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Top diplomat: ‘The indiscriminate availability of weapons in the US harms Mexico’ 

The Mexican foreign ministry’s top lawyer wants to convince a federal judge in Massachusetts that U.S. gun distributors and manufacturers put Mexicans in danger.

“The indiscriminate availability of weapons in the U.S. harms Mexico,” said Alejandro Celorio, the foreign ministry’s legal adviser, in an interview with The Hill.

In August, the Mexican government filed a lawsuit against U.S. gun manufacturers and a distributor in Massachusetts federal court, seeking damages and alleging the defendants knowingly market and distribute their wares to criminal organizations in Mexico.

The lawsuit — a risky move amid bilateral tensions in other areas — came after years of fruitless Mexican hand-wringing over the issue.

“We needed to find a different way to address the issue of armed violence. But then what triggered [the lawsuit] was the attack in El Paso Walmart,” said Celorio, referring to the 2019 killings by a lone shooter that the FBI is investigating as a hate crime. Twenty-three people — including eight Mexican citizens — were killed by the shooter, who had allegedly written a manifesto with white nationalist themes. 

Mexico and the United States have on multiple occasions in the last two decades attempted bilateral actions to combat crime, but for the most part the issue of firearms has been off the table. 

Still, about half a million U.S. weapons make their way illegally into Mexico every year, and around 70 percent of all gun crimes in Mexico are committed with U.S.-sourced weapons. 

“Because it’s an issue so politicized and is domestic law in the U.S., it was very difficult for us — and it has been for decades — to talk about U.S. gun laws. But when we structured the argument, that the negligent and illicit trade practices of these companies cost us harm, it’s a transboundary tort. We’d have a claim, and that’s why we took it now,” said Celorio. 

The lawsuit is not trying to change U.S. gun laws, instead arguing the plaintiffs have been negligent in the manner in which they market and distribute their products. 

Many of the weapons used by criminal organizations in Mexico are acquired through straw purchases in the United States, where third parties legally purchase guns in the country and then illegally transfer them to their final users in Mexico 

And Mexicans have long complained that certain models of firearms are marketed specifically to attract customers south of the border, even when those models are illegal in Mexico. 

Celorio pointed to the “Jefe de Jefes” — boss of bosses — handgun model that’s become popular among drug cartel heads. 

“A drug cartel member saying they want a Jefe de Jefes, so you send a straw purchaser. A straw purchaser goes and says ‘I want this gun,’ and that’s it. They don’t have to do anything other than be 18 and, depending on the local rules, have a cooldown period,” said Celorio. 

“Just wait, get the gun, cross to Mexico, and that’s it. It’s both [distribution and marketing]. But the concern is just that it’s very easy. And we claim that is because of negligence by the companies. It’s very easy to get these kinds of guns for the drug cartels,” he added. 

The lawsuit has also attracted unprecedented support from state attorneys general and U.S. civil society, who see in it an opportunity to regulate how firearms are bought and sold in the country. 

While the defendants have asked the judge to entirely dismiss the lawsuit, 13 states and the District of Columbia joined Mexico’s action as friends of the court, as did a group of U.S.-based gun control advocacy groups. 

Celorio said he was surprised by the states’ action because it expanded on Mexico’s claim. 

In the lawsuit, Mexico claimed that the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA), a 2005 law designed to shield gun manufacturers from lawsuits, did not apply in this case because it doesn’t have extraterritorial effects. 

Still, the state attorneys general challenged that notion, saying the PLCAA does not shield manufacturers from liability due to the actions alleged in the lawsuit. 

“It’s very interesting to hear from Americans — and only Americans can talk about their American laws — hear from some Americans through their attorneys general questioning the reach of PLCAA immunity statute. So that was striking,” said Celorio, who for several years served as a diplomat in the Mexican Embassy in Washington. 

In the past, other Mexican diplomats had flirted with the idea of addressing the illicit gun trade through the courts, but bilateral relations since the North American Free Trade Agreement negotiations relied on a culture of conflict avoidance.

Although the El Paso Walmart shooting set off the court action, a confluence of political events allowed it to fly under the radar, without unsettling other areas of bilateral agreement.

“On the Mexican side, we needed different Mexican diplomacy and I’ll put it bluntly: diplomats that I know and I respect, they often had in mind what D.C. could say,” said Celorio.

“This administration, this government, [Foreign] Secretary [Marcelo] Ebrard, myself, we have in mind what the Americans can have in mind or what they feel, but in our core, Mexico goes first,” said Celorio. 

The lawsuit was an unorthodox move in a bilateral relationship that’s historically been managed behind closed doors on a government-to-government basis. 

But Celorio said the novel approach ended up not hurting bilateral relations. 

“I understand it’s difficult and it’s complex, but we have to do it. And the proof is after six months of filing the lawsuit, the relationship with the U.S. is just as good as it is. The relationship between Mexicans and Americans is just getting stronger,” said Celorio. 

Still, the lawsuit has been a long shot since its inception, although the amicus filings have strengthened its credibility.

There are no negotiations outside the courtroom between the parties, but Celorio said the ultimate measure of success won’t be a judicial ruling but a substantial change in the way firearms are distributed.

“The worst-case scenario is the lawsuit is dismissed, the lawsuit doesn’t continue, the litigation doesn’t continue. The medium-case scenario is that it takes too long, but eventually we get a favorable resolution. But still in the medium-to-bad scenario: even with the resolution, gun companies don’t follow suit and they don’t make the changes that are necessary,” he said.

“Now the best-case scenario, the best-case scenario is regardless of when we get a judgment, resolution by the judge, the companies change the way they do business,” added Celorio.

Tags Alejandro Celorio Gun control gun violence Mexico

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