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Ioan Grillo on the Campbell Conversations

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Ioan Grillo
Ioan Grillo

On this week's episode of the Campbell Conversations, Grant Reeher speaks with Ioan Grillo, a British journalist and writer based in Mexico. Grillo has been writing about gangs, cartels and the gun trade from the United States. He's recently published the book, "Blood Gun Money: How America Arms Gangs and Cartels".

Program transcript:

Grant Reeher: Welcome to the Campbell Conversations. I'm Grant Reeher. My guest today is Ioan Grillo, a British journalist and writer based in Mexico who has been writing about gangs, cartels and the gun trade from the United States. He's recently published, “Blood Gun Money: How America Arms, Gangs and Cartels”. He's also the author of, “El Narco: Inside Mexico's Criminal Insurgency”, and, “Gangster Warlords: Drug Dealers, Killing Fields and the New Politics of Latin America”. Ioan is a contributing writer at The New York Times, and he's also worked for Time magazine, Reuters, the Associated Press and Esquire. Ioan, welcome to the program.

Ioan Grillo: Great to be here.

GR: It's good to have you. So your book, “Blood Gun Money’, begins with the trial in Brooklyn of Joaquín Guzmán or, “El Chapo”, as he's often known as. The former head of the Sinaloa drug cartel in Mexico. And as you say in your book, Guzmán is right up there in fame as a gangster with Pablo Escobar and Al Capone. So why did you start your book with him, a book about guns, why did you start your book with him?

IG: Yeah, I mean first, a very historic moment since I came from the UK to Mexico back in the year 2000, so now more than 22 years ago. And, you know, it's kind of building up in some ways. Just after I arrived in Mexico, in January, 2001 was when El Chapo first escaped from prison and then kind of building up in the final trial in Brooklyn in 2019 was like a historic moment, that kind of historic moment in the drug war or accumulation of this kind of kingpin strategy finally bringing him down. But the very interesting thing was that though he was, at the trial, it was a drug trial and most of it was drug charges, but they were also a firearms trafficking conspiracy was also described at the trial. And they described how they brought in these AK-47’s into the courtroom and these grenade launchers and so forth. And prosecutors described how El Chapo was taking thousands and thousands of guns or getting thousands of guns from the United States to Mexico to his hitmen to wage war. That was how the prosecutors described it. However, they did not have firearms trafficking charges because (a) federal firearms trafficking judge, I discovered, did not exist. And so that was one of the reasons they didn't charge him, but they did have conspiracy to traffic drugs.

GR: Interesting. So how important are guns from the United States going into Mexico? How important are those to the power of cartels and gangs in Mexico?

IG: So, the last 12 years we've seen, identified, taken from criminals in Mexico including the most violent cartels and directly traced to gun shops in the United States. We've seen 192,000 firearms, but that's believed to only be a tiny, tiny amount of this. And as an estimated number of more than 200,000 firearms every year going from the US to Mexico. If we look at that over ten years that's, you know, 2 million guns. So it's the major place where they get their guns. And it's not only, you know, small guns, it's AK-47’s, AR-15’s some Barrett .50’s and you know, they use these to wage war with each other and with the government and against civilians.

GR: And so my follow up question to that is, let's just imagine, and I'm going to come back to this later, but let's imagine that these guns were not available from the United States anymore. Would they just would they just get them from elsewhere?

IG: Well, there are some other sources of guns. One of them is their own military, you see guns being stolen from military bases and sold, but that's believed to be a much smaller number. You see things like about 2000 firearms every year going missing from the military compared to more than 200,000 firearms a year as many come from the United States. Now, they could potentially find other sources as well. I mean, China or Russia or different places, but it would be more, you know, I mean, one thing is that there's still a responsibility. If you see a kid who's stabbing somebody and you say, well, I may as well sell him the knife because he'll get it from somewhere. There's still a responsibility for the person who sells that person a knife. But also, it's a question of how much you could just simply reduce the level of guns. If you look around the world at different attempts to reduce firearms trafficking in Europe after the terrorist attacks of 2015, where they had somebody go to a disco a nightclub and kill more than a hundred people with an AK-47. And afterwards there's a lot of attempt to reduce firearms trafficking in Western Europe and that worked. And nowadays you see more like, stabbings and so forth. If the level of firearms was simply reduced, you know, it made it more difficult to find them because they have to bring them from further afield. They could still get some guns, you're not going to abolish this, but right now they have basically an unlimited number of AK-47’s, AR-15’s, Barrett .50’s and an unlimited number of bullets. I've been in many crime scenes in Mexico and I've seen these crime scenes where they spray more than 500 bullets on their victims, where they not only kill that target who's driving the car, but the pregnant woman driver behind him and the guy selling tacos on the side of the street. So, it's that level you see that they use guns and then, the guns are very cheap, they can just then sell them because they've been used in crimes. Sell them onto the streets so you have school kids who then have these firearms. And you see these terrible incidents of school kids fighting with guns in Mexico with their bought guns because, you know, some relation to these more powerful gangsters where any 15 year old can have an AK-47 and be carrying out, you know, horrific crimes. And you see that, you see some of these states where you got like, you know, some of these breakaway cartels with a couple of hundred teenagers, you know, who are heavily armed. So it’s the level of firearms you're seeing and the fact that, I mean, there's a lot of problems in the Mexican state we can get into, the corruption of the Mexican government. But if you want the Mexican military and the Mexican police to kind of get any kind of handle on this, it’s just so much harder when the people they’re fighting got endless, iron river of firearms from the United States.

GR: You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher and I'm speaking with the journalist and writer Ioan Grillo. So, briefly if you could track for me in a typical fashion, how an AR-15 or an AK-47 makes its way from the United States to Mexico. What is the route that that, what's the story of that gun?

IG: Yeah, so, one gun that I track in the book in you know, a very specific case, the firearm, looking at the AK-47’s. The AK-47’s are mostly made in Eastern Europe. So we can look at a gun made in the Cugir (Arms) Factory in Romania, which was set up by the Soviet Union. Kind of, you know, the guns to defend the communist east against the capitalist west back in those days, which is now itself becoming a profitable business selling AK-47’s to customers. So you get an AK-47 made there, imported to the United States by a certain company, in fact which has warehouses in Vermont, brought in to the United States to kind of fit US regulations so certain adjustments made to fit US regulation. But then sold supposedly as a sporting weapon in the United States, an AK-47. Sold, in this particular case, sold down in a pawnshop in Beaumont, Texas where a guy walks in and buys ten of these AK-47’s. This guy is an Iraq war veteran, he's smoking weed and falling on hard times and the guy he buys weed from has asked him to go buy ten AK-47’s for $600 plus the cost of the guns. He goes in there and buys them and delivers them to this guy who then is an affiliate of the cartels, gives them to the cartels. This gun goes, they drive them over the border into Mexico where it's quite easy to drive south over the border. There's little defense, but often they’re hidden in things like stoves and fridges and electronic devices, whatever they want to put them in. Taken down, ended up with a crew of gangsters and this AK-47 used by crew of gangsters who murder an American agent in Mexico in 2011, Jaime Zapata. And wound his colleague, another American agent, Victor Avila. Now, anyone guessing, so this gun is traced, the guy who bought it is found and they take him to court. And he gets, for conspiring with a drug cartel to give them AK-47’s used to murder an American agent, he gets probation. And he, you know, the crime was lying on the form. So he had a lot of what I see there, it's not really, you know, challenging the Second Amendment it's like, how come this is happening? You know this ease that they're getting these firearms and why these kind of basic things not done to stop it.

GR: You devote a chapter in your book to a past effort by the Arizona U.S. Attorney's Office and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to track illegal guns crossing the Mexico border, Fast and Furious is a name that that program often goes by. One of our former members of Congress up here in this area of upstate New York, when she was in office focused a lot of her attention on this program and did some investigations of it. Remind us of what this program was and why it's important enough to be featured in your book.

IG: So, Fast and Furious was an operation, supposedly to stop this trade by putting a big conspiracy case on firearms traffickers. It happened in 2009-2010 it was really blown up and in 2011. It followed an earlier case called Operation Wide Receiver, which is kind of similar. But in this case, you saw ATF agents in Phoenix watching the straw buyers, which are people like the guy I described, who go in with a clean I.D. and go in for the cartel to buy guns. Now, they watched them and they watched them buy more 2000 firearms without acting. Trying to trace these guns, put some traces inside them, trying to put up a big conspiracy case like they do, again, about drug traffickers and kind of bring the whole thing down. This was blown open when there was a group of criminals on the Arizona-Mexico border who shot dead a Border Patrol agent from an elite team, BORTAC team called Brian Terry, shot him dead. One of the guns they found at the scene was traced to this operation. There were some whistle blowers who kind of blew this open and it became a big embarrassment for the Obama administration. I would say about that, you get a lot of people who have very conspiratorial ideas about why this happened, understandably, because it was so crazy. In Mexico, people say, well, how come they're watching guns be trafficked to Mexico? They must be wanting us to be violent and want to destabilize us. And then you have people in the United States, in the NRA and in the gun committees saying what they want to show and make the gun industry look bad. I think it's looking at the evidence. It looks more like a botched operation with certain levels of conspiratorial acting to cover up the mistakes of high ranking officials afterwards. I think, you know, it was obviously a terrible operation, although one of the casualties was it took the conversation about firearms trafficking to Mexico off the agenda for a decade. Effectively, it has now come back in quite a significant way. And in that time, huge amounts of guns trafficked. Now, it also does show how many that you see in that operation, just how many guns are being trafficked.

GR: You're listening to The Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher and I'm talking with Ioan Grillo. He's a journalist and writer based in Mexico. And we've been discussing his book, “Blood Gun Money: How America Arms Gangs and Cartels”. So, I don't mean this question to be as harsh as it might sound, but your book obviously has some bearing on debates and conversations about gun control in the United States. And certainly the people who have read your book have employed it that way and talked about it in those terms, so that's where this question is coming from. It's this, is that there are so many factors in the gun control debate in the United States, so many concerns about guns and then what we might do in regulating them just within the United States. Why should the effects of guns in the U.S. on Mexico be an important part of the conversation up here in the United States about what we do about guns?

IG: Yeah, good question. I mean, first talking more generally about this and for me, you know, I've been doing this for 22 years looking at the cartels and gangs in Mexico, but it took me a long time to get to this about guns. And one reason thinking I don't want to wade into this big, hard debate about the Second Amendment in the United States. I go in there with a lot of humility to look at the issue of guns. I know for some people it's almost like a sacred issue in the United States, and there’s a lot of very, very strong political feelings. I particularly thought it was worth doing when I started interviewing some of these traffickers, gun traffickers in Mexico, and they were describing how they were acquiring guns. And I did meet a guy in prison in Ciudad Juárez who went up and said, he said he was going and buying with no paper trail, (unintelligible) was buying these firearms. So it's like, so I came at this with not a point of view of not likely to attack the Second Amendment and I respected that and not really pushing an idea of the basic gun laws in the United States, but saying, well, look what's happening? I understand how they're buying guns and most gun owners, most conservatives, most of the United States don't like the idea of firearms being sold to cartels and gangsters and some of those violent people. Now, and we can get into there’s things they can do, which totally did not attack the Second Amendment, where they can look at like, you know, simply trying to stop selling large numbers of firearms to cartel affiliates. Now it was in the interest of United States, apart from the humanitarian thing that you see in Mexico, you've had more than 200,000 violent deaths from guns in the last decade. And there's been many innocent people, including entire families and there's this mass graves of people down there. The biggest mass grave with more than 290 people, covering some of these things are quite incredible. But also, is it a U.S. interest. You have U.S. citizens who go down and have been killed by this in, you know, various cases. (unintelligible) American agents, more recently some Americans went to Matamoros, two of them were killed. You've got an American school teacher, went down to Chihuahua, was shot dead, a kid who was going on a motorcycle across the United States, various American citizens who cross over. But it's in the interest of the United States not to have a destabilized Mexico, not to have a Mexico with paramilitary organizations. And that's what it is, It's paramilitary organized crime. So we're not only talking about a criminal situation, we're talking about an armed conflict situation and an historical case of arms trafficking to a very violent, armed conflict. Now, the United States having this you got destabilized, you got Americans being killed, you've got refugees fleeing to come the United States, which then gets to another very, very hot topic. And this kind of security, in the neighborhood, plus you've got these organizations trafficking drugs, including now fentanyl, which, and that's a really serious problem with more than 107,000 overdose deaths in a year. Now, again, Mexico's got a lot as well to do on this. But on this issue, the United States, you know, it is an issue which affects the United States in a big way and the United States has some control over.

GR: Yeah, a lot of different dimensions there. Well, let me ask you a couple of questions about Mexico itself, because I'm very curious to get your perspective as an outsider who has been there for a very long time. And so, I think your observations would be particularly interesting in this regard. But from a distance to me anyway, and you've already spoken to this in what you just said, the situation in Mexico seems to be pretty bad depending on where you are. And I'll just be personal about this, I can no longer convince my spouse to go there, she feels the country is not governable at this point. So just what is the level? You say it's like a paramilitary organization. Just what is the level of control in local communities by these cartels as opposed to the government? Who's in charge?

IG: Yeah. So I'll give some, I'll share some of the extreme levels of this, but also the nuance about this.

GR: Okay.

IG: So you do have, I mean, you've got like a dozen cartels or more of the smaller organizations around the country. They do have paramilitary wings. You've got literally hundreds of thousands of people involved in these organizations. There’s places I've been to, I go to where you see these people openly walking around with ski masks and AK-47’s and quad bikes and a kind of surreal paramilitary control there. Now, first, from a more like, point of view of understanding this from a kind of state point of view, when some of the US officials, and there’s a discussion about this in Congress right now saying a certain amount of Mexican territory is effectively controlled by cartels, is a bit different than Al-Qaeda, ISIS, when they control a territorial… Shining Path, which is a communist group back in Peru, where they control kind of completely a territory they occupy and they're concerned about things like what kids through school, they want to change the way they think. When the Mexican cartels are in these areas, they tend to let the government still run. They're happy for the government to send school teachers to the schools. They're happy for them to provide electricity and to collect garbage. But they want to control areas of, they work, basically strong arm the mayors of these areas, sometimes take a bit of their budget. They want to have control of the police, often under them really, the local police force. And they want to control all the criminal rackets in this area, which not only means the drug trade, but it also means human smuggling. People going up to the border, they control that trade almost completely now, (they) make a lot of money off that trade. And then other businesses including stealing oil, prostitution, extortion, wildcat mining and these other things. Now, just to give a bit of a nuance about Mexico itself, some parts of Mexico are the most violent place in the world, including Zacatecas State, for example, Tijuana, are now very, very violent cities. But Mexico is a big country with 32 states. Mexico City right now has got a lower murder rate than many US cities, and I'm not including the big, the bad ones like Baltimore, but lower than Houston or Dallas. And last year at a lower murder rate, the Portland, Oregon.

GR: Oh okay, I'm going to use that with my spouse, thank you very much.

IG: Yeah, yeah, Mexico City. Now, other parts of Mexico during Yucatan has even lower murder rate the same as Belgium. So it's a very, very big country and very varied. Now, even in some of the most violent places life appears fairly normal. One example, I went to a murder scene in Sinaloa one time, we ran into it covering, found a dead body of a police commander who was shot having breakfast. They were there, crazy scene, they cleared up the body and then the restaurant cleaned up and served lunch. So we have this normality around this violence, this living with violence. But you still can go to these beach resorts or someplace in Mexico. It's not all terrible, you can look at the local information.

GR: If you're just joining us, you're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. And my guest is the journalist and writer Ioan Grillo. A couple of more personal questions now and we got about 5 minutes left or so to get into some of these. Journalists in Mexico who look at corruption or they cover the kinds of topics that you do, they work under real threats to their safety and their lives. and it's not all that unusual occurrence for them to be killed. So when as a journalist or as a researcher and writer of your books, have you felt personally the most in danger?

IG: There's been horrific attacks on journalism in Mexico for the last two decades. (In the) time I've been here you more than 150 journalists being murdered. I'll give some distinction that most of the journalists who have been murdered have been the kind of small towns and cities where the cartels are strongest. So the most violent places like I described, but also where the cartels are there. So you could be, I can go to these places and interview cartel members and go to these crime scenes and see them there and then go back to Mexico City, it’s a bit more anonymity. Whereas people who live there, you know, they go to these places and then, you know, could be the size of Syracuse or whatever, then go to the cinema and, you know, go to the pictures and you see the same guys, go to supermarkets and see the same guys there. They know exactly where you live and what you're doing, so they're really under threat. And there's a difference, a bit of a difference between, same with the journalists from Mexico City, including a bunch of Mexican and foreign journalists and the people living in these small towns. However, we can never be overconfident and you have seen various foreigners, there have been some foreign journalists who've been killed over the years in Mexico, including some Americans, and also just regular citizens who have been killed coming through here. Personally there's been, you know, various incidents. But one incident when, it was in 2014, I was with this big group of gunmen who supposedly were a self-defense squad fighting cartels. But I could see very quickly they were cartel guys using this opportunity. Very heavily armed, taking photographs, they were posing, you know it was all quite good humored. And so one of them accused me of being a DEA agent. I said, you know, you can't, I’m just going to take your photograph and I said no, I'm not a DEA agent, not even American, I’m British, here’s my website and the guy said, look, if I see you again, I'm going to put a bullet in your head.

GR: Well, yeah, I think that qualifies. So we just got a couple of minutes left. But you mentioned at the top of the program that even though we would never be able to, if we wanted to, cut this iron river out entirely, there are things we could do to contain it and to limit it. And so I wanted to get your policy recommendations for what you think would help the situation. What are some of the best things that you would recommend to the United States to make it harder for these guns to find their way into Mexico?

IG: Yeah, absolutely. So one is the straw buyers who are people with clean records who will get guns. Currently, you know, a lot of them have been done for lying on the form and given probation. If you're conspiring to give firearms to a cartel, they should be punished for it. And in fact, the recommendations in the first edition of my book, there was a change in the 2022 bipartisan Safe Communities Act where they did have some legislation, right, similar to this, similar to what I proposed there. We have to see starting this really brought out and enforced, but actually giving people who are buying guns for drug cartels, some deterrent to do that. Second thing, if people will buy guns from people, be engaged in the business of selling firearms, pretending to be collectors and selling guns to people with no paperwork, but effectively that they are buying, in some cases thousands of guns from official sources, from stores, from dealers and then reselling them to criminals without papers deliberately. You know, a universal background check could help shut this down. But even without universal background check, it's going after more, kind of sealing the door if you're engaged in a business of selling firearms, you're making money out of business selling to these people without papers. Third, is we’ve got to be careful of some of the ghost guns or buying kits off the Internet. And there's legislation there for like, ghost guns, a guns act. And then, you know, finally, things like people buying Barrett .50 calibers and that kind of thing. You know, some of these extended background checks. If you're walking to buy a Barrett .50, which the cartels use, you might want to check out who these people are buying them. So these kind of things, you know, without even getting into a deeper debate about the, you know things like, sell rifles, just simply, you know, some basic stuff hasn't been done to stop the cartels gaining so many firearms.

GR: Well, we'll have to leave it there. That was Ioan Grillo. And again we've been discussing his book, “Blood Gun Money: How America Armed Gangs and Cartels”. And it's very interesting and insightful and provocative. Ioan, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me and stay as safe in Mexico covering these things as you can.

IG: As always, thank you very much.

GR: You've been listening to The Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media, conversations in the public interest.

Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.