americans, or women.
This fact has implications for the argument for abolishing police. On one hand, police are responsible for many gun homicides in the United States. But it is important to remember the terrible bloodbaths that occurred before the United States had standing police forces, when U.S. colonists and Antebellum militias used guns to enforce slavery and to carry out genocide against indigenous peoples. If we abolish police without also massive disarmament of private citizens, large numbers of armed white supremacist men would become de facto militias. That is why I believe work to stop state violence should also address the private gun industry and gun culture.
Most people in the United States consider gun violence to be a domestic issue, but because of the way gun markets work, it is, also, very much a foreign policy issue. The international character of gun violence is nowhere more evident than in the relationship between the United States and Mexico. The United States consumes the vast majority of illegal heroin, methamphetamines, and marijuana produced in Mexico, but it is also the chief global champion of the prohibition of those substances. Consequently, disputes in this market are impossible to resolve through legal mechanisms such as courts; instead, armed violence is typically used.
Unlike the United States, Mexico has no equivalent of the Second Amendment, and the legal personal possession of firearms is highly restricted. Mexico is not unique in this regard. In most countries, civilians are severely restricted from owning firearms. In China, for example, firearm purchases are banned for most people, and private gun ownership is almost unheard of.
In all of Mexico, an individual can legally purchase a firearm in only one store, run by the Mexican Army in a suburb of Mexico City. The Mexican military is also the only entity in Mexico that may legally import firearms. Most of these weapons are sold to police forces or used by the military itself.
Since 2007, when Mexico declared a war on drugs and with the United States launched the Merida Initiative, U.S. gun exports to Mexico have grown exponentially. In 2015, the State Department issued a license to New-Hampshire-based Sig Sauer to sell up to $265 million worth of semi-automatic pistols and submachine guns to the Mexican Navy. If the license is completely fulfilled (by 2024), the Mexican Navy’s weapons purchases from Sig Sauer alone would nearly double U.S. gun exports to Mexico.
Many people have given up on controlling guns in the United States. In the 1990s, the Democratic Party leadership abandoned gun-violence prevention, after concluding that the issue was losing them elections. One journalist wrote that the lack of legislation after the 2012 killing of twenty small school children in Newtown, Connecticut showed that the United States accepted massive gun violence. If even then Congress would not pass background check laws that are consistently supported by more than 80% of the electorate, including gun owners, it would never do anything.
Yet this reading fails to recognize important changes that have occurred since the Newtown massacre. In public opinion, in many state legislatures, and in the Democratic Party, there are now substantial majorities that favor background-check laws and an assault-weapons ban. Eight states have enacted laws that allow people to petition to remove guns from individuals who are at extreme risk of committing violence to themselves or others, and more states are considering such laws. In the past two election cycles, many Democratic candidates ran on messages of gun-violence prevention, bragging about their “F” ratings from the NRA. For the most part, these candidates won.
There is much to be done. One critical goal is to suspend all gun-export licenses to Mexico until systems are in place to identify military and police agencies there that have committed serious crimes and prevent them from obtaining weapons. State or federal bans on sales in the U.S. of assault-weapons and high capacity magazines are also important measures for stemming violence in Mexico. An equally important goal is to make visible to policy-makers, journalists, and ordinary people the stories of Mexicans and Central Americans whose family members have been killed or disappeared by state forces or criminal groups using U.S.-sourced arms.
Imagination is crucial for our transformation – but it is not likely to be sufficient. We must also act, even though we act in a world that makes it easier to obtain a gun than to receive medical care. In this environment, our actions might be symbolic, or small, or reformist, or palliative. But we must still act, or leave our imaginations solitary in our minds and words. ~~~
John Lindsay-Poland coordinates “Stop US Arms to Mexico,” a project of Global Exchange (stopusarmstomexico.org). He also serves as Healing Justice Associate of the American Friends Service Committee in Oakland, California.
Max Weber, “Politics as Vocation,” in Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, pp. 77-128, New York : Oxford University Press, 1946.
Aaron Karp, Estimating Global Civilian-Held Firearms Numbers, Small Arms Survey, June 2018, at: www.smallarmssurvey.org/fileadmin/docs/T-Briefing-Papers/SAS-BP-Civilian-Firearms-Numbers.pdf
Stop US Arms to Mexico and Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights, Gross Human Rights Violations: The Legal and Illegal Gun Trade to Mexico, August 2018, at: stopusarmstomexico.org.