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America’s Guns Fuel Mexico’s Domestic Violence Epidemic

Lockdowns and an easy supply of weapons have been a fatal combination for Mexican women.

A Mexican woman holding a sign that reads "Don't kill us"
A woman holding a sign that reads "Don't kill us" takes part in a protest against domestic violence and femicide on International Women's Day in Mexico City on March 8. ROCIO VAZQUEZ/AFP via Getty Images

On Nov. 25, 2019, while thousands of women took to the streets of Mexico City to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, Abril Pérez was shot to death by a hitman. The 48-year-old executive of a Mexican online retail store and mother of three was on her way to the airport to return home to Monterrey after a custody hearing. She’d recently divorced Juan Carlos García, a former Amazon Mexico CEO and the father of her children, whom she had accused of attempted murder 11 months prior for allegedly creeping into her home in the middle of the night and beating her with a baseball bat. The gunman and his driver were arrested in March, but García, the suspected mastermind behind Pérez’s death, has reportedly fled to the United States.

What remains an open question is what role the United States played in the murder itself. As coronavirus-related lockdowns worsen the threat of domestic violence for women around the world, women in Mexico face an additional danger: the flood of American guns into the country. “The U.S. talks about how drugs and migrants cross the border from Mexico,” said Maura Roldán, a researcher on gun violence from Mexico City. “But it hasn’t recognized its role in the rise in violence in Mexico. It doesn’t mention the fact that it’s providing the guns.”

While it’s impossible to know the provenance of the murder weapon in Pérez’s case—Mexican homicide databases do not include this information—what is certain is that a steady stream, or torrent, of American firearms since the early 2000s has contributed to a spike in gun-related deaths in Mexico, in turn transforming and exacerbating gender violence. Seventy percent of guns recovered as part of a criminal investigation in Mexico are traced back to the United States, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

That influx of guns has taken a toll on women’s safety. Ten women were killed each day in 2018, according to Mexico’s national statistics agency. Roldán and a handful of other researchers and activists, almost all women, point to another statistic: In 2018, six in 10 of those women were fatally shot.

“The proliferation of guns, the huge presence of guns, including in homes, is changing the nature of domestic violence,” said Ana Pecova, the director of the human rights organization Equis. “In the past, a fight would descend into punches. Now, a gun gets pulled out, and a woman ends up dead.”

Not only has gender violence become more lethal, but it has also spilled out of homes and into the streets. Since 2009, more women have been killed in public spaces than in domestic settings, according to a 2015 report by Data Civica. While fewer women than men die of gun violence, the rates at which women are dying from firearms are growing faster: Between 2007 and 2018, gun violence rates for women rose 357 percent (compared to 311 percent for men), and 500 percent in public spaces (347 percent for men), according to Estefanía Vela Barba, one of the authors of the Data Civica report who continues to research the link between gun violence and femicide. Gun-fueled gender violence in public spaces is multifaceted. It can be outsourced intimate partner violence, as is suspected in Pérez’s case. Or it can be cartel messaging.

The scale of violence in Mexico, which abets both forms of public gender violence, comes down to the country’s drug war and the militarization of public security, local experts and activists said. Then-President Felipe Calderón’s mission to uproot organized crime in Mexico has, since its start in 2006, spectacularly failed, fracturing and multiplying cartels, and leading to soaring levels of violence, the most prominent evidence of which is the disappearance of some 61,000 people. While the violence can be blind to gender—stray bullets are indiscriminate—it is often targeted. There are clues in the swirl of statistics: rape, mutilations such as cut off breasts, or shots to the genital region all point to violence against women specifically. But many bodies are hidden or destroyed, or mistabulated. While government registries counted 1,012 femicides last year, activists say the number is likely much higher.

The data in Mexico correlates neatly with a short history of increasingly relaxed gun control laws in the United States and the steady growth of both a legal and illegal firearm trade. The 2004 expiration of the assault weapon ban in the United States ramped up the production and sale of military-grade weapons. By the time Mexico declared its drug war two years later, American manufacturers were ready to pump these high-grade weapons into Mexican military arsenals. Organized crime responded by ratcheting up its own caches, buying more weapons through its own channels: third-party straw purchases; buying on the extensive black market, which lately consists of bringing gun parts in piecemeal fashion across the border and assembling them in Mexico; and even obtaining weapons directly from Mexican security forces. Some 20,000 firearms were reported lost or stolen from state and federal police between 2006 and 2017.

Citizens, caught in the middle of a bloody turf war, armed themselves too. Though Mexico boasts some of the world’s strictest gun control laws, 16.8 million firearms were estimated to be in civilian hands in 2017, according to the Small Arms Survey. Only a small fraction of these were registered. Due to the vast illegal trade, it’s impossible to know exactly how many American guns are sold into Mexico. But the numbers are large enough that Mexican authorities are concernedand even more so recently.

A slump in domestic sales since 2017 has further turned U.S. gun manufacturers’ attention toward Mexico. In a bid to support the industry, the Trump administration recently moved firearm export oversight from the State Department to the Commerce Department, in what John Lindsay-Poland, the director of Stop U.S. Arms to Mexico, said is designed to loosen oversight and increase the number of firearm exports. “For the U.S., I contend that the assault weapons ban is a foreign-policy issue,” said Lindsay-Poland. “U.S.-sourced assault weapons are used in many more crimes in Mexico than in the U.S.”

In addition to reinstating the assault weapons ban, Eugenio Weigend Vargas, the associate director for gun violence prevention at the Center for American Progress think tank, said the United States should implement universal background checks and ensure stricter regulation of American gun stores. “The measures we advocate for won’t just reduce violence in the U.S., but will also reduce gun traffic to Mexico and Central America,” Vargas said. “The more guns there are, the more domestic violence.”

Meaghan Beatley is a journalist based in Barcelona. She has written for the Nation, the New Statesman, National Geographic and others.

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