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Lawyers present road map for Mexico’s ‘unprecedented’ lawsuits against US gun industry

With a second lawsuit against gun dealers in Arizona, Mexico’s lawyers are optimistic about the future of the legal actions they have brought against the U.S. gun industry in an attempt to curb the illicit arms trade to Mexico.

MEXICO CITY (CN) — The legal team behind Mexico’s lawsuits against U.S. gun manufacturers and dealers did not win their first foray into the courts in September, but they have not lost hope. 

On Friday, lawyers and international law experts expressed optimism for the “unprecedented” legal actions at a two-day conference in Mexico City titled “The business of lethality: Arms trafficking to Mexico.”

“The case in Boston isn’t over,” said Alejandro Celorio, head legal counsel for Mexico’s Secretariat of Foreign Affairs (SRE), which is heading up the lawsuits. 

“We’re happy with the arguments in that case,” he said. “We’re going to appeal, and we hope that the appellate court will remand the case to the first court. It’s going to be very interesting to see the appeal in that case alongside the advances of the Arizona case.”

In September, a federal judge in Massachusetts ruled against Mexico in the case it brought against gun manufacturers in that state, citing the federal Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA), a 2005 law that shields gun companies from litigation for crimes committed with their products. 

The Barrett M82A .50 caliber sniper rifle is one of the deadliest guns trafficked to Mexico from the U.S. This slide from Mexico's Secretariat of Foreign Affairs details how the model was used in several conflicts in Mexico, attempting to shoot down a helicopter and leading to the deaths of Mexican citizens. (Mexico's Foreign Affairs Secretariat)

Specialists who presented on Friday highlighted the advances the lawsuit made despite that ruling. For example, the judge ruled that Mexico had legitimate cause for trying the case in Massachusetts federal court. The suit also showed that the harms caused in Mexico were “reasonably traceable” to the defendants’ conduct.

“The judge said that this suit could be accepted in the United States, however, we have the question of PLCAA,” said León Castellanos, an international law specialist and researcher at the Asser Institute. 

“The majority of suits brought in the United States by other countries are almost always thrown out on grounds of forum non conveniens,” said Castellanos, referring to the legal doctrine entailing the appropriateness of a court to see a case. 

“In this case, we see that the judge is keeping the suit, saying that U.S. jurisdiction has the ability to resolve this situation,” he said. “So this is going to be important in the coming procedural phase, because it proves that the case is in the proper channel in the U.S. judicial system.”

The eight amicus curiae who filed briefs on Mexico’s behalf in that case say the defendants are not protected from litigation by PLCAA, since the crimes in question were committed in Mexico. 

One such brief was filed by a group of 27 district attorneys from counties in Texas, California, Massachusetts and several other states, as well as the District of Columbia, who claim that the illicit arms trade to Mexico makes their districts less safe.

“The district attorneys tell us is that once the arms are trafficked to Mexico, the firepower of the criminal organizations increases, and these organizations ramp up their drug trafficking efforts to the United States,” said Miguel Reyes, adjunct legal counsel on the case for the SRE. “This creates conflict in the streets of their communities.”

Reyes boiled down the district attorneys’ argument to the main message he and others at the conference attempted to get across: “The more guns there are, the more violence there will be, and by reducing the number of guns, we’ll reduce other crimes as well.”

The AK-47 assault-style rifle is another favorite of members of organize crime in Mexico. (Mexico's Foreign Affairs Secretariat)

Another amicus brief by a group of U.S. law professors expressed a similar legal opinion to Mexico’s on the validity of PLCAA in the case. 

“Their arguments are very similar to those of the Mexican government,” said Reyes. “From the point of view that under international law, if the effects of the behavior of the defendants are felt in Mexico as resulting in harm, then Mexican legislation is applicable, and therefore supersedes legislation that grants them immunity.”

The Mexican legal team’s idea is to use the lawsuit in Arizona to prop up the arguments of the first case, which is why they chose a different set of defendants for the second suit. In Massachusetts, they went after manufacturers; in Arizona, the dealers. 

“In Boston, we’re suing for negligence, for their lack of attention,” said Celorio. “In Arizona, for negligence and lack of attention, as well, but also for selling directly to straw purchasers. There’s a closer relationship with the criminal element there.”

The 138-page Arizona complaint claims the defendants “choose to sell guns using reckless and unlawful practices, despite the foreseeability — indeed, virtual certainty — that they are thereby helping cause deadly cartel violence across the border."

Guarded firmly behind PLCAA, manufacturers have so far claimed they are not liable for the criminality caused by their industry. Celorio and his team hope the second suit will bolster their claim that manufacturers are well aware that the illicit arms trade to Mexico is part of their business model.

“Their supply of guns to the criminal market in Mexico is a feature, not a bug,” the 139-page complaint filed in Massachusetts says. 

“Manufacturers can say, ‘It wasn’t me,’ but we know from the tracing that the culpability is there,” said Celorio. “Maybe the manufacturers in the Boston case will say, ‘Actually Mexico is right. The distributors are guilty of this. We’re going to stop supplying them with guns and they’ll stop doing it.’ So that’s part of our strategy.”

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