Our Turn: Guns, not just bullets, need Sig Sauer’s attention

  • Maria Herrera Magdaleno speaks in Portsmouth last May. Courtesy of Arnie Alpert

Published: 7/23/2017 12:31:41 AM

Now that Sig Sauer has taken steps to control the fate of bullets fired from its Brentwood shooting range, it’s time for the company to attend to the impact of the firearms it manufactures and exports to Mexico.

Sig Sauer operates a major production facility at the Pease International Trade Port in Newington, while its parent company is in Germany.

Two years ago, it signed a $266 million agreement to supply firearms and gun parts to the Mexican government. The problems with this deal were outlined starkly by Maria Herrera Magdaleno, who visited New Hampshire in May.

Herrera is what is known in Mexico as a “human rights defender,” an occupation she did not seek, but which came to her after four of her eight sons were forcibly “disappeared” by Mexican authorities.

Herrera’s sons are among some 30,000 Mexicans who have been disappeared since 2006, and Herrera is one of dozens of mothers who now devote themselves to searching clandestine grave sites and pursuing official action to find out what happened to them.

“Everything we are suffering involves these weapons,” she explained at a public meeting in Portsmouth on May 21.

Armed violence rose dramatically in Mexico after the federal government ended its ban on the sale of assault weapons in 2004. Weapons purchased legally in this country and smuggled across the border end up in the hands of criminals, many of whom are involved in the drug trade.

The official response, a militarized anti-drug campaign backed with billions of dollars in U.S. aid and sales, has raised the death toll even higher.

In addition to the disappearances, studies estimate that 150,000 have been murdered since the Calderon administration launched its war on drugs. Most of the guns recovered at Mexican crime scenes come from the United States.

It’s not just that a seemingly insatiable demand for illegal drugs in the U.S. keeps the drug merchants in business. It is also that the lines between the drug cartels and government officials are often blurry.

Even the U.S. State Department, which licensed the $266 million Sig Sauer deal, said in its 2016 Human Rights Report on Mexico, “There were many reports the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings, often with impunity. Organized criminal groups also were implicated in numerous killings, often acting with impunity and at times in league with corrupt state, local, and security officials.”

“Organized crime and the government go hand in hand,” Maria Herrera explained during her New Hampshire visit.

Sig Sauer’s guns and parts, produced in New Hampshire or imported from Germany, will go to the Mexican army, the only entity that can legally import firearms.

From there, they are distributed to army units, as well as to federal, state and local police departments and to private security firms.

Police received Sig Sauer firearms in 18 Mexican states, including Veracruz, Tamaulipas and Michoacán, where police have colluded with organized crime and disappeared ordinary Mexicans. According to evidence obtained by Maria Herrera’s family, her sons were among those taken by the police.

The State Department says, “The most significant human rights-related problems included involvement by police and military in serious abuses, such as unlawful killings, torture and disappearances. Impunity and corruption in the law enforcement and justice system remained serious problems.”

From Herrera’s perspective, this explains why she can’t find out what happened to her sons. “They’re not going to look for criminals because they’ll find themselves,” she said.

“It is clear that there has been very little accountability for criminal disappearances, and almost none for enforced disappearances – those perpetrated by the police, military, or other agents acting on behalf of, or in collusion with, the state,” reported the Open Society Foundation last year.

The State Department, which provides licenses for private sales of weapons by U.S. companies to foreign governments, has little capacity and seemingly little interest in monitoring where the weapons end up.

U.S. government-provided assistance, on the other hand, comes with human rights conditions under the so-called “Leahy Law.”

Whether Sig Sauer knows who will ultimately get the guns it sells is unclear. What is clear is that the company actively seeks political cover for its dealings.

Why else would they have hosted a visit from Eric Trump and Donald Trump Jr. during the last presidential campaign? Why else would they have donated $100,000 in 2016 to Gun Vote, a PAC that backed Trump’s presidential bid? And why else would they have hired Bob Grand, a former Mike Pence fundraiser, to lobby for them on gun exports?

Following an April incident in which a woman driving on Route 101 near one of the company’s eight shooting ranges had her car struck by a bullet, Sig Sauer agreed to erect protective berms to contain the bullets. Now it is time for the company to contain the use of its guns. Or else, as Maria Herrera advised, “Please produce something else.”

(Arnie Alpert is co-director of the American Friends Service Committee’s New Hampshire Program. John Lindsay-Poland directs the organization’s Wage Peace Program in San Francisco. For more information, visit afsc.org/stoparms.)

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