Criminals in Mexico City are increasingly able to rent weapons, use them to commit crimes and then return them, confounding Mexican authorities who have often relied on gun tracing as part of their crime-fighting efforts.
Over the last month, it has come to light that numerous types of firearms could be rented for periods as short as one day in the Mexican capital, with the weapons often being brought in from stashes in the surrounding State of Mexico.
Smaller weapons, such as .22 or .25 caliber handguns, can be rented for as little as 800 pesos a day (around $40). A .38 caliber revolver costs 1,800 pesos (around $90) and an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle could go for up to 9,000 pesos (around $1,800), one weapons dealer named Oscar told Milenio.
“The weapons come from the United States or the Defense Ministry, but the serial numbers are already gone,” said Oscar, adding that many of his clients were not criminals, but ordinary citizens looking for protection.
Another dealer, identified only as Esteban, readily admitted a criminal connection. Owning 11 handguns and two assault rifles, he rents them in the morning for between 500 and 3,000 pesos each (between around $25 and $155), and has them returned in the evening.
“They could be used to hold up a bus, rob a shop or kill. For me, they just give me the money,” he told Milenio.
The business does not appear to be new. One dealer said he had been renting weapons since 2001, although he added that demand had been on the rise of late.
The most popular place to rent weapons is the Tepito market in central Mexico City, a focal point for much of the city’s organized crime, according to an investigation by El Sol de México. It added that gun rentals could be arranged across Mexico City, including at the El Salado market in Iztapalapa and the San Felipe de Jesús market in the Doctores neighborhood.
A lot of the weapons were kept in the State of Mexico, where rentals were also available at private residences in the towns of Naucalpan, Cuautitlán, Cuautitlán Izcalli, Tultepec and Tultitlán, according to El Sol de México.
InSight Crime Analysis
The increasing demand for these "gun rental" services comes at a time when crime is rapidly rising in the capital. Mexico City saw 257 murders in the first two months of 2019, the highest ever recorded for a two-month period. This comes on the heels of 2018 being its most violent year to date.
Mexican authorities have traditionally been keen to dismiss any allegations of violence in Mexico City, seeking to preserve its reputation as a booming business and tourism hotspot. But recent news about worsening extortion and a growing number of gangs have shattered this fantasy.
Worse, violent crimes like homicide and armed robbery are less and less confined to the city’s poorer areas, spilling over into wealthier neighborhoods.
And while these gun rentals do not yet appear to be widespread, they neatly sidestep one of Mexico’s tactics to fight violent crime: gun tracing.
Gun tracing has been a problematic strategy. In 2012, Mexico adopted the US-developed gun tracing platform eTrace with help from US-based experts. Meant to contain the details of every gun known to be associated with organized crime, it has seen only mixed success.
Infamously, from 2009 to 2011, the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) allowed the sale of illegal guns to take place in the hopes of tracking them across the border and connecting them with Mexican cartels.
While hundreds of the weapons were successfully tracked, the so-called "Fast and Furious" operation backfired when these guns were connected to a number of homicides, including that of a US Border Patrol Agent.
Criminal groups in Mexico City have found other ways to beat the trace, including the growing use of “plumas pistola," or one-shot guns disguised as pens.
Another consequence of these rented guns is the accessibility they offer to criminals who might not otherwise have reliable access to a firearm. There is one risk, however, that those renting these guns may not have considered.
“Renting a weapon may pose less risk for a criminal, but if they are arrested with a gun used in a homicide, when they are only stealing cell phones, they are likely to be tried for a crime they did not commit,” explained Francisco Rivas, president of Mexico's National Citizens’ Observatory (Observatorio Nacional Ciudadano -- ONC).