MEXICO CITY: Fed up with rampant crime, a Mexico City district is pressing locals to swap personal firearms for bikes, tablet computers and even cash, in a desperate bid to get guns off the streets.
Francisco Aro proudly showed off his 32-caliber Smith & Wesson, a collector’s item.
“It belonged to my great granddad. He was in the revolution,” explained Aro, who — sentimental value aside — opted for the swap set up by Mexico City authorities trying to disarm dangerous Iztapalapa.
“Now, at least I’ll get some exercise,” smiled the 33-year-old as he patiently waited his turn to make a deal.
There were about 60 people, all with pistols in hand, in the line snaking out of a church.
When they reached the front of the line, a small team of police and military staff collected their weapons anonymously. And the swappers got their choice of rewards, from shiny new bikes to electronics and, always popular, money.
The Mexico City program, called “Voluntary Arms Trade-in: It’s For Your Family,” just kicked off on December 24 for a week of work.
“For every day of the program, we are spending 300,000 pesos” ($23,000), said a city government source, who spoke on condition they not be named.
Though officials so far have collected more than 200 weapons, improving safety in the midst of an organized crime nightmare that has rocked the nation is the tip of the iceberg. And the authorities still have an uphill battle ahead of them.
President Enrique Pena Nieto, who took office December 1, has vowed to improve public safety in the face of a relentless drug war that has killed more than 60,000 people in the last six years alone. Drug cartels are ruthlessly jockeying to control lucrative trafficking routes.
So swaps from these folks aren’t necessarily going to solve the country’s biggest problems.
“The bad guys normally have several weapons. So they might just swap one that doesn’t work, or one they don’t like, and keep the rest,” said Augusto Martinez. At 79 years young, he traded in a Colt 80 revolver for a bike and some cash.
Skeptics also include the army personnel sent out to collect the swapped guns.
“Look at the shape this stuff is in. Most of these guns are out of order, or very old,” one commander said privately. “Most of the people who bring them in are middle-aged family men who inherited these from their grandparents.”
Though it is illegal to carry weapons in Mexico — unlike in the United States — the country has to battle with a steady influx of illegal weapons from its northern neighbor. The weapons make their way into the hands of drug traffickers and organized crime.
The federal government says, however, that it has seized more than 107,000 weapons just from 2006-2012 — 90 percent of which were trafficked in from the United States.
Still, lawmaker Jesus Valencia has had enough of crime in Iztapalapa — the second most violent part of the federal capital. He said it was worth a try to get some guns off the streets, so that fewer lives would be lost to stray bullets.
In November, a 10-year-old boy lost his life in just such a tragedy, as did a woman on December 13.
Authorities have also reached out to kids. As part of the program, they can swap violent toys for new ones that are not.
Suriel Guadalupe, a four-year-old dressed up as Spider Man, lined up and took two plastic pistols out for a trade. “I don’t want them any more,” he said, swapping them for a basketball.