capture, El Lucky, Zetas drug cartel
Mexican authorities capture founder of the Zetas drug cartel Raul Lucio Hernandez Lechuga, aka ‘El Lucky,’ who had an arsenal of 169 guns when he was captured on December 13, 2011, in Mexico City, Mexico. Photo credit: © Fernando Ramirez/El Universal/

The real gun problem stems from criminals, drugs, and law enforcement. Not mass shootings and politics.

When we think about guns and gun laws, we immediately think about mass shootings and the assault weapons that make big news. What gets overlooked are simply the huge number of guns on the street and the use of those guns in everyday crimes. We now have more guns in the United States than people. Gun sales during the pandemic have only exacerbated those trends.

A couple of weekends ago, in a 72-hour period, there were 475 shootings resulting in 123 people dead. Just another weekend in 21st century America.  

My guest on this special WhoWhatWhy podcast is Ioan Grillo, a longtime journalist based in Mexico and the author of Blood Gun Money: How America Arms Gangs and Cartels. He provides a wake-up call to remind us of the connection between gangs, drugs, and guns.  

Grillo explains the huge numbers of guns being sold in the US and brought to Mexico and Central America, and details how some of those guns make the round trip back to the US. In this grim roundabout of criminality, we learn how US street-drug sales are actually helping support US gun manufacturers and sellers.

One of the reasons we can never get a handle on gun proliferation is that the relevant US agencies — the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) — never seem to work together on the problem. 

According to Grillo, if guns were seen not as symbols of freedom but as key accessories in our epidemic of addiction and crime, the debate and the solutions might be different.

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Full Text Transcript:

Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast? I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. There are now more guns on the streets of America than people. A couple of weekends ago in a 72-hour period, we had 475 shootings resulting in 123 people dead. Just another weekend in 21st century America. Every time there’s a mass shooting, the gun debate heats up, and then in a matter of days, it usually cools down. Even Newtown didn’t make a difference. We look at guns and gun violence as a sui generis American problem, one built around the emotional tent-poles of freedom, the Second Amendment, and the polarization of political debate.

There is a bigger part of the iceberg that’s below the surface, and that is the connection between guns on the street and drugs, cartels, gangs, and a force darker and more sinister than the NRA. We’re going to talk about all of this today with my guest, Ioan Grillo. He’s a contributing writer at the New York Times, specializing in crime and drugs. He’s based in Mexico City and he’s worked for Time Magazine, the History Channel, CNN, Reuters, and the Associated Press. He’s the author of the books, El Narco, and Gangster Warlords. His latest work is Blood Gun Money. It is my pleasure to welcome Ioan Grillo to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. Ioan, thanks so much for joining us.

Ioan Grillo: Great to be here, Jeff.

Jeff: Why don’t we talk more about drugs and gangs when we talk about the gun problem in America today?

Ioan: I think when the gun problem comes up in the United States, and I speak as a Brit, who’s been living in Mexico for 20 years, so I’m a foreigner to the United States, but a country I do love and I’ve been reporting on quite intensely. I think when the United States looks at guns, it very hits to the emotions and two core things dominate the discussion about guns. The first is the mass shootings. For obvious reasons when you have these things from Columbine to Parkland, to Las Vegas, that such extraordinary traumatic events, I think if you say guns, this is going to really dominate the discussion. This will really come up and be the thing dominating people’s conversations.

The second is more the issue of gun rights, the NRA, and these organizations that have been around for many years and the culture around that. I think these things are so strong and emotive that the issue of guns and crime, guns and drugs, it’s overlooked. In many ways, this is really the core issue or one of the core issues about firearms. If we look at firearms deaths in the United States, the majority are carried out by people who have the guns illegally and often very, very connected to the drug trade. On a broader level, if we look at the guns coming down to Mexico, it’s getting linked massively to the cartels and illegal gun drug trades.

The guns also going to Central American countries like El Salvador, Honduras with very high levels of homicides, and again, linked to this. I think these other very, very emotive issues make us overlook what is in some way, such a core issue in this discussion.

Jeff: A core issue and also the connection between the black market for guns that’s driven by the gangs and the cartels and the way these guns get on the streets of America.

Ioan: Yes, absolutely. I’ve been investigating cartel violence for 20 years I’ve been in Mexico and this is my third book on organized crime. I first wanted to go into this issue of how guns are moving in the black market, looking very simply at the criminal issues and not looking so much at the emotive politics, but I found it was impossible to do. I found that when you get into this and look at how laws were applied in the United States, how the laws play out, you have to get into the gun politics. You have to get into the idea of, for example, what we could describe or has been described as a private sale loophole, why the laws haven’t been applied for some sales and that’s abused by traffickers.

Why it is that when a smoking gun is literally discovered at a crime scene when they’re searching for it, when the ATF, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms are searching for it, they’re not allowed to do a digital search. That’s against the law. When you see these crazy surprises in the enforcement, this comes down to the gun politics. The fact that you have this legal industry selling guns, and these companies producing these guns in factories, some in the United States, some over in Europe or further afield and a huge amount of their product is produced legally then goes to criminals, goes to drug dealers, and they’re aware of this, but that’s the way they do business.

Jeff: What is the nexus then between the gangs, the cartels in Mexico, and guns on the streets of the US?

Ioan: In Mexico, we’ve got this habit wave of violence over the last two decades, particularly the last 16, 17 years. This has been driven by the fighting between these cartels, these major criminal organizations who are trafficking billions of dollars of drugs to United States, but they’re also involved in a whole bunch of other crimes. They’ve really diversified to a portfolio of activities, including wildcat mining, including human smuggling, sex trafficking, product piracy, oil theft, and all of these things. Now, this violence has been extraordinary. It’s been completely crazy. You hear about these things like these mass graves with almost 300 corpses in the mass graves.

You had these many bad things happening in the century like an armed conflict. We’re seeing this huge iron river of firearms flow from an illegal market in United States to Mexico to supply these cartels. This is indisputable. If you look at the ATF’s official figures in the last 12 years, we get more than 160,000 firearms traced directly from criminals in Mexico, including some of the most violent cartels to shops and factories in the United States. That’s only the tip of the iceberg. That’s guns that have been seized and effectively traced, but the estimates, the real numbers are more than 200,000 firearms every year.

The cartels here who are really causing this destruction to the point of destabilizing parts of this country are very, very linked to the criminal black market of guns in the United States.

Jeff: Where do all these Guns wind up? These numbers are so astronomical.

Ioan: You see, in Mexico, a huge amount of armed criminals, you see criminals, every day we have these new incidents emerge of a convoy of 50 vehicles full of guys with AR-15s, AK-47s driving through a town. Like shootouts every day, more than 3,000 murders a month in this country. Really, really incredible things, very sad things. Then because the guns have also gone to the heavily armed groups, they’ve also gone to some other people who are more like vigilantes trying to fight the cartels who are also getting guns. Also, you get guns filtering down the scales. You get things like when the more serious criminals might use their gun in a crime to shoot a high-ranking police officer or a politician, and then dump that gun on the street and they get resold.

You have school kids here with firearms and incidents where 13, 14-year-old kids with illegal firearms as well. You get really the cycle of violence is not only the organized crime being very bad but a spillover effect that regular common crime being worse as well.

Jeff: Given the scope of the problem, is it silly to assume that this conversation that takes place here in the US about gun shows and sales and background checks, et cetera, et cetera, that that really can’t even make a dent in the scope of the problem?

Ioan: What I found in my investigations is that, for many years, I saw this, like you’re saying as it’s an intractable problem, but when I really got into investigating how this is happening, one breakthrough

interview for me was in 2017. I interviewed a gun trafficker in a prison in Mexico in [unintelligible 00:10:04] and explained the exact modus operandi that he was driving to the United States to Dallas to gun shows and he was going back into Mexico every weekend with more than a dozen AR-15s. When I saw this, I realized there’s been no even basic effort to stop these guns going to the criminals.

I’ll give some examples. You have criminals walking to shops and buying 10 AK-47s sevens exactly Identical as AK-47 in a single model and they’re going to the cartels. How is there not even a red light there if somebody’s going in and buying 10 identical AK-47s, the bigger sales. There are single sales with people who have bought 85 firearms in a single sale. There’s cases like one in Florida of the guy who bought 1,000 firearms and resold them to gun traffickers and gun shows abusing this private sale loophole. The private sale loophole is this idea that if you’re just a private regular person just reselling an old gun you have in a collection you don’t need paperwork for it

In this case, he was reselling more than 1,000 guns and he was deliberately going to traffickers for profits. These things are happening. Other examples of somebody who’s supposedly a housewife walking in and buying 10 50-caliber firearms, these big, big guns which fire bullets the size of small Coca-Cola bottles. They are used by the cartels to have these ambushes against military and police. These kinds of things are happening, and I think it could be basically law enforcement to try and crack down on this. It does not challenge the rights of Americans to have guns. It does not challenge to Second Amendment. It’s simply saying trying to enforce stopping guns being given so blatantly to the criminals.

Now even if the idea is you’re not going to stop this completely they’re still going to be cartels with guns, there are still many guns moving around, but reducing the number of firearms could have an effect. Right now, we see the fact that any 15-year-old wannabe gangbanger here has one AK-47. You see they’re doing these ambushes, these are things that I’m covering and I’ve been covering over many years. They’ll ambush might be police at a stoplight and they’ll just spray 500 bullets and kill the five cops, and also kill the guy driver behind, the other guy selling tacos on the side of the street, a child and a woman walking around with the child and they’ll be hit.

All of this extra damage because the abundance of firearms is so much. For the record, I mean for the historical record the fact is you’ve had these violent we liken to an armed conflict in Mexico and some people consider a weird hybrid armed conflict in Mexico the last decade and a half, and America is complicit in supplying the guns to it and doesn’t want that as part of what its country is doing.

Jeff: How much are the guns that find their way down in Mexico make their way back to the US as part of this Iron River as you call it?

Ioan: There are some but the majority once they are down here, they stay down here but there are some cases in fact, when there’s been some big spotlights on this, it’s been in some of those cases. One example was the shooting of a border patrol agent from the BORTAC unit, Brian Terry in December 2010. Now that was a special case because that gun was traced to an ATF, again the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives, the gun police. An operation by them called Fast and Furious and anybody who followed the visual will immediately want to know about Fast and Furious or bring that up.

Fast and Furious was a botched operation by the ATF back under the Obama Administration where they attempted to have a big op to trace these guns and build up a conspiracy case. They followed almost 2,000 firearms from gun centers in Phoenix, Arizona. Then they went over the border and they got lost and one of them met with some group of criminals, they came back up over the border, these criminals who cross the border illegally. They got in a firefight with BORTAC agents and shot dead Brian Terry. It became a very, very big case. There are some high-profile cases like that but the majority of them stay down here but these same issues very much affect the United States.

If you look at the firearms deaths in Baltimore, suffering a very high number of deaths. If you look at firearms deaths in New York, in Washington which has gone down but you’re now seeing surges for various reasons but you still have these big firearms trafficking these same techniques. As part of my book, Blood Gun Money I did go and talk to firearms traffickers in Baltimore, Maryland. I talked to another firearms guy who’s involved in it over in New England. A guy called Billy Jack Curtis working for a group colluding with prison gangs and also come out of workers. You see my networks are very, very similar in the United States and affecting the deaths in the United States.

Jeff: To what extent can we begin to deal with the gun issue by dealing with the drug issue?

Ioan: These things are entwined. I think one of the reasons on these issues, drugs, and guns there have been drug and gun deaths in the United States, deaths here in Mexico. We do need to have comprehensive approaches to these, try and get politics– One of the reasons the failures of modern government from these areas is that everything is isolated so you have the drug czar and then you have the ATF and then you have immigration issues. You realize that all these are very, very connected. Part of the issues of refugees of the Southern border they’re running from gun violence and this gun violence is linked to the guns and drugs politics in the United States.

You see these things are looping around. I think if we try and have a comprehensive approach, I think it begins with an idea of harm reduction. A philosophy back in 1971 when President Richard Nixon declared the war on drugs, he declared drugs are public enemy number one of the United States. He spoke of the abolition of drugs from American life. He said there would be no drugs in American life and this heroin would not be a problem. Now 50 years after that we see record overdose deaths in the United States, it’s obviously failed. I think we have to look at the idea of harm reduction, how do we reduce the harm from the bad effects of drugs?

How we reduce the harm from the money going to the illegal drug trade? The same with guns, how do you reduce the harm of criminals getting guns who want to commit murder and so forth? To try to build a more comprehensive solution to this. I think it means in terms of guns, universal background checks which is supported by 89% of Americans, and 81% of gun owners themselves trying to crack down on what they call the stroll purchasers, who are people who are paid by criminals to go into a shop and buy guns knowing that these are guns going to cartels. The gangs are criminals, they know that they’re going into the shops they are buying guns.

The recommended punishment for that now is probation. That’s even when these guns are used in crimes of killing innocent women and children at the border or in cities like Baltimore. Clamping down that enforcement, again the harm reduction of the bad violence using guns and with drugs a climbing a harm reduction there. I think the marijuana debate is now being one basically in the public sphere, but right now and as we speak, we still have money being used by illegal marijuana and that’s supplying gangs, supplying cartels being used to buy guns to try and get that money out of that now for marijuana.

When we get to harder drugs it’s a difficult discussion but it could start off with the idea of, we really have to treat addicts. According to the American Medical Association, 90% of the addicts in the United States who need treatment are not getting the treatment. At the beginning the lot get a lot of things to move there, we’re simply trying to treat addicts and offer them treatment to try and reach addicts. There’s a lot of money on drugs which is then used by these dealers who are buying guns, by cartels buying guns and feeding back into this negative circle of violence.

Jeff: Why are we seeing surges now?

Ioan: I believe that the rise of gun homicides in the United States late last year and early this year there’s various reasons and you look at these rigs of gun violence going up and down over the years. I do believe that the protests against the police and a lot of confidence in the police are a factor in this. We have to get through some difficult conditions in the cities but it seems hard that they couldn’t be a factor in this when we’ve seen clear rises of violence in many cities. There are

other factors as well with the continued large illegal drug markets, people making money off that illegal black market in firearms, supplying people.

We have seen as well with an aspect of the lockdown and the pandemic an increase in drug overdose deaths. We’ve actually seen a negative effect, a lot of despair, a lot of depression, and this gets into very polarizing issues in the United States, but there are some hard, for instance, some hard realities there to look at in terms of the violence.

Jeff: Where do the gun manufacturers fall into this equation?

Ioan: It’s interesting. I looked at the gun industry and I talked to some people in the legal gun industry. I went to cover gun factories and looking at the things, the different stages of this. On one side I see there’s one example, this is actually with a gun bloke over in Eastern Europe who was selling AK 47s did various things. It was a very interesting example though I think there’s a lot of the mentality. He was sending guns to Saudi Arabia, to various governments in Africa, to Iraq and I asked him if he was concerned about the guns that he sold, ended up with the Islamic state.

There were these various ways that guns were sold legally to governments and then get leaked and end up with the Islamic state. He said he wasn’t worried because if he was obeying the law if the sales he was doing were certified he was protected. I said, “I’ll repeat the question. I know you’re protected legally, but are you concerned ethically if the guns you sell end up with people who are committing murders.” He looked at me for a second, then he just said, “No.” I think it was a blunt answer. It was a very telling, I think, very fruitful and honest about what a lot of the people in the industry think.

If you ask somebody who’s involved a gun manufacturer if they say, “How do you feel if your guns end up down with cartels in Mexico or with dealers on the corner of Baltimore?” Then most of them say they were legally protected because I sold it legally to a gun seller and then somebody bought it through– It wasn’t my fault, but “Ethically are you worried?” They said, “Well, no because I’m protected.” I think that sums up a lot of this how you sold that it’s difficult I think even to get people to really grow a conscience. I think it’s about, or at least persuading, then there’s some people in the gun industry to enforce these things. There is I think a mixed feeling in the gun industry itself about some of this.

Some of them, you see people who are not concerned about profits, but some of them are more concerned and it is probably a smaller percentage of the guns, but you also have this pressure from some of the hard end of the gun’s rights movement. That in a way, what I call the Second Amendment fundamentalists who have such fundamentalist idea of the Second Amendment cannot be infringed on at all and any regulation is an attack, and it’s part of a cycle of trying to grab the guns, get the guns off. They really attack even, then you see examples of they attacked companies that tried to support things like smart guns, which are guns only respond to– they try to attack these measures.

I think that comes through as well. Right now, there is a huge window of opportunity. You have the majority with the tie-breaking vote, the vice president majority in the Senate, you’ve got the big popular support looking for some measures. There’s certain things like why is a universal background check, why is that not being passed yesterday? Why is it why are we still waiting on that? I think that’s the big question to ask. There was measures that can be taken right now.

Jeff: What is the attitude towards this proliferation of guns in Mexico? What is the public policy position and attitude about all of this there?

Ioan: Historically, about 10 years ago you had the president of Mexico, then Felipe Calderon start taking a stronger position of, “There’s got to be something done about this, why is the US not acting.” Then you had the Fast and Furious scandal in 2011, that broke into the public sphere. After that, this issue was left the last decade. That time we saw a huge amount of guns pouring South. Now we have seen the current government also technically particularly the Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard. He’s now taken up this issue and they are now lobbying on this issue again.

I think among many of the informed public in Mexico they will immediately point out this issue well the guns are coming from the United States. This was a big problem in any subject. There’s also other people who, there are divided in Mexico it’s complicated. There was one woman I interviewed a very classic story of her son being disappeared, being forcibly taken by an armed group. Then they couldn’t find him for many years until eventually, she located his body in a mass grave. I asked her, “Do you feel bitter towards the United States that guns were coming from there?” She said, “I feel more bitter towards my own government here in Mexico. They’re the ones who failed to protect me.”

There’s mixed feelings. There’s a lot of long-term disillusionment with the system here in Mexico. There has been a failure, a basic failure of public security here, but then there are plenty of people who are saying, “What about the United States and these guns coming down from the US?” It’s certainly an issue on the agenda here. Certainly, many people are very aware of this.

Jeff: What do you see as the future of this? How do you see this playing out?

Ioan: I want to be optimistic and say there are things that can be done and we can confound these problems. Then also be realistic about this broken– I see it in some ways, a broken political time we live in, where a lot of problems are not solved. I see politics has been quite broken in many countries. Eventually, in the long term, I think this has to be resolved. I think this is, what I’ve been covering the last 20 years in Latin America and say Mexico and El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Colombia, Brazil, Venezuela, this very historic moment of violence and really pretty crazy virus. There’s 20 years of seeing more than 2 million homicides in this region.

This has been worse violence in the Middle East. The Middle East has been a lot of places where there’s been focused on, but really they’ve been more bodies piled out here. I think this is a historic time of violence that has to end at some point. Then there has to be some resolution to these things of guns, policing, drugs, and interrelated issues. I think it will take time. However, trying to put forward, for people trying to take a more conscientious role about this and trying to understand this better could make that ending be sooner rather than later.

Jeff: Loan Grillo, his book is Blood Gun Money: How America Arms, Gangs and Cartels. Ioan, I thank you so much for spending time with us.

Ioan: Great. Thanks much. Really appreciate it. Great interview.

Jeff: Thank you.

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Official U.S. Navy Page / Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

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