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How America Arms Gangs and Cartels
An excerpt from the new edition of my book Blood Gun Money, released today
The following is an adapted excerpt from my book Blood Gun Money, which has a new paperback edition released today. Sales of a book following a release date really help how much it gets boosted out there so anyone buying it is super-dooper appreciated. You should be able to find it where you normally buy your books, or direct from the publisher here or on Amazon here.
It wasn’t a tough choice moneywise. Working as a laborer in his hometown in Chihuahua, Mexico, Jorge earned three hundred dollars a month. Buying guns from Texas and selling them south over the Rio Grande could score him more than ten thousand dollars on a single trip.
Jorge was just shy of nineteen, and desperate for funds. A high school drop out with a pregnant girlfriend, he didn’t want to become a sicario, or hired killer, like some of his friends, as he feared he’d end up as another corpse on the crime pages of the local newspaper. But it seemed less risky to drive up to Dallas, Texas, buy AR-15s at gun shows, and return south with them hidden in fridges and stoves.
“At the beginning I felt bad, but I got used to it. In the end I didn’t care,” said Jorge, slim and softly spoken with a trimmed goatee. “It’s the way you can have a good time. You sell weapons, you earn money, and you have fun. I bought a brand-new truck, a motorbike, women, drugs. I had everything.”
Jorge recounted his story as we sat in the sun-drenched patio of a prison in Ciudad Juárez, next to guards in anti-riot gear. He only had a “good time” for two years before he got into an argument with his cousin, who then snitched on him to soldiers. They busted him with a stash of six guns and he was sentenced to eight years and eight months on Mexico’s strict federal firearms charges.
His story sheds light on the vast “iron river” of firearms that flow from the legal U.S. market into the hands of cartels in Mexico and are used in violence that has devastated this country. His methods illustrate how U.S. laws are easily exploited by traffickers. But they also show how there are clear ways the U.S. government could clamp down on it while respecting the rights of law-abiding gun owners and the Second Amendment.
The issue of the iron river has gained prominence in the last two years with the Mexican government in 2021 filing a lawsuit against U.S. gun companies for negligence, which is currently under appeal, and filing a second lawsuit in 2022 against individual gun shops. Now in U.S.-Mexico meetings on drug trafficking, officials are under pressure to also discuss the guns being run south.
But while the conversation has changed, the reality has not. The iron river keeps flowing and cartel gunmen carry on fighting with brand new AR-15’s, Kalashnikov-style rifles and giant Barretts spitting out 50 caliber bullets. In the following years, we will find out if governments can tackle this particular issue, which seems to actually have a workable law enforcement solution, and the cartel firepower can be reduced.
Golden guns seized by the Mexican army and displayed in its “narco museum” Photo by Ioan Grillo.
The United States has by far the biggest legal firearms market in the world, with over 400 million guns in civilian hands, according to estimates, which is more than the next 25 countries combined. It also has a parallel black market, in which firearms are sold to gangsters, drug dealers, and others with felony offenses who are prohibited from wielding firepower.
Traffickers push a pipeline of illegal guns inside the U.S. from states with more liberal laws, such as Georgia and Virginia, to cities with stricter laws, including Baltimore, New York, and Washington, as well as unleashing the river of firearms over the southern border.
Mexico has only one official gun shop, which is run by the army and sits in a defense department building in Mexico City. When a customer enters, you have to hand in your cell phone and walk through layers of security. To actually buy a firearm, you have to produce seven pieces of paperwork, including proof of a clean criminal record and a letter from your employer. And then, after waiting months for approval, your name finally goes on a national gun registry.
But there is a way to bypass the system. Cartels can get firearms from the vast U.S. gun market, smuggled by thousands of gun runners like Jorge. Between 2007 and 2021, Mexican security forces seized more than 192,000 firearms from criminals that were traced to U.S. gun shops or factories.
The Mexican foreign ministry believes this is only the tip of the iceberg; they allege more than two million guns have been smuggled over the border in the last decade, reflecting similar findings to a U.S.-based study carried out in 2013.
These guns are used in what can be best described as a cross between crime and war, involving cartel hit squads that resemble paramilitaries, Mexican soldiers and militarized police, and thousands of “self defense” vigilantes. The nation has suffered more than 350,000 murders since 2007, more than 70 percent of which were committed with guns. In 2017, Mexico uncovered a single mass grave with more than 250 corpses.
Jorge had papers to go to the U.S. since his father ran a cattle export business. When he turned 18, he began traveling to Dallas to buy consumer goods like clothes and boom boxes, and when he returned to Mexico, he would sell them for a mark up. One day, a friend asked Jorge to buy an AR-15 and bring it across the border home for him. When he delivered it, the friend continued to ask for more.
Jorge became part of a three-man team, including a friend in Dallas who helped him get the weapons and the man in his hometown selling them. They didn’t work directly for the cartel but they sold guns to the cartel’s sicarios, and they paid the cartel a quota to be able to traffic.
This shows how the crime networks operate in a decentralized way with scattered autonomous cells, something U.S. agents seemed to struggle to understand when they carried out a botched sting against narco gun traffickers known as Fast and Furious (I will have a separate story on this highly significant operation that blows up in all kinds of directions).
Driving south over the border there are few checks, and Jorge even paid import duties on the fridges and stoves where he stashed the guns. “If I hadn’t gotten snitched on, I would maybe still be working on the same thing,” he says.
Jorge would buy the rifles in the U.S. for approximately $500 to $700 a piece and sell them for over $2,000. He would buy about a dozen guns on each trip, sometimes even more.
He found them at gun shows, he said, and bought them from businesses that would sell without leaving a paper trail. “There’s a black market right there at the gun show. You buy from the person who doesn’t ask for any paperwork,” he said. “If you go over to a person, ask for the price, and then they say, ‘I need your license,’ then you say, ‘I don’t want it,’ and go with someone else. The seller who tells you they don’t need anything, that’s where I used to buy.”
When I went to a gun show in Dallas, Texas, I wanted to see if I could do the same thing. There, with radio documentary producer Sean Glynn, we recorded our conversations with sellers.
The Jalisco New Generation Cartel - A narco paramilitary armed largely with rifles made or sold in the USA
Walking into a huge hall with seven hundred tables of guns and accessories, we found various licensed firearms dealers who asked for identification. However, there were also those that didn’t; private sellers offered guns without requiring any paperwork at all. In theory, these were meant to be collectors selling the odd weapons. But some had piles of brand new rifles on offer.
“No tax, no paperwork, out the door. That one’s unfired. We got one magazine with it,” one seller said.
These transactions get into the so-called “private-sale loophole” (sometimes called “the gunshow loophole,” which is less accurate as it also affects sales done outside them.) Collectors are allowed to sell guns in private deals, without asking for identification or requiring customers go through an instant background check to see if they are on record as a felon, or have a history of domestic violence that would prohibit them from being armed.
However, people like we saw at the show abuse the loophole to sell new weapons at a mark up to criminals. For example, in Florida in 2009 to 2010, Vietnam veteran Hugh Crumpler purchased 529 guns from shops and resold them at shows without paperwork. Following their sale, federal agents traced them to a group of Honduran traffickers and five shootings from Colombia to Puerto Rico. Crumpler was sentenced to 30 months in prison for dealing without a license.
After private sales, the second big way for cartels to get guns is through straw buyers, those with clean records paid to walk into shops and go through the background check. Straw buyers are paid low amounts, sums such as $50 to buys pistols, $100 for rifles and $500 for the 50 cals.
The reason they receive such low fees is that historically straw buyers have only been given probation. An example was Robert Riendfliesh, a twenty-five- year-old Iraq war veteran, who bought ten Kalashnikovs in a Texas pawn shop for the Zetas cartel. He was paid just $650. One rifle was found in the crew who murdered U.S. agent Jaime Zapata in 2011. Riendfliesh would get only four years’ probation in this high-profile case in which the gun was used to kill an American agent.
“They’re [straw buyers] not going to get any jail time. What’s the deterrent factor?” said Steve Barborini, a former agent of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, or ATF.
Ross McDonnell. An autodefensa or self defense squad in Guerrero, Mexico. For more of Ross’ work click here.
Such soft penalties for straw buyers could be changed following the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act approved last June. While the media coverage fixated on the clauses around mass shooters, almost all missed the Section 12004 which focuses on firearms trafficking. It states straw buyers can be given up to fifteen years in prison. But time will tell if that is actually enforced.
To clamp down on the private sales that Jorge describes, however, the U.S. would need universal background checks. Polls show there is strong support for them; one in 2022 by Morning Consult and Politico found 88 percent in favor of them and only 8 percent opposed. Most gun owners and conservatives are in favor. Despite this, legislators cannot find a majority in Congress to approve them. Still, President Joe Biden in March signed an executive order that will get closer to them by clarifying who is “engaged in the business” of selling firearms - to stop those like I witnessed abusing the law to sell guns in Dallas.
The Corruption South of the Border
While the United States can do much to tackle the problem, Mexico also has a huge amount of work to do to stop gun trafficking. Immense corruption aids the vast proliferation of guns south of the border. In the infamous barrio of Tepito in Mexico City, I interviewed an army veteran-turned-gun seller who began selling firearms when he served, returning weapons they had seized back onto the street. His officers ran the racket.
“We had a saying,” he told me. “ ‘There is no general who can withstand a cannonball of a hundred million pesos.’ ” (I found out later this is a variation on a saying by Álvaro Obregón, a Mexican revolutionary general and president.)
There are many such cases of seized guns being resold documented: In 2019, a man in Cuernavaca, Mexico was caught on camera killing two protesters with a Glock. It turned out the gun had previously been seized by police, but mysteriously disappeared from the vault.
Sometimes, the security forces sell their own guns. When federal forces took over the police base in Acapulco in 2018, they discovered that 342 guns, or 19 percent of their armory, were missing. Other towns have suffered the same fate. Between 2006 and 2018, there were officially 15,592 guns that went missing from Mexican police or soldiers, Mexico’s defense department reported.
Latin American security forces are also the source of many of the heavier weapons. In 2010, thieves sold 22 RPG-7’s from an armory of the Honduras military, and the weapons began turning up among Mexican gangsters. Truckloads of M-67 grenades have been robbed from stockpiles in El Salvador and trafficked north. They actually originated in the United States, given to bolster the Salvadoran government in that country’s civil war back in the 1980s.
Still, if Latin American security forces were selling all their guns to criminals, they would be on the street disarmed, but they still manage to have enough for their own personnel. Per year, Mexican police and soldiers are officially losing less than two thousand guns. Meanwhile, there are hundreds of thousands of cartel affiliates in Mexico. So the theft from Mexican security forces provides a few of their weapons, while the trafficking from the United States provides far more.
Narcos will adorn many of their guns in gold and precious stones, celebrating the tools they use to make money and spread death. The Mexican army puts some of the captured weapons in a museum in Mexico City, colloquially known as the “narco museum.” A pistol has the name of revolutionary Pancho Villa inscribed next to another with that of the fashion icon Versace. Another captured gun bears the phrase, “Only the dead have seen the end of the war.”
It’s a grim truth in the most violent parts of Mexico. But we have to hope that one day soon that will no longer be the case and the living will also know what peace looks like.
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Copyright Ioan Grillo and CrashOutMedia 2023.