The following is an adapted excerpt from Ioan Grillo’s latest book, Blood Gun Money: How America Arms Gangs and Cartels.
Ciudad Juarez, Mexico — It wasn’t a tough choice money-wise. 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 10,000 dollars on a single trip.
Jorge, whose name has been changed due to security concerns, was just shy of 19, and desperate for funds. A high school dropout with a pregnant girlfriend, he didn’t want to become a sicario, or hired killer, like some of his friends, as he feared he would 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 Juarez, 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 informed on him to soldiers. They busted him with a stash of six guns and he was then sentenced to eight years and eight months on Mexico’s strict federal firearms charges.
His story sheds light on the vast flow of firearms from the legal U.S. market into the hands of cartels in Mexico that have contributed to violent devastation. Jorge’s methods show how not only U.S. laws are easily exploited by traffickers, but also how there are clear ways the U.S. government could clamp down on these sales—but still choose not to.
The gun trade, Jorge said, “is how people earn money. Thatʼs how they earn a living.”
Ioan Grillo's latest book takes a hard look at how U.S. guns fuel Mexico's deadly drug wars. (Image via Ioan Grillo).
Jorge had papers to go to the U.S. because 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 paid the cartel a quota to be able to traffic.
Jorge would buy the rifles in the U.S. for approximately $500 to $700 a piece and sell them for over $2000. He would buy about a dozen guns on each trip, sometimes even more. 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 said.
He found them at gun shows 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.”
In Mexico, there is 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, they have to hand in their cell phone and walk through layers of security. To actually buy a firearm, they have to produce seven pieces of paperwork, including proof of a clean criminal record and a letter from their employer. And then, after waiting months for approval, their name finally goes on a national gun registry.
The United States, by contrast, has by far the biggest legal firearms market in the world, with 393 million guns in civilian hands, according to the last count. This is more than the next 25 countries combined. The U.S. also has a parallel black market, in which firearms are sold to gangsters, drug dealers, and others with felony offenses who are theoretically 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, while also unleashing a river of firearms over the southern border.
Cartels in Mexico can bypass the country’s legal systems and get all the firearms they want from the vast U.S. gun market, smuggled by thousands of gun runners like Jorge. Between 2007 and 2019, Mexican security forces seized more than 164,000 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; instead, they think, 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 300,000 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.
When I went to a gun show in Dallas, Texas, I wanted to see if I could also bypass the system. There, with radio documentary producer Sean Glynn, we recorded our conversations with sellers.
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 told us.
These transactions get into the so-called “private-sale loophole.” 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 markup to criminals. For example, in Florida from 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.
On March 2, U.S. lawmakers reintroduced the Bipartisan Background Checks Act, known as H.R. 8, that would close this private sale loophole. “It’s one thing Congress can do that will help prevent gun violence,” said Representative Mike Thompson of California in a statement.
Gun traffickers will also acquire weapons by paying straw buyers, or those with clean records, to walk into shops and go through the background check. Straw buyers are paid as little as $100 per gun and normally only get probation if they get caught. There are plenty of stores to choose from as the U.S. boasts more than 130,000 licensed firearms dealers. Comparatively, the country has only around 14,000 McDonald’s restaurants.
“They’re [straw buyers] not going to get any jail time. What’s the deterrent factor?” Steve Barborini, a former agent of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, or ATF, told VICE World News.
Immense corruption also aids the vast proliferation of guns in Mexico. 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.
There are other such cases: 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. In the United States, I found a trafficker who had been laying fiber optic cables and had a government pass to travel over the border; he hid guns in the company crates.
More infamously, ATF agents watched as almost 2,000 guns were trafficked from Arizona sellers to Mexican cartels from 2009 to 2010 in operation Fast and Furious. They claim they were trying to build a major conspiracy case, but it blew up when border patrol agent Brian Terry was shot dead, and one of the guns from that operation was found.
Felipe Calderón, a former president of Mexico, was in power at the time. He told me that he knew there was an operation, but didn’t know all the details. “I was told the [U.S] government was going to do something really serious about prosecuting gun traffickers. And then we started to understand there was some kind of cover operation to do so,” Calderón said. “At that time, it sounds very good for us. But we never realized it was going to be a complete disorder.”
Mexican officials realized something was amiss, he said, when they captured cartel members who said U.S. agents were watching guns be trafficked south.
Following Fast and Furious, the Justice Department ordered a stop to such operations. But since then, the traffic of arms has continued apace.
Still, even those who have left the industry, by choice or by force, don’t expect gun running to stop anytime soon. Jorge said that when he eventually gets out of prison, he wants to go clean and start a legitimate business. But he fears that the gun trafficking to Mexico and the bloody fighting it fuels will carry on regardless. “This will never end,” he said.