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In September 2014, a U.S. official from The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives estimated that half the weapons available on El Salvador’s black market were made in the United States. (Photo: Wes Bausmith / Los Angeles Times)

In September 2014, a U.S. official from The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives estimated that half the weapons available on El Salvador’s black market were made in the United States. (Photo: Wes Bausmith / Los Angeles Times)

Blood on Our Hands: How We Help Drive Immigration North

Where are the calls to stop the massive illegal transfer of U.S. weapons fueling the very violence that drives innocent people to leave their homes?

Frances Moore Lappé

Each month tens of thousands of migrants cross our southern border. They’re “seeking a better life”…right? Isn’t that why families leave loved ones to trek vast distances facing untold dangers?

Certainly, it’s the story that fits our cherished image of our nation as a land of opportunity like none other.

Recently, though, I felt ashamed that I—someone who wants to believe she’s well informed—had overlooked a key piece of my own responsibility, or, more precisely, my own and my nation’s culpability.

Certainly, I’d long been aware of numerous US policies that have long hindered positive development in the region to our south. In Guatemala in 1954, for example, the CIA deposed democratically elected president Jacobo Árbenz. In Nicaragua, from the ‘50s through the ‘70s, the U.S. backed the Somoza family dictatorship, and then in the ‘80s we funded right-wing forces attempting to overthrow a government enjoying wide popular support.

I’d also known that immigrants’ hopes of escaping desperate poverty weren’t the whole story. I knew that many arriving at our southern border were fleeing threats of violence against them and their children. For some, it’s guns in the hands of gangs that make staying put impossible. “Even suspicion of being loyal to a rival gang is a death sentence,” reported The Associated Press earlier this month.

The link between homicide and migration is captured in this startling ratio from the Inter-American Dialogue in 2018: In Honduras, a 1 percent increase in homicides drives up migration by 120 percent.

On some level, I had grasped that fear—legitimate fear—was a driver of migration.

But what I had not, and certainly should have, grasped is our nation’s central role in generating fear by allowing a flood of US weapons to continue across our southern border. The flood into Mexico alone includes “[m]ore than 212,000 illegal firearms” from the U.S. each year owing to “straw purchases,” observes the Los Angeles Times. 

Central America is hardest hit.

There, gun laws are comparatively strict, yet “homicide rates are among the highest on earth.” In El Salvador, with the world’s highest rate, almost half of weapons found at the country’s crime scenes are from the U.S. officials here estimate.

During the 1980s, El Salvador was “the single largest recipient of U.S. military hardware and weaponry in the Western Hemisphere,” and, after its civil war ended in 1992, “the guns, grenades and bullets linger, as do their murderous effects,” write Robert Muggah and Steven Dudley in the Los Angeles Times.

And Mexico?

The country has only one gun store. Located in Mexico City, it is guarded by the army. Seventy percent of guns seized in Mexico were originally sold in the U.S.—most of them in Texas, California, and Arizona according to the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. 

“Once in Mexico, these weapons end up in the hands of drug cartels or get shipped to gangs in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador,” says The Associated Press. In Honduras, “armed holdups on public transportation are a regular occurrence, where nearly half of the unregistered weapons originated in the U.S.,” reports the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.. 

“The number of firearms smuggled from the United States was so significant that nearly half of American gun dealers rely on that business to stay afloat,” reported the University of San Diego in 2013.

Yes, this horrific story is being reported, but where is the public outrage?

We hear endless calls for more resources to stop illegal entry at our border. But where are the calls to stop the massive illegal transfer of weapons fueling the very violence that drives innocent people to leave their homes?

In 2016, the National Rifle Association (NRA) spent nearly $70 million to help elect Donald Trump and other Republicans, a sum much larger than the group reported to the Federal Election Commission. ” As gun-industry money directly benefits our politicians, they have little incentive to reduce the industry’s power and its harm to innocent people.

Only we citizens have the power to stop money-driven politics and its deadly consequences. We each can use our voices to spread the word of our nation’s culpability in this horrific violence. And, we can use our votes to move forward reforms loosening money’s grip, including NRA dollars, on our democracy.

Unless we do, we all have blood on our hands.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Frances Moore Lappé

Frances Moore Lappé

Frances Moore Lappé is the author of nineteen books, beginning with the acclaimed "Diet for a Small Planet." Most recently she is the co-author, with Adam Eichen, of the new book, "Daring Democracy: Igniting Power, Meaning, and Connection for the America We Want." Among her numerous previous books are "EcoMind: Changing the Way We Think to Create the World We Want" (Nation Books) and "Democracy's Edge: Choosing to Save Our Country by Bringing Democracy to Life." She is co-founder of the Cambridge, Mass.-based Small Planet Institute.

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