By William Booth
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 29, 2010; 12:01 AM
MEXICO CITY - In all of Mexico, there is only one gun store. The shop, known officially as the Directorate of Arms and Munitions Sales, is operated by the Mexican military. The clerks wear pressed green camouflage. They are soldiers.
The only gun store in Mexico is not very busy.
To go shopping for a gun in Mexico, customers must come to Mexico City - even if they live 1,300 miles away in Ciudad Juarez. To gain entry to the store, which is on a secure military base, customers must present valid identification, pass through a metal detector, yield to the security wand and surrender cellphones and cameras.
To buy a gun, clients must submit references and prove that their income is honestly earned, that their record is free of criminal charges and that their military obligations, if any, have been fulfilled with honor. They are fingerprinted and photographed. Finally, if judged worthy of owning a small-caliber weapon to protect home and hearth, they are allowed to buy just one. And a box of bullets.
Mexico has some of the toughest gun-control laws in the world, a matter of pride for the nation's citizens. Yet Mexico is awash in weapons.
President Felipe Calderon reported this month that Mexican forces have captured more than 93,000 weapons in four years. Mexican authorities insist that 90 percent of those weapons have been smuggled from the United States. The U.S. and Mexican governments have worked together to trace 73,000 seized weapons, but both refuse to release the results of the traces.
More than 6,600 federally licensed firearm dealers operate on the U.S. side of the border. At least 14 million guns are thought to have been sold in the United States last year, according to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. But no one knows the exact number.
In Mexico, Lt. Col. Raul Manzano Velez, director of the gun shop, knows with precision his annual sales figures. On average, the military has sold 6,490 firearms each year since 2006. Legal gun sales are decreasing, even as seizures of illegal weapons soar.
Daniel Mendoza has come to shop at Mexico's only gun store with a friend. He is interested in something to protect his family. He described himself as a middle-class businessman and was vague about prior gun ownership.
Asked whether Mexico's gun-control laws were working, Mendoza said, "Ask the criminals."
The Mexican military has been handling gun sales in strict military fashion since 1995. "Only a tiny percentage of our weapons end up in the hands of criminals," Manzano said. That percentage, he said, is less than 1.
But Manzano is not a fool. "We have a higher rate of crimes where the weapon involved is coming from the black market, and that happens because in our country, it is much easier to buy a gun on the black market than" at his store, he said.
Manzano said the wide gulf in gun laws between Mexico and the United States creates an almost irresistible arms-trafficking market for the powerful criminal organizations terrorizing wide swaths of his country.
Manzano recently gave a visitor a brief tour of his shop. There are several deer heads mounted on the wall and a handful of customers, who mostly browse. Display cases filled with guns are arranged in two rooms. The first room, which is labeled "Police Sales Only," is filled with weapons that ordinary citizens cannot legally buy - the heavy stuff, such as Bushmaster AR-15 assault rifles and Israeli Galil machine guns, plus gas and concussion grenades, as well as bulletproof vests and helmets.
The second room offers a wide selection of U.S. and European shotguns and rifles - Berettas, Mossbergs - for hunting and competition. They are being sold at very competitive prices but elicit few buyers.
"I think it's okay that there is a control for the sale of weapons, but nowadays, the interest in sports shooting has been greatly diminished and the young are not interested," said Manuel Yoshida, president of the Shooting Club of Los Mochis in Sinaloa, the state where the Pacific cartel and drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman reign supreme.
Yoshida added: "We have lost many members. And most of my clients have brought their weapons from the U.S., because we are near the border. Otherwise, it would be a problem for my customers having to go to Mexico City to buy their guns. It's too far."
At the gun store, there is a display for small-caliber handguns sold exclusively for domestic protection, in calibers no greater than a .38. Glock and Smith & Wesson are well-represented. These guns are legally allowed only at home - not in glove compartments, on waist belts or inside businesses.
Members of the military, police and security firms are exempt from the handgun-control law that applies to the general public. If a business owner wants a gun to protect his cantina or muffler shop, he can apply for a permit. A different permit is required to transport the weapon from one place to another. The paperwork for the latter takes a couple of weeks.
"In most cases, we suggest hiring a private security company, and, to refrain from the use of a weapon, we invite people to use other security mechanisms," Manzano said.
Alberto Islas, a security expert based in Mexico, said it is common knowledge that the easiest way for the average citizen to buy a gun is to ask a friendly local police officer.
"The cop will bring it to your house and show you how to load it," Islas said. "Of course, it is technically illegal."