The Biden administration is pressing forward with the sale of millions of dollars in weapons to specialized elements of the Mexican military despite growing concern from lawmakers over the recipients’ abhorrent human rights records.
If completed, Sig Sauer, a New Hampshire-based company, would sell more than $5 million worth of assault rifles and suppressors to Mexico’s navy and marines. Long considered by U.S. officials to be Washington’s most trustworthy ally in the war on drugs, the Mexican navy, particularly its elite marine special operations teams, has been linked to a string of kidnappings and extrajudicial killings in recent years.
Announced in July, the State Department’s approval of the sale came just months after 30 Mexican marines were arrested for orchestrating a wave of disappearances and murders in a case that has drawn international attention and condemnation. The U.S. government takes human rights into consideration in all cases involving the approval of gun sales to foreign security forces, the State Department said in an email to The Intercept. The department refused to say how those standards were applied in Sig Sauer’s sale to the Mexican navy specifically. Sig Sauer did not respond to a request for comment.
The weapons deal is a touchpoint in a wider set of concerns raised by Democratic lawmakers in recent months surrounding oversight of the multimillion-dollar flow of U.S.-made guns to the Mexican military as the two countries embark on what both have described as a new era of security cooperation. “We have a number of substantive concerns with these transfers based on recent reporting and credible documentation of abuses,” a Democratic aide on the House Foreign Affairs Committee told The Intercept. “We are currently engaged with the State Department on such concerns.”
This week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Attorney General Merrick Garland, and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas will travel to Mexico City for a multiday “high-level security dialogue” with their Mexican counterparts. In recent months, Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard has repeatedly underscored Mexico’s intention to overhaul its relationship with Washington by leaving behind a $3 billion security aid package known as the Mérida Initiative. Senior Biden administration officials have signaled support for the idea.
The focus on the aid program, however, is somewhat misleading. Though Mérida did begin with an emphasis on sending military aid and equipment to Mexico in the mid-2000s, it has gone through various iterations since. Today, the program is more focused on reform of Mexico’s judicial system and other rule of law and civil society initiatives than on hard-edged drug war operations. The militarization of Mexico that Mérida came to symbolize, and the abuses that have come with it, is arguably better reflected in the lucrative private arming of problematic security forces resulting from weapons deals like the one President Joe Biden’s State Department approved this summer. As both governments’ pursuit of the Sig Sauer sale suggests, that pipeline of weaponry appears well entrenched.
The visit by Biden’s top Cabinet-level officials to Mexico City this week follows months of inquiries from Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy’s office concerning exactly how those deals work and whether the U.S. really knows where the weapons it is approving are going.
Last month, Leahy’s office sent Blinken a letter, co-signed by Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, and Dick Durbin of Illinois, linking the Sig Sauer sale to a broader pattern of U.S.-made weapons, including those manufactured by Sig Sauer, making their way to units credibly implicated in kidnappings and massacres. If the U.S. government cannot keep track of where the weapons exports that it is approving are ultimately headed, the senators argued, then those sales should stop.
The senators’ letter was based in part on Mexican military records that tie U.S.-made guns to specific and notorious cases of abuses by Mexican security forces. Those records were obtained through public records requests by John Lindsay-Poland, a researcher and analyst with Global Exchange, a nonprofit human rights organization that publishes reports on U.S. weapons exports to Mexico through its Stop U.S. Arms to Mexico initiative. (In 2018, Lindsay-Poland wrote about U.S. arms sales to Mexico for The Intercept.)
“This letter from the four senators, it was an important step,” Lindsay-Poland said. “Nobody in Congress has said if certain conditions are not met, we should stop selling these weapons.”
Presented as Mexico’s answer to the Navy SEALs, Mexico’s marines have much in common with their northern counterparts, including responsibility for their country’s most sensitive operations. With deep U.S. security connections, marine special forces have for years enjoyed an aura of untouchability in the face of grave human rights abuse allegations. Recently, however, that’s begun to change.
In April, 30 marines from across the country were called to Mexico City under the auspices of an unspecified mission. Once on the ground, the marines were arrested on kidnapping charges. In total, 257 marines were suspected in the abduction or murder of nearly 60 men, women, and children, including American citizens, over a matter of months in early 2018.
The arrests were largely due to the efforts of families of disappeared persons and local human rights advocates in the northern Mexican state of Tamaulipas, whose decision to speak up in one of the border’s most dangerous places came at great personal risk.
In the winter of 2017, an element of marines led by a commander who was said to have a “direct line with the Pentagon’s military intelligence” was sent to the Tamaulipan city of Nuevo Laredo, just across the border from Laredo, Texas, as part of an anti-cartel offensive. By the time the unit’s six-month deployment was through, nearly 50 people last seen in marine custody were gone — some turned up dead, and others were never seen again. The victims had no evident ties to organized crime and included two 14-year-old boys, whose bodies were later found half-buried in the desert.
The following spring, families of Nuevo Laredo’s disappeared blocked the international bridge into Texas, bringing millions of dollars in trade to a halt. With activists calling the marines out by name, the action drew the attention of Mexico’s biggest newsrooms. Bit by bit, the horrors of what had happened in Nuevo Laredo came to light, as families described loved ones taken away by heavily armed marines without explanation or answers as to where they had gone. The United Nations Human Rights Office in Mexico launched an investigation and by the end of the month had confirmed 21 disappearance cases. The office’s high commissioner called on Mexico to “take urgent steps to end a wave of disappearances in and around the city of Nuevo Laredo.”
Two years later, an investigation by the human rights office of the Mexican federal government concluded that the marines had abducted 27 people in Nuevo Laredo — 12 of whom turned up dead — and perpetrated a series of “illegal searches and arbitrary detentions.” The commission has separately found evidence of widespread torture and sexual abuse in cases involving individuals in marine custody. In July of this year, in the wake of the marines’ arrests in Mexico City, the navy offered a rare acknowledgement and apology for its crimes in Tamaulipas.
In a country where 98 percent of violent crimes, including murders, go unsolved and security forces are routinely involved in some of the most heinous attacks, the fact that so many members of the military’s most elite teams were facing possible accountability marked a moment unlike anything in recent history.
It would have been all but impossible for State Department officials with an eye toward Mexico to miss one of the country’s biggest national security and human rights stories, one described in the New York Times, the BBC, and the Washington Post. Just last year, Politico Magazine published a deeply reported investigation into the case of Jorge Antonio Dominguez, an 18-year-old U.S. citizen who was snatched off the street by marines in April 2018 and remains missing to this day. In the article, a former high-ranking official in the State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs described how closely the department monitors media reporting on issues like kidnapping.
And yet the State Department, in its July notification to Congress, which came less than two weeks after the Mexican navy acknowledged responsibility for the Nuevo Laredo kidnappings, listed “human rights” among the issues it reviewed in approving the sale of millions of dollars in Sig Sauer weaponry to the navy.
The Intercept asked the State Department what criteria it used to arrive at its conclusion.
“Without speaking to individual cases, all proposed defense sales and transfers are assessed on their individual merits in accordance with the Arms Export Control Act, the U.S. Conventional Arms Transfer Policy and other related law and policy guidance which accounts for a broad range of political and economic considerations including human rights,” a State Department spokesperson said in an email.
The relationship between the State Department, Sig Sauer, and the Mexican navy — and by extension the Mexican marines — long predates the sale in question today and is in fact part of a multiyear exchange of guns and cash.
In 2015, the State Department approved a license for Sig Sauer to export $265 million worth of assembly kits for semi-automatic pistols and submachine guns to the Mexican navy through 2024. By 2018, as human rights abuses by the marines began picking up coverage, $26.7 million in gun parts and $4.3 million in complete guns had already been exported through the deal.
“This means that Sig Sauer has at least $234 million left in sales to make before its license expires in 2024,” a report published by Lindsay-Poland and colleagues at the Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights noted at the time. “If the license is completely fulfilled, the navy’s weapons purchases from Sig Sauer alone would nearly double the already elevated U.S. exports of guns and gun parts to Mexico.”
With hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S.-made guns and gear on the line and repeated evidence of the recipients of that equipment engaging in murder and kidnapping, a handful of lawmakers are pushing for answers on the oversight of U.S. weapons to Mexico.
For decades, oversight of arms exports to foreign governments was the sole responsibility of the State Department. Under former President Donald Trump, elements of those responsibilities were controversially shifted to the Department of Commerce. Under the revised framework, State approves licenses and has responsibility for end-use controls for fully automatic firearms, while Commerce approves licenses and has responsibility for end-use controls for semi-automatic and nonautomatic firearms. The shift, which removed meaningful congressional oversight of the licensing process, marked the accomplishment of a long-standing goal of the arms industry.
In March, Leahy, Durbin, Merkley, and Booker sent Blinken a letter — co-signed by Sens. Robert Menendez, Ben Cardin, Chris Van Hollen, and Tim Kaine — seeking information on how the new oversight regime was playing out with respect to Mexico, the top government buyer of American guns in the Western Hemisphere.
The senators cited several reasons for concern. The lawmakers pointed to documents from the Mexican Secretariat of National Defense, or SEDENA, showing that U.S.-made guns, many of them manufactured by Sig Sauer and then purchased by SEDENA, were sold to security forces implicated in massacres and extrajudicial killings going back years and extending into the present day.
In September 2019, members of a U.S.-trained Tamaulipas state police special operations unit known as the GOPES massacred eight civilians in Nuevo Laredo, the same border city where the marines had carried out their abductions a year before. In the two months that followed, “SEDENA sold hundreds of Sig Sauer rifles and pistols that it imported from the United States” to the public security office under which the GOPES are housed. The senators noted: “The sale to this unit proceeded even after the United Nations announced within two weeks of these killings that it was investigating them, and prior to a trial of three officers of the Tamaulipas SSP, which has not yet taken place as of the writing of this letter.”
Twelve more members of the GOPES were arrested for another massacre in March of this year, accused of murdering 19 migrants and incinerating their remains just south of the Texas border. “Online images posted by the Tamaulipas state government show GOPES agents with Sig Sauer rifles,” the senators wrote. Despite the trail of violence, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Drug Enforcement Administration officials in Mexico presented the commander of the GOPES with an award in August, citing his “exceptional,” “outstanding,” and “continuous contributions” to joint U.S.-Mexico law enforcement efforts.
The military documents reviewed by the lawmakers also showed that U.S.-made guns were used in one of the most notorious crimes in Mexican history: the 2014 disappearance by Mexican security forces of 43 students from the rural teachers college known as Ayotzinapa, in the state of Guerrero. Recently, leaked testimony in the case has pointed to the Mexican army’s direct involvement in the students’ disappearance. From 2010 to 2016, nearly one-fifth of guns purchased by the army and sold to police forces in Guerrero went missing or were stolen.
“The documents from SEDENA show that Colt Manufacturing was notified on February 3, 2015, that hundreds of rifles it produced were exported and destined for police forces in eight states,” the senators wrote, including the public security office in Guerrero. “That notification came only two months after public reports implicated the Guerrero SSP in the forced disappearance of 43 students in Iguala, Guerrero, on September 26, 2014. Judicial documents from the investigation of the Ayotzinapa disappearances show that municipal police in Guerrero implicated in the disappearances were armed with Colt rifles.”
Taken together, the documents pointed to a potentially systemic misrepresentation of where American guns are going in Mexico spanning more than a decade. The Mexican army provided hundreds of end-use certificates for “U.S. exported firearms destined for state and local police forces between 2008 and 2019,” the senators wrote. “Although the firearms were exported for use by police forces, in every single certificate, SEDENA listed itself — the army — as the end user.”
Given the alarming picture emerging from the military’s own records, the lawmakers asked whether the government tracked U.S.-made weapons that the Mexican army sells to police units; whether embassy officials were aware of the sales to Mexican security forces accused of killings and abductions in Guerrero and Tamaulipas; and how oversight of arms exports would function with the recent transfer of responsibilities to the Department of Commerce.
The State Department, in its reply the following month, delivered just one week after the marines were taken into custody in Mexico City, indicated that its ability to track weapons once they are sold to the Mexican military is limited and deferred to the Commerce Department on matters of oversight going forward. As for whether U.S. officials were “aware that U.S. firearms were sold for use by police forces in Guerrero and Tamaulipas,” the department did not provide a direct answer, instead listing its general policies.
The lawmakers were not satisfied. “We remain concerned to learn from your response that the U.S. Embassy has not been consulted about instances regarding Mexican police forces as end users of U.S. exported firearms,” they wrote in a follow-up letter last month. “We are also concerned about a proposed license to export $5.5 million worth of Sig Sauer automatic rifles to the Mexican Navy, whose units are implicated in forced disappearances and torture, without adequate end user controls.” The senators pointed to a 2019 report which found that more than 65 percent of “detainees over a ten-year period said that they suffered torture while in Navy custody, including asphyxia, electric shocks, burns, and rape.”
The lawmakers called on Blinken to “immediately begin a review of all existing licenses for exports of firearms to Mexico for use by the Mexican police and Navy” before and since March 2020. They also called for a suspension of licenses in cases in which end users appeared in a government database known as INVEST, which the State Department uses to monitor abuses by security units that receive U.S. training.
“Given the extensive documentation of widespread infiltration of Mexican police forces by criminal organizations, and police and military participation in atrocities, we expected the Departments of State and Commerce to establish mechanisms to ensure that U.S. firearms do not contribute to these crimes,” they wrote. Instead, they said, “the Commerce Department issued a rule change in December 2020, without public comment, that eases firearms exports to Mexico.”
As for guns going to problem units in Guerrero and Tamaulipas, the senators wrote that the State Department’s April response “clarified how licenses for firearms exports to Mexico should identify end users, but did not state whether this was the case for the firearms transferred in 2015 to state police in Guerrero and in 2019 to state police in Tamaulipas.”
The lawmakers demanded to know: “When were U.S. Embassy staff or other U.S. officials first aware that U.S. firearms were sold for use by police forces in Guerrero and Tamaulipas? What actions were taken, if any, to prevent further U.S.-exported firearms from ending up in the hands of these police forces? If no action was taken, why not? We asked these questions in our March letter, and ask them again.”
The senators have yet to receive answers to their questions, a spokesperson for Leahy’s office said in an email to The Intercept, though, he added,
their inquiry continues.