In the shadow of Mexico’s guns

April 30, 2013

Mexico City, Mexico

By Edgard Garrido

Days before last Christmas, city authorities initiated a program of voluntary disarmament for citizens encouraging them to swap their pistols, revolvers, guns and the occasional 60mm mortar round for bicycles, tablets or cash. Thousands flocked to the swapping stations set up in different neighborhoods by the police and military.

Some weapons were destroyed on site but I wondered where the rest of the collected weapons would land. So, I decided to issue a formal request to the Mexican Secretariat of National Defense (SEDENA) asking if I could access their storage facilities to take pictures.

The military is in charge of storing and destroying weapons, not only those handed in by the civilian population sometimes including those inherited from an ancestor who might have fought in the revolution but also the weapons confiscated in the six-year-long, ongoing drug war that has so far killed some 70,000 people. Those are generally larger calibers than great-granddad’s Winchester Rifle from the early 1900s. They confiscated everything from custom-made, gold-plated Colt Super 38 Automatic to rocket-propelled grenade launchers and lots of Kalashnikov AK-47s, the narcos’ weapon of choice.

After some months the Reuters’ office received a very formal phone call from an army sergeant inviting me to be on April 17th at 1200 hours at Gate 8 at the Military Field #1.

An officer received me at the gate and accompanied me throughout my visit. He walked next to me, sat next to me, drove with me in the car and was there when I was taking photographs. He was my own shadow. They frisked me for security reasons at least 15 times, and checked the interior of the car, my photographic equipment and my clothes.

A (cuantas estrellas) general welcomed me when I arrived at the storage room; he was with other officers from the PR department and another three or four soldiers who were functioning as security. To my surprise from that moment on, the general and the PR officers had to undergo exactly the same security checks as those that were performed on me.

“You got a lot of patience to go through all this repeatedly” my “shadow” said. I replied “there are thousands of confiscated weapons here, I really don’t mind…”

There were three tables set up outside the storage room. Arranged on display were probably the most eccentric weapons confiscated from the narcos: gold plated guns, some decorated with movie characters like Chucky or the “generous bandit” “Jesus Valverde”, better known as the narco-saint.

The general stood up on a small lectern and declared “from 2007 until now, 107,450 weapons have been stored at this facility. 95% have been destroyed and the rest have been put on display in museums or remain with the military after the due legal process but most of the confiscated weapons are stored in other State security institutions.”

“And now you can take pictures.”

After a while the general glanced at his watch telling me very politely that he still had other issues to attend to and if I could kindly wrap it up. I told him that I would do my best because I was heading to a soccer match between Argentina’s Boca Juniors and Mexico’s Toluca later on. “I visited the Bombonera (the stadium in Buenos Aires where Boca Junior plays its matches)”, the general said. “I thought it would be bigger.”

I smiled and said that it would be of great importance if I could actually enter the storage room.

He agreed and asked a soldier to put his finger on the fingerprint door lock to open the door. I was not allowed to take pictures that would show the entire area or pictures of the soldiers who were working inside. The place was one huge warehouse divided by metal shelves, some empty and others full. I had very little time so I started taking pictures of everything I saw, I could feel that my presence inside the storage room made the soldiers nervous.

Once back outside they guided me to the area where the weapons were being destroyed. I saw several officers, almost robotically, dismantling and destroying weapons. Some did the register; another stood on a small ladder to take pictures of guns arranged on a white background on the floor, others took off the wooden parts and screws of each weapon.

The wooden pieces were burnt on a grill normally used for barbecues. Another group of soldiers removed the firing pins from each weapon, then they cut them up to leave them inoperable. In between, the weapons were counted again and again.

One of the soldiers said to me, “You’re lucky, we do this only twice a year and only after we receive the judicial order to destroy the weapons.”

As I walked out I picked up my cell phone which I had left at the entrance and once in the cab I saw a soldier jogging. He was wearing a T-shirt with an image of late Argentine rebel hero Ernesto “Che” Guevara and beckoning me to stay away… the soccer match, Juan Roman Riquelme (player of Argentina’s Boca Juniors), la hinchada (Boca Junior’s fans) and Boca Juniors were waiting for me.

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