How American firearms fuel violence in Mexico

Mexico, like the United States, has a gun violence problem. It has one of the highest murder rates in the world, and most of those murders come from firearms. In 2019, for example, almost 70% of  the country's 35,000 murders involved firearms.

But unlike the U.S., Mexico doesn’t have tens of thousands of licensed firearms dealers. 

It has two. 

So how do so many guns make their way into Mexico? And how do these guns shape Mexican society? 

These are two of the questions Ieva Jusionyte explores in her new book “Exit Wounds: How America’s Guns Fuel Violence across the Border.” Jusionyte is an anthropologist at the Watson Institute and spent much of the last few years following people whose lives are shaped by guns in Mexico. Guns, which, by and large, come from the United States. 

On this episode, Jusionyte discusses the impact of American firearms on Mexican society and the role they play in spreading violence and trauma on both sides of the border. 

Learn more about and purchase "Exit Wounds: How America’s Guns Fuel Violence across the Border"

Learn more about the Watson Institute’s other podcasts

Photo credit: Tony Rinaldo


DAN RICHARDS: From the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University, this is Trending Globally. I'm Dan Richards. Mexico, like the United States, has a massive gun violence problem. In Twenty Nineteen, almost 70% of the country's 35,000 murders involved firearms. But unlike the United states, Mexico doesn't have tens of thousands of places where you can legally buy firearms in the country. You know how many it does have?

IEVA JUSIONYTE: They have two gun stores.

DAN RICHARDS: Two in the whole country?

IEVA JUSIONYTE: Two gun stores in the whole country, yes.

DAN RICHARDS: That's Ieva Jusionyte. She's an anthropologist at the Watson Institute and has spent much of the last few years following people whose lives are shaped by guns in Mexico. Guns, which by and large, come from the United States.

Her new book, Exit Wounds-- How America's Guns Fuel Violence Across the Border, explores the impact of American firearms on Mexican society and looks at the role they play in spreading violence and trauma on both sides of the border.

IEVA JUSIONYTE: In our public discourse, anytime we think about the border, we think about what is coming into the United States, so drugs coming in here, but also migrants, asylum seekers fleeing violence. But we never make that connection that it is our guns in Mexico and Central America and the Caribbean that are causing the violence that then these people are fleeing.


DAN RICHARDS: Ieva has studied the us-mexico border for a long time. Her last book, Threshold, grew out of her time working as an emergency responder on the US-Mexico border. She worked on both sides of the border, providing medical aid to migrants attempting to enter the us, many of whom were fleeing violence in the communities they had called home. While working this job, she started to notice something.

IEVA JUSIONYTE: I was crossing the border almost every day. I was both in Mexico and in the United States. And at first, I didn't pay much attention to the signs that said guns and ammunition illegal in Mexico. I kind of just pass through them--

DAN RICHARDS: They were like billboards?

IEVA JUSIONYTE: There are billboards on the highways. And then there are when you pass through the port of entry. When just before you cross that line into Mexico where they might check your passport, there are also like signs that say, don't bring guns. I got interested because when you come into the United States, there are no signs don't bring guns into the United States.

DAN RICHARDS: One reason there were so many signs like this was because the two countries, simply put, have very different laws when it comes to firearms.

IEVA JUSIONYTE: Both Mexico and the US have constitutional right to possess firearms. However, Mexico in early Nineteen Seventies and '71, they passed this firearms and explosives law. That's very strict. So most Mexican civilians can have one handgun for their self-defense to keep it at home. People who are hunters or recreational shooters, belong to clubs, hunting clubs, gun clubs, they can have up to 9 rifles or shotguns. They need to register them every year.

DAN RICHARDS: In other words, these laws are much more strict than in the United States. And that's before you get to the more destructive weapons on sale in America.

IEVA JUSIONYTE: There are very limited calibers that are allowed. So most of AR-15 type calibers or AK-47, they are restricted for military use, military and police use only in Mexico.

DAN RICHARDS: The difference in the two countries gun laws, though, could only partially explain those billboards. And in fact, the laws bring up their own questions, like how could a country with such strict gun laws as Mexico have so much gun violence? So Ieva set about trying to understand, not only how guns made their way into Mexico, who bought them, who sold them, who was using them, but how do they shape Mexican society more broadly.


IEVA JUSIONYTE: The way I began is by talking to absolutely anyone in Mexico who would about guns. I began with government sources because Mexican government, Mexican military, is the only importer and provider of firearms in the country. I started talking to government officials. But from then, I branched out because I wanted to see who are the Mexican civilians who use firearms. I started talking to hunters and going to gun clubs.

DAN RICHARDS: But Ieva knew that if she really wanted to understand the place guns held in Mexico, she'd need to find her way into another part of Mexican society.

IEVA JUSIONYTE: Organized crime groups. When I set out to do this research, I wasn't sure I would ever be able to talk to people who were trained killers, sicarios, and people who were incarcerated for gun-related offenses in Mexico. But I met some journalists, and those journalists took me to some social workers. And those social workers knew people who live in these neighborhoods where gun violence is a big problem in Mexico. And a lot of people never wanted to talk to me. They never trusted me. But then as anywhere in life, there are some people who are much more willing to share and share their stories, especially if nobody else wants to listen to their stories.

When an ethnographer comes in, it's a good opportunity to recount life events that you can't really tell your family or just share with the public, especially if they involve committing violence.

DAN RICHARDS: Which brings us to someone we'll call Samara. Ieva met Samara while doing ethnographic fieldwork in Monterrey, Mexico's second largest city. When they met in Twenty Nineteen, Samara was 23 years old. They ended up having multiple conversations over several months.

IEVA JUSIONYTE: Samara is a very important protagonist in the book, primarily because she is one of the very few women that I met in doing this fieldwork on firearms. She grew up without her parents because her parents migrated to the United States, to Texas. So she was left with her aunts and uncles and grandparents. And as a child, she kind of felt neglected.

DAN RICHARDS: And when Samara was a child in the Two Thoudsands, Twenty Tens, her hometown of Monterrey was rapidly changing.

IEVA JUSIONYTE: There was a new organized crime group, which is the Zetas.

DAN RICHARDS: The Zetas grew out of an organization known as the Gulf cartel, one of the oldest and most powerful organized crime groups in Mexico.

IEVA JUSIONYTE: They dominated Northeast Mexico. And the Zetas were the armed branch of that cartel. The first members of the group were deserters from the Mexican military. They were trained soldiers, so they knew military tactics. Later, they began recruiting a lot from the ranks of police officers.

DAN RICHARDS: The Zetas were known for their military proficiency and brutality. Their connection to Mexico's security forces also led many to believe that some of them had once been trained in combat and interrogation by security forces within the US government. In Twenty Ten, the Zetas split off from the Gulf Cartel, leading to a prolonged period of violence between the two groups that engulfed the Monterrey region.

IEVA JUSIONYTE: That competition between the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas was what caused most violence. But the other entity in this conflict was the Mexican government, because the Mexican government took this very militarized approach to organized crime groups. They sent in the army basically because they couldn't trust the police.

DAN RICHARDS: As the violence and sense of lawlessness spread in the region, the Zetas--

IEVA JUSIONYTE: They began co-opting neighborhood gangs and various teenagers. A lot of young guys in their teens become members of these groups.

DAN RICHARDS: One day in Two Thousand Nine, Samara was taking the trash out of her apartment, and she ran into a group of heavily armed men, some of whom she realized she knew through her cousin. They asked her in a sort of veiled way if she wanted to get involved with the Zetas. She said no. She was 13.

A little while later, Samara was walking to her apartment one day. And she passed a group of armed men. A man in the group whistled at her. Samara turned to the man and said, how dare you?

IEVA JUSIONYTE: She basically got into this argument with guys who had guns in her neighborhood. She didn't have to do that. She just stood up for herself. She's a fighter.

DAN RICHARDS: However, she was no match for a group of armed men.

IEVA JUSIONYTE: She was abducted.

DAN RICHARDS: And that began her time with the Zetas, first as a prisoner, then as a member.

IEVA JUSIONYTE: She was forcefully recruited to be a member of the Zetas. She was taken to a training camp in Tamaulipas. And she learned to use various firearms.

DAN RICHARDS: The same attitude that got her in trouble with those men seemed to help her climb the ranks of the Zetas.

IEVA JUSIONYTE: Because she was so stubborn and so strong, I think the male leaders of the organization gave her a chance. There are women who work for organized crime groups. Most of them or some of them are forcefully or less forcefully made to engage in sex work. Others work to collect money, like extortion money. But she was one of the sicarios. Basically she was the one that was carrying a gun, a rifle, and a pistol.

DAN RICHARDS: After a while--

IEVA JUSIONYTE: She had some people working under her. And she was responsible for going to various places in the city to police and saying, you know, we will pay you in order to-- that you don't intervene in us selling drugs in these bars and these kind of neighborhoods. Some of the stories she recounted me, it was about situations where she was forced to engage in shootouts with the military or the police, because that's what organized crime groups does. That's what Zetas were doing. They were fighting both government forces. And they were fighting their rivals, which at that point was people from the Gulf Cartel. And there was other violence also in her own organization.

DAN RICHARDS: Violence perpetuated with American-made firearms.

IEVA JUSIONYTE: Most of those guns that are recovered in crime scenes in Mexico, at least 70% and more likely 80% or 90%, they all were originally sold in the United States.

DAN RICHARDS: So Samarra received these weapons from people in the Zetas organization, but how were they getting them? How are these weapons actually getting into the hands of organized crime groups in Mexico?

IEVA JUSIONYTE: So it's very compartmentalized. It's not so-- there is no gun cartel. People who are involved in it don't usually know each other.

DAN RICHARDS: In the book, Ieva outlines the links in the chain that bring guns from the United States into the hands of people like Samara. It starts in the United States, often with someone being asked to buy a gun for someone else.

IEVA JUSIONYTE: The person who buys is called the straw buyer, straw purchaser. They usually get only a couple hundred dollars for doing the job.

DAN RICHARDS: Straw buyers will often have a connection to someone involved in organized crime. But there's no one clear profile of a straw buyer.

IEVA JUSIONYTE: A lot of these border communities, people have family members on both sides of the border or have relatives. So sometimes a person who is involved in organized crime on the Mexican side, they would have cousins. So they would have a girlfriend in the United States. So often, the first people they recruit is somebody close.

The stories of the people who became smugglers that I tell, they have a lot in common. So there was this baseball player who got injured, and he had friends and family on both sides of the border, but he couldn't play baseball anymore. And this was just an easy way to make money.

Then I write about this person, his pseudonym is Hugo in the book, was a veteran, but he also got injured. And his military career was kind of derailed. He had a family. He couldn't earn enough. And somebody approached him and said, you know, would you sell me your rifle? There was nothing illegal to do a private sale of the rifle. But once you do that, maybe another time, they will ask, maybe can you buy us more Rifles, and we can give you this much money.

In a similar way to how drug dealers or low-level drug dealers are recruited to sell drugs in the United States, people in quite desperate situations agreed to become straw buyers for guns.

DAN RICHARDS: And lots of the time--

IEVA JUSIONYTE: The person who is buying the gun doesn't know where the gun is going, often doesn't even know that the gun is being smuggled. They just need some money. And this is an easy way to earn it in Texas or Arizona.

DAN RICHARDS: The straw buyer will then hand the gun over to the person who had asked them to buy it.

IEVA JUSIONYTE: Somebody else transports the guns to the border. Still, another person crosses the border with the guns.

DAN RICHARDS: And the person bringing those guns across the border--

IEVA JUSIONYTE: They conceal them under sheet rock or construction materials, futons, or in passenger vehicles, sometimes in like modified door compartments.

DAN RICHARDS: That person who's bringing them across the border faces risk. But as Ieva explains, maybe not as much risk as you might think.

IEVA JUSIONYTE: The US government doesn't prioritize inspecting what is leaving the United States. We are very interested in inspecting vehicles or people coming into the United States for drugs or whether they have the right documents. But for outbound lanes, if you're going to Mexico, it's very, very, very rare that anyone would check your car or your handbag.

DAN RICHARDS: If not stopped by US authorities on the way out of the United States, a car might be stopped by Mexican authorities on the way into Mexico. But in those cases--

IEVA JUSIONYTE: There is always a person known as the spotter. So somebody is watching outbound inspections. They would say, oh, the port is hot, so don't send the guns now. And they would wait until the law enforcement officers leave. And then they would send them across.

DAN RICHARDS: Where they wind up in the hands of black market arms dealers, organized criminal groups, and ultimately someone like Samara. And given the staggering firepower that people can legally buy in the United States--

IEVA JUSIONYTE: Those organized crime groups, some of them have much better firepower than the Mexican government. They've shot down helicopters. They've resisted arrest, like when they tried to arrest El Chapo's son in Culiacán, there was a big battle and he was not arrested that year. And similar, similar battles happen all the time when they try to arrest these organized crime group members.


DAN RICHARDS: As weapons flowed into Mexico and violence raged between organized crime groups like the Zetas and the Mexican authorities, something started to happen.

IEVA JUSIONYTE: People decided they needed to arm themselves. In some parts of the country, they form these autodefensas or self-defense groups.

DAN RICHARDS: But many civilians also went about this project of self-defense alone.

IEVA JUSIONYTE: Just individuals who, you know, they decide to armor their cars and install security cameras.

DAN RICHARDS: And buy guns, sometimes legally, often not, which brings us to another person Ieva profiled in her book, a man we'll call Miguel.

IEVA JUSIONYTE: So Miguel was the opposite of Samara. Both Miguel and Samara, they grew up in the same city. Samara grew up in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Monterrey. And Miguel grew up and lived in one of the wealthiest municipalities, not only in that part of Mexico, but in all of Mexico. That's where a lot of business is concentrated.

He came from a family of entrepreneurs or small business owners. So he was not somebody very rich, but he was of that social status with where most of his friends were lawyers and doctors and a lot of family members as well. He went skiing to Vail. And he had several cars. And a lot of his friends lived in these armored homes. His uncle even installed like a safe house inside his house. If they were attacked, that's where they would go hide.

But he was not like a lot of his friends that I met. He didn't delegate security to private security company, like a bodyguard or just security cameras. He decided he will get the guns. And he will stand up for himself and his family, which was somewhat unusual. But that's why I wanted to tell his story in the book.

DAN RICHARDS: So how would Miguel or anyone who's not involved in organized crime go about getting an illegal firearm in Mexico? How does it work?

IEVA JUSIONYTE: There is this black market of guns. You can go on WhatsApp. And there are-- there is even a vocabulary. If you want a used gun, it can be in some circles. It's called the a carnivore, carnivora because it has already tasted meat. If it's a new gun, it's a vegan, vegana.

He showed me a WhatsApp group. You can-- there are various guns. You can say, I want that one, or you can place an order for a gun that you would like. And most of his friends get guns like that. They place an order through WhatsApp. And those guns are delivered to a truck stop near Monterrey.

DAN RICHARDS: I sort of got the impression in your book that Miguel almost, not to belittle the security concerns he was facing, but he almost sort of enjoyed making himself more secure. It was almost like a hobby of his, learning how to use weapons, doing defensive driving, classes.

IEVA JUSIONYTE: Yeah, yeah. And in Mexico, where he lived, it actually-- it was useful to him. And I think we-- I've met people in the United States who are gun enthusiasts and who are preppers and who do very similar things to what Miguel did, but with less opportunity to actually use those skills.

I recount the story of Miguel, where he was overseeing this construction business near the airport. And one evening, he went to check on something. It was not yet dark when he got there. And he was talking on the phone with a friend. And then he saw a vehicle approach. And there was a kind of a wall around that construction site. So he saw the car pass. And then he would think that it would emerge through the next gap because the wall had gaps. And it didn't emerge. So he realized that the car stopped behind that barrier.

And soon after, he saw these two individuals walking towards him. One of them was wearing a construction vest, and the other one had lots of tattoos. When Miguel recounted me the story, he said he looked like from Mara Salvatrucha.

DAN RICHARDS: An organized crime group known in the United States as MS-13.

IEVA JUSIONYTE: Because he's never met gang members, but he saw them on TV or in photographs. And he said he was skinny and had lots of tattoos. They got closer to him. And he was still sitting in his car. He began talking to them. The construction guy said they were from the union, which Miguel found suspicious because he already made arrangements with the union. So Miguel reached for his gun.

He had a pistol underneath like a dust mask on the passenger seat. And he trying not to make any rash movements. He got the gun into his hand without showing it through the window. So the people he was talking to couldn't see it. He was just looking at the body language, because he not only got trained how to use the gun, but he also took like special self-defense classes. So he knew how to-- what to be aware of.

And when one of these individuals that was talking to him kind of started lifting his hand as if going towards his waistline, Miguel pulled his gun and pointed at the guys and then he sped up, and he never-- he didn't stop. And he didn't even have the gun loaded when he did this. But we never know, whether they would have tried to extort him or kidnap him. There was no way to know.

That kind of confirmed his choice to always carry the gun with him in the car, even though if he would be stopped by police or the military, he could be charged and imprisoned.

DAN RICHARDS: In the book, Ieva also explores the efforts taken to reduce gun violence in Mexico on both sides of the border. Though just like in the United States, reducing gun violence in a place awash in guns is incredibly difficult. There are gun buyback programs run by the Mexican government. Though Ieva quotes an official in Mexico overseeing the program who described it as a, quote, "grain of sand."

There have also been efforts on the US side of the border. In the late Two Thousands and early Twenty Tens, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives ran a number of what were known as gunwalking programs, sting-like operations used to find and catch straw buyers and gun smugglers. Some of these programs backfired spectacularly. One of which you might even have heard about.

FEMALE REPORTER 1: A government operation gone very wrong. It is called Fast and Furious.

MALE REPORTER: Highly criticized ATF gunwalking operation known as Fast and Furious--

FEMALE REPORTER 2: Controversial gun walking operation known as Fast and Furious.

DAN RICHARDS: Instead of trying to catch smugglers in the United States, the agents running this program--

IEVA JUSIONYTE: They tried to allow buyers to take these guns to Mexico in order to find out who are the ultimate organized crime groups who were ordering these guns.

DAN RICHARDS: US ATF agents, however, lost track of the weapons, essentially sending them into the black market in Mexico.

IEVA JUSIONYTE: Those operations left a really big dent in the relationship between the two countries and also in the reputation of ATF.

DAN RICHARDS: Ieva followed some ATF agents who have been working in the aftermath of these scandals to follow smugglers and hopefully crack down on the rings that help bring these guns into Mexico. However, they work a little bit differently than they used to.

IEVA JUSIONYTE: The current situation is that they do anything and everything to intercept the guns before they cross the border. So one of the incidents I recount, somebody told them that there was this woman who bought a lot of ammunition. I think it was maybe 10,000 rounds of ammunition at a store in Phoenix.

DAN RICHARDS: Not illegal in the United States to do that, but it is a red flag. So the agents got to work.

IEVA JUSIONYTE: They were able to have an undercover agent inserted into that operation. And they swapped all the ammunition for like, landscaping rocks and added some weight. So it would sound and weigh as if the boxes had ammunition. But if they lost track of them between Phoenix and the border, and those boxes got into Mexico, it would not be live rounds. It would not hurt anyone. Obviously, it's not always possible. They do lose guns just because how smart and how adaptive the smugglers are.

DAN RICHARDS: The task of stopping the flow of firearms into Mexico faces some of the same daunting economics as the mirroring flow of drugs into the United States.

IEVA JUSIONYTE: It's all about the supply, why is it so easy to buy so many and such powerful guns. And it's also about the demand, like why people in Mexico want these guns. As long as there will be the demand, there will be gun smuggling. Just the same way, as long as there is drug addiction in the US and people want to buy drugs, there will be drug supply from Mexico.

DAN RICHARDS: So gun buyback programs and the sort of crackdown on smugglers in the United States have not made a huge dent in reducing gun violence in Mexico. One other interesting strategy, though, that you discuss in the book has been a lawsuit filed by the Mexican government against a number of US gun manufacturers. And I wonder if you could just talk about that a little bit.

IEVA JUSIONYTE: It's a battle, because in the United states, we have this law since early Two Thousands, the Protection of Legal Commerce in Arms Act, which protects US gun manufacturers. And gun dealers from liability if something happens with their product. So the law shields gun manufacturers. And the Mexican government in their lawsuit, they are saying that, well, this might be true in the United States because this is our law. But this law does not apply for Mexico because Mexico never made this agreement with gun manufacturers that they would be exempt from what's happening in Mexico. And they are saying that the guns made by these groups and sold by these dealers, they are directly implicated.

And violence in Mexico, which costs a lot of money for the Mexican government, a lot of lives, and they want them to be responsible or at least not negligent in their practices of selling guns, continuing to sell guns to the same stores that have a very bad track record of their guns, eventually ending up in crime scenes in Mexico.

DAN RICHARDS: The lawsuit was dismissed in Twenty Twenty-Two but revived in January of Twenty Twenty-Four. And even if the Mexican government ultimately loses the case, its continuation through the American court system could have a real impact on what we know about the relationship between American guns and violence in Mexico.

IEVA JUSIONYTE: So next, if it's continuing to go forward, it will go into discovery stage. And in discovery stage, the gun companies will have to show us that data. Like, who are they selling these guns to? Do they know that these guns end up in Mexico? So we will have access to much more information. Now, there's just a lot of speculation or suspicion.

DAN RICHARDS: What do you see as some of the most important potential steps that could be taken to minimize this flow of weapons from the United States into Mexico? Or is it really something that can only be addressed more holistically by looking at the drug trade and organized crime? How do you think this problem can start to be unwound?

IEVA JUSIONYTE: Unfortunately, I think it is such a big mess that we got into with so many failed policies that we won't really be able to change anything significantly without addressing the drug addiction problem, for example, in the United States or the security situation in Mexico, which would require strengthening the criminal justice system, making citizens trust the police. Well, that will take a lot of years. But also, like any little thing we can do in the United States that would increase gun safety, would also have benefits in Mexico.

So, like if we had smart guns, for example. So you buy a gun and only the owner can use it, the same way that only you can unlock your cell phone. Well, that would, increase gun safety in the United States. So children wouldn't pick up parents guns or thieves would not be interested in stealing guns they cannot use. And it would also reduce their appeal for traffickers.

Doing background checks on private sales, thinking about like, could we cap the number of guns people would be allowed to buy? Like, do you really need 10 AR-15s in one month? You buy pseudoephedrine, it's-- you need to show your driver's license and you can only buy that much. So how many guns or how much ammunition do we really need to buy is another kind of thing we could consider.

But I'm also very hesitant to make the suggestion because of very, very strong evidence that any talk of new gun regulation like that, whether it's assault weapons ban or maybe limiting the number or type of guns people can buy, increases gun sales. And therefore, these policies need to-- we need to think more before putting them forward. I think a very important factor in this will be to address the demand side in Mexico, why people need guns there. And that has to do with why we want drugs. And that also has to do with just general insecurity there.

DAN RICHARDS: Well, Ieva, it is a daunting challenge on both sides of the border. But your book really, I think, helps tie a lot of these threads together and helps us in the US see gun violence and crime in Mexico from a whole new perspective, which I think is just so valuable for understanding these issues. So thank you so much for writing this incredible book and for coming back and talking with us on Trending Globally.

IEVA JUSIONYTE: Thank you for having me, Dan.

DAN RICHARDS: This episode was produced by me, Dan Richards and Zach Hirsch. It was engineered by Eric Emma. If you like Trending Globally, please leave us a rating and review on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen. And if you haven't subscribed to Trending Globally, please do that too. If you have any ideas for guests or topics, send us an email at trendingglobally@brown.edu. Again, that is trendingglobally@brown.edu. We'll be back next week with a special bonus episode of Trending Globally. Thanks for listening.

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