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How Israeli Firearms Fall Into the Hands of Mexican Drug Cartels

Israel sold Mexico over 24,000 guns and rifles from 2006-2018, a new report conducted as part of a global investigation reveals. With little oversight, Israel has inadvertently helped fuel violence in the country

Amitai Ziv
Amitai Ziv
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Firearms found during a raid on a Mexican drug cartel also included an Israeli Tavor rifle (in red)
Firearms found during a raid on a Mexican drug cartel also included an Israeli Tavor rifle (in red)Credit:
Amitai Ziv
Amitai Ziv

From 2006 and until 2018 some 238,000 firearms were exported to Mexico from Europe, including 24,000 guns and rifles from Israel, some of which wound up in the hands of drug cartels, a report by a human rights group conducted as part of an international investigation revealed Tuesday.

The findings of the report, published by the international branch of the American Friends Service Committee, were based on receipts from weapons deals in Mexico and a collection of thousands of documents. Research focused on the 2006-2018 period when Mexico had declared a “war on drugs,” which provided the backdrop to the government’s decision to purchase the arms. The firearms were supposed to aid state security services in their bid to restore calm.

Ninety-five percent of the 238,000 guns that reached Mexico were categorized when they were purchased as being for “military purposes.” In other words, these arms weren’t slated for civilian use, the researchers say. However, “these weapons transfers did not lead to greater security for the Mexican population. Mexico’s firearm homicide rate has exploded to more than six times what it was in 2006,” the report says.

Credit: Haaretz / Forbidden Stories

Mexico has one of the highest murder rates in the world: 24,000 cases last year, or 19 murderds for ever 100,000 citizens. That’s also a record high murder rate for Mexico.

Duing the period of 2006-2019 there were 276,000 cases of murder in Mexico, some 58 percent of which by use of firearms, compared to 15 percent of murders involving pistols in 1997. In 2020 nearly 100 people are murdered each day nationwide, and firearms accounted for 71 percent of them. Firearms are involved in 30 percent of crimes in general in Mexico, and disappearances are common. Some 56,000 people have mysteriously disappeared in the past decade. Since 2006, a massive 3,600 mass graves have been found, and 37,000 corpses have still not been identified.

Another worrisome trend is the spillover of police weapons into the hands of drug cartels. “We know that weapons that are sold are systematically falling into the hands of the cartels and that’s only the weapons that we know arrive in Mexico legally and now those that are smuggled in,” says Sahar Vardi, who contributed to the Israeli section of the report for the rights group and spoke to Haaretz.

Sahar Vardi, who wrote the Israeli part of the report, says: 'Israel cannot trace every gun it sells to the end user'Credit: Courtesy

The excuse for massively arming the police was a need to fight crime. However, in effect, Mexican citizens express less confidence in the local police than almost anywhere in the world. “Local police corps in Mexico have been closely involved in gross human rights violations, mainly forced disappearances,” the report says.

“In Mexico there are two levels of violence – one by the cartels and the other by the police, which means violence involving legal weapons,” Vardi says.

The authors note for example the 2011 Allende massacre where members of a Mexican cartel murdered or disappeared 300 people for allegedly cooperating with the police. The massacre lasted for several days but despite many local calls for help the police did nothing, the report says. Similar cases have been documented elsewhere in Mexico.

‘Israel can’t track every gun’

Israel’s firearms affair with Mexico dates back to the 1970s when it sold Mexico Arava planes. In the 90s, when the Mexican government faced off with the revolutionary Zapatistas, Israel trained Mexican forces based on its experience with the first intifada. Mexicans also adopted the checkpoint system Israel used in the West Bank for revolting states.

The past twenty years have seen this continue, report says. “Over the past two decades, Israel has exported hundreds of millions of Euros worth of military equipment to Mexico, including various types of drones, naval battle ships and missiles. These arms exports don’t stop with military or heavy military equipment, but also include small arms, many of them later transferred to police forces,” the report explains.

In 2006-2018 Israeli gun sales to Mexico accounted for eight percent of all weapons sales in that country. Nearly all of the deals that were documented were by the Israeli weapons firm IWI, a private company owned by the SK group of businessman Sami Katsav – the producer of Galil and Tavor rifles, the Negev submachine gun and the Jericho pistol. The deals were worth 34 million euros. The report says most of the light arms imported by Mexico come from Italy and Austria.

Sami Katsav's SK group produces the Galil and Tavor rifles, the Negev submachine gun and the Jericho pistolCredit: David Bachar

Like most weapons firms mentioned by the study, Israeli firms have an American branch as well which makes it easier to sell arms than under the relatively strict rules enforced by Europe. De facto, though, Israeli weapons firms sell to all types of police in Mexico indiscriminately, the report suggests. A sale of 1,199 guns was documented to the police of Veracruz, Mexico’s deadliest state toward journalists.

“Israel has no way to follow all that’s done with its weapons,” Vardi says. “Because Israel itself doesn’t require monitoring weapons to the end user. It doesn’t ask where these guns are going and certainly doesn’t report about it to the UN which is what countries are supposed to do. Israel has no laws for transparency in this regard or any limits on sales of weapons to countries that violate human rights, or even to specific bodies that are known to be human rights violators. And it’s not only there are no such laws in Israel, it doesn’t even ask where it’s all going and therefore there is no documentation or follow up.”

The defense ministry says there are terms and conditions for weapons sales but that they aren’t public and cannot be published, but that human rights are taken into account.

Vardi adds that, “That’s the difference between the law and regulations. With the law we know there are no limits, not even in cases of severe violations of human rights. In the defense ministry’s regulations and how it monitors military exports, I don’t know and that’s exactly the problem. There is no process of civilian or legislative supervision.

“The fact is that in recent years Israel has sold weapons to south Sudan and Myanmar even after embargoes were imposed on them by Europe and the Americans. We have quite an impressive track record for being one of the last countries that still sells to regimes with difficult human rights issues. When Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte visited the country in 2018 he said it himself, ‘I instructed my army to buy only form Israel because in Israel they don’t ask any questions.’”

The Israeli weapons industries did not respond because “all its export deals are in full coordination with Israel’s export regime and are licensed as required under the law. Unfortunately, under weapons export laws, the company cannot provide additional information about the licensing and these matters can present a competitive even security problem.”

Forbidden Stories continues the work of journalists who have been killedCredit: Forbidden Stories

The Defense Ministry also said in response that “it does not comment on export licenses of specific companies or to specific countries.” However, it added that “The law regulates state control of the export of defense equipment (missile, combat and dual-use equipment) [and]... the export of cyber systems.”

“Israel is one of the few countries in the world that require a two-stage licensing process by law. Each licensing assessment is made in light of various considerations including the security clearance of the product and assessment of the country toward which the product will be marketed. Human rights, policy and security issues are all taken into consideration. Lastly, international standards and commitments and UN Security Council resolutions are also taken into consideration. DECA works closely with various international oversight frameworks to fulfill the aforementioned,” said the Defense Ministry.

This story is part of "The Cartel Project” coordinated with the Forbidden Stories organization comprising 60 journalists, from 24 media organizations and 18 countries. The following groups participated in the research about weapons: Report by Global Exchange (U.S.), Vredesactie (Belgium), OPAL, Agir pour la Paix (Belgium), American Friends Service Committee, Ohne Rüstung Leben (Germany), NESEHNUTÍ (Czech Republic), Comisión Mexicana de Defensa y Promoción de los Derechos Humanos, and the Centro de Estudios Ecuménicos (Mexico)

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