From guns to gardening: ending the illegal arms trade

Illegal firearms, mostly smuggled in from the USA, are fuelling violence in Mexico. In response, thousands of guns have been transformed into gardening tools, musical instruments and public art.

Marguerite Ward
11 December 2013

Credit: World Policy Journal/Pedro Reyes. All rights reserved.

The USA's lax gun laws and holes in gun trafficking enforcement are fueling a massive illegal arms trade across its southern border into Mexico. According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (or “ATF”), two out of every three illegal firearms found in Mexico originate in the USA. In other words, each year, over 253,000 guns purchased in the United States are smuggled south of the border. 

Why should we be concerned? For one, there is a direct correlation between gun ownership in cities and gun violence: as one increases so does the other. But that’s true regardless of location. A paramount issue that is specific to the U.S.-Mexico border is the link between illegal guns and the drug trade. Outside of one firearms store in Mexico City, there are no other stores to purchase guns in Mexico. And yet, the drug wars have claimed the lives of thousands.

Without firearms, the ability of gangs to acquire and smuggle drugs would be greatly weakened. And given the fact that the U.S. spends $51 billion a year on the war on drugs, reducing the proliferation of illegal guns flowing across the border is a security issue that Capitol Hill cannot ignore. This issue has proven truly complicated, especially in light of the 2006-2011 ATF "Fast and Furious" scandal.

In the absence of effective methods to deal with U.S.-Mexico gun sales, Pedro Reyes, a young Mexican, has achieved a milestone in combating the illegal trade of guns. He has broken Mexico’s all-time record for the most guns that have been voluntarily surrendered. But Reyes is not a member of law enforcement or government. He is an artist. Born and raised in Mexico, he has witnessed the effects of gun violence in his country, and has decided to engage directly with the population that is most endangered by it.

“I’ve always felt that one of the least productive activities is to complain. So, living in Mexico, I felt that there was something that could be done about the problem of guns that are illegally entering the country. I wanted to capture people’s imagination,” Reyes told me. 

In 2007, Reyes began his project Palas por Pistolas (“Shovels for Guns”) in Culicán, Mexico. The project made its debut by airing soap opera- style TV ads revealing the dangers posed by handguns. The commercials invited citizens to voluntarily surrender (or donate) their guns in exchange for coupons that could be used in local stores - no questions asked. 

With support from local authorities and the Botanical Garden of Culiacán, Palas por Pistolas stayed true to its aim of curbing gun violence. Reyes melted and re-molded 1,527 civilian guns into gardening tools. He then organized public tree plantings using the shovels he created to show how an object that can be used to destroy life could now be used to support it instead. 

In direct contrast to the parades, gun-shows, and gun-fairs that amount to a public celebration of arms, Reyes’ project is a celebration of nonviolence. “There’s a kind of celebration where there’s a community day, and people do the planting. People have the opportunity to gather face-to-face in a public space and engage in something that becomes sort of a ritual,” he said. Ceremonial tree plantings have since taken place worldwide, including in San Francisco, Paris, Denver, and Vancouver.  

A recent study released in 2013 found that the amount of gun violence in teen-marketed PG-13 movies has more than tripled since 1985 in the USA. Video games like “Call of Duty” and “Grand Theft Auto” that are known for their violence top the global sales charts. On social media, a surprising number of gun-lords have started bragging about their guns by posing for photos with AK 47’s and Colt .45s. For Reyes, art has a lot to do with political change: “Film, television, and video games are a big advertisement for guns. It’s very easy to be seduced by guns, and the sense of power that’s tied to them,” he told me.

Pedro Reyes’ art is also a statement against the “trigger happy” art industry. “[Palas por Pistolas] is more of an attempt at a cultural shift because the way that guns are portrayed in popular culture is very different from the impact they have in the real world,” he said. 

Most recently, Reyes’ work of transforming guns into inspiring objects has taken on a new dimension. In Ciudad Juárez, the Mexican government provided Reyes with 6,700 destroyed weapons to be made into shovels for planting. With a growing following, Reyes has since launched “Imagine” and “Disarm,” two new projects that transform firearms into musical instruments. Incorporating intricately crafted woodwind and percussive instruments, the project sounds as beautiful as it looks. 

The fight against gun trafficking and violence will be waged on two stages - the cultural stage and the political stage. Interactive and direct, Palas por Pistolas encapsulates the type of work that advocates are using to engage people in candid conversations about an otherwise-controversial subject. From encouraging people to dispose of their guns to exposing young adults to the dangers they pose, Reyes believes that political artwork can bring about real change. Alone, however, it is not enough. 

On the political stage, a tough road lies ahead for those who seek to curb gun trafficking. According to a 2012 study by the The Igarapé Institute and the University of San Diego’s Trans-Border Institute, nearly half of all U.S. firearms dealers depend on business with Mexico to keep operating. The ATF reports that illegal business was about as large as the legal total of $6.7 billion in sales. If illegal gun trafficking stops, so will the cash flow of retailers. Gun lobbyists will do everything in their power to prevent this from happening.

The Stop Illegal Trafficking in Firearms Act of 2013, a bipartisan bill introduced to Congress earlier this year, presents a number of viable options to deal with this issue. The bill would help both Mexico and the USA by supporting law enforcement officials to investigate and prosecute gun trafficking and “straw purchasing” (a process were a person buys a gun for someone else who is prohibited from buying one themselves).

Even President Obama has recognized the importance of addressing the illegal arms trade. During a speech earlier this year at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, he said that U.S. gun policy reform can "save lives here in Mexico and back home in the United States." If Pedro Reyes can gain more momentum in the upper echelons of the political sphere, he may be able to help solve a truly important international issue.

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