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Can Mexico's weapons buyback program stem rising gun violence?

"Even one weapon could prevent problems or a fatal accident," an official says, but a security expert doesn't believe it tackles the real sources of violent crime.
Image: A soldier stands near weapons given to the government in exchange for goods or money in Mexico City on Dec. 30, 2012.
A soldier stands near weapons given to the government in exchange for goods or money in Mexico City on Dec. 30, 2012.Marco Ugarte / AP file

MEXICO CITY — Francisco Castillo, 26, sat down, pulled a shotgun out of a bag and faced members of the military.

A sergeant pulled out a price list of weapons, including revolvers, pistols, machine guns, bazookas, grenades, dynamite cartridges and even missile launchers and mortars.

For voluntarily turning in his shotgun, Castillo would receive 3,000 pesos, the equivalent of $161. He watched a member of the military — whose face was shielded for protection — use a table saw to cut up the gun, sparks flying in the air.

Castillo is participating in Mexico's voluntary gun buyback program, known as “Yes to Disarmament, Yes to Peace,” which was started in Mexico City in 2018 under its mayor, Claudia Sheinbaum. The Mexican military has had similar weapons buyback programs across the country for several years.

Between 2018 and 2019, Mexico saw murders committed with firearms increase from 68 percent to 72 percent. The gun buyback program is part of a joint effort between the Mexican government and the military to reduce the number of weapons in homes. Those who run the program promise not to investigate the origins of weapons or whether they have been used in crimes.

Members of the Mexican military check weapons are not loaded after they've been turned in by citizens as part of a gun buyback program.Alice Driver / for NBC News

In 2019, the gun buyback program recovered 3,620 light weapons, 838 heavy weapons and over 900,000 ammunition cartridges, the government told NBC News.

Army Col. Alejandro de Jesús Orozco Contreras, who was on hand at a program site in the Tlalpán area of Mexico City, said that the success of the program can be measured in the confidence that it generates among Mexicans, their government and their armed forces.

Those turning in weapons are not motivated by the market value of the weapon, which they could sell for more pretty much anywhere else. As an example, machine guns can fetch thousands of dollars on the black market but fetch a government price of $966 in value.

Castillo, a husband and a father of two young children, said he was happy to get rid of his shotgun.

“It was a weapon I inherited, and truthfully I had it at home," he said. "I don’t need it.”

He worried that his two children, ages 1 and 3, would get a hold of it and the result would be a tragedy he wouldn't be able to live with. “Truthfully, the program is very good. From a young age, the program teaches children to have a conscience that weapons represent a danger to society,” he said.

Castillo was referring to the program's voluntary toy gun return for children, which exchanges the child's toy firearm for an educational toy.

Can it help?

Erubiel Tirado, a security and intelligence expert at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City, says Mexico has seen an explosion in violence due to organized crime and drug trafficking.

Tirado says it's bolstered by “a lack of action from the Mexican state against this violence, especially in the last year.”

Although Tirado believes there is a direct relationship between violence and the availability of firearms —especially illegal ones entering the country from the U.S. — he said he was “very pessimistic” about the buyback program.

“They [government officials and the army] are saying ‘we are making peace’ but there is not enough money to reach peace in this country," Tirado says. "I think they are building an official discourse, official rhetoric in order to legitimize the lack of action of the Mexican government.”

Mexico City government director Adriana Contreras Vera described the buyback initiative as a prevention program. She argued that success could be measured via “the number of weapons turned in and destroyed because recovering even one weapon could prevent problems or a fatal accident.”

She also highlighted the component of the program that teaches children about the dangers of normalizing playing with weapons from a young age and seeing firearms as a way to resolve conflict.

A member of the military, protected by a face shield, cuts weapons turned in by citizens as part of a gun buyback program.Alice Driver / for NBC News

Tirado worries that the impact of the program is minimal in an environment where the Mexican military says that 200,000 firearms enter the country every year and 70 percent of them originate in the United States.

He also points out that figures on illegal firearms differ widely within agencies in Mexico, with some agencies saying there are as many as 250,000, while Mexico City authorities argue the number is fewer than 144,000.

“There are inconsistencies in the figures from the same authorities," Castillo says. "If we take the figure of the Mexican army which is the legal authority to control and to approve legal weapons here in Mexico, 200,000 unregistered weapons is a lot.”

Tirado put more faith in the January 2020 plan that Mexico and the U.S. agreed on to reduce the illegal flow of arms, drugs and money from the U.S. to Mexico.

Col. De Jesús Orozco acknowledged the buyback program couldn’t measure its impact on the country's levels of violence.

He maintained, however, that "every weapon retired from circulation represented one less danger for families."

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