Regulating U.S.-Made Assault Weapons: The International Case

Some experts say ending the manufacture and sale of American AR-15s to Latin America would curb drug violence overseas. Why Washington would be smart to agree

Accused members ot the Zetas, arrested in Quintana Roo state, at a police press conference in Mexico City on May 28, 2011. (Jorge Lopez/Reuters)

The AR-15, which both Adam Lanza and James Holmes used in mass killings this year, appears to be a favorite of mass murderers, but it's also popular with Mexican and Brazilian drug traffickers. When Mexican police arrested 10 members of the Zetas drug cartel in Quintana Roo state last year, they picked up three AK-47s and five AR-15s along with them.

When Mexican traffickers are busted or their caches uncovered, high-powered, U.S.-manufactured assault rifles consistently turn up. Kidnap victims in Ciudad Juarez, the border city famous worldwide for its history of femicides, often turn up riddled with the bullet holes characteristic of semiautomatic weapons fire. In 2011, AFP reported that 70 percent of the illegal guns confiscated from Mexican drug cartels in the five years prior had been U.S.-made. The weapons are often purchased legally in the United States, but smuggled illegally across the border. Smugglers don't even have to justify buying large caches of weapons, as long as the dealer doesn't ask.

According to some anti-weapons activists, the AR-15 has also found its way to the favelas of urban Brazil, which often serve as waystations for the country's narcotraffickers. Drug gangs use favelas in major cities as their base of operations for various reasons, but two bear particularly on gun violence: The rule of law is very weak there -- there is little or no state presence in many favelas (although that has begun to change in some Rio favelas, with mixed results). And the density of settlement means that the noncombatants effectively serve as human shields.

This creates the perfect condition for mass civilian casualties every time there is a shootout between rival gangs, or between gang members and the police. In a context like this, more powerful guns are exponentially more lethal. A typical favela in central Rio is full of blind alleys and narrow roads and pathways, and the construction materials used in building homes don't always provide good cover. Add high-powered assault weapons, and it becomes a deathtrap.

In Mexico, U.S.-made assault weapons do a tremendous amount of damage on their own. In Brazil, they're a substantial but not decisive part of a larger problem.

In her book Favela, the sociologist Janice Perlman notes the use of military-grade weapons like AK-47s and AR-15s in Brazil's urban drug wars. (Both models, incidentally, are readily available at U.S. gun shows, though the former is not manufactured here.) How did the weapons make it into the hands of traffickers? According to Perlman, it's partly the fault of Rio de Janeiro city's notoriously corrupt police: "After they confiscate the weapons in one favela, they keep some and sell the rest to a gang in another favela." But a whole network of traffickers, and manufacturers, bears responsibility: "Most of these weapons are manufactured in the United States, Russia, and Europe. Some are swapped at the border of Paraguay for drugs, so that no cash is required, or sold by rebel armies such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)."

With multiple suppliers and middlemen, it's difficult to know where to start fighting the supply of assault weapons. In Rio, at least, once you're relying on the local police, it's too late to fix anything. (To be fair to those police, they are pathetically underpaid, and with their poor reputation the position has come to lack social prestige.)

The founder of the Observatório de Favelas, a social aid and policy organization based in a Rio favela, gives Perlman a suggestion. "If the United States really wanted to be a good neighbor and help the poor in Brazil," she reports him saying, "it would close down its weapons manufacturers or at least prohibit their export into Brazil, Mexico, and the other Latin American countries."

He's not the only activist to have had this thought. Mexicans partly blame the U.S. arms trade for drug-war-related violence in their country. In September, Salon ran an article on Mexican anti-violence activists who came to the U.S. to protest our lack of gun regulation.

At a gun show in Albuquerque, New Mexico, witnessing the ease with which Americans buy weapons was a great shock to the movement.

"It was easier for us to get a gun than a cell phone," said Araceli Rodriguez [the mother of a Mexican police officer murdered by drug dealers]. At a gun fair in NM, she was told she could have "all the weapons I want" as long as she had ID and "the money to buy them." When it came to a cell phone, however, payment plans and red tape took "five days so we could activate it, because they kept asking us for information that we didn't have. ...

"I cried because I saw mothers with their children in strollers, passing through like it was a park, as if they were looking at butterflies. There were these assault weapons, these huge guns that kill our people in Mexico, and 9- and 10-year-old children running around."

While Mexicans have a right to own arms, there is one store in the entire country where guns may be purchased legally: a military-owned shop in Mexico City. That means the overwhelming majority of all guns used in the traffic were smuggled in from abroad -- and it looks like the bulk are assault weapons coming from the U.S.

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Emily Chertoff is a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's National channel.

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