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Mexico's cases against gun manufacturers, dealers say violence is coming there from the U.S.

The Mexican government is suing gun manufacturers in the U.S., and several gun dealers here in Arizona. They allege the manufacturers design their guns to be attractive to criminal organizations in Mexico and that dealers in Arizona traffic guns to cartels across the border.

The cases go against the prevailing narrative on this side of the border that violence is coming up from Mexico to our country. Instead, these cases allege the reason for much of the gun violence in Mexico is because of guns being smuggled from the U.S. into Mexico.

Ieva Jusionyte, an anthropologist and associate professor of international security and anthropology at Brown University, tells this story in her newest book, "Exit Wounds: How America's Guns Fuel Violence Across the Border." She said the book began when she was working as an EMT paramedic on the border and realized just how strict Mexican gun laws are. This spurred her to start investigating just where all of the guns there came from. 

Full conversation

IEVA JUSIONYTE: It's almost a decade ago now. In 2015, I began volunteering as an EMT and paramedic in, in Nogales, Sonora, and Nogales, Arizona, on the border and we were meeting a lot of migrants who got injured when they were trying to cross the border, fleeing violence. A lot of them said that they had to leave their home. Back then, I didn't know that Mexico had very different gun laws, although I didn't see many gunshot injuries. People who left usually left because somebody in the family was kidnapped or they received extortion threats. So it was indirect gun violence.

I began wondering so where do they get these guns? Where do organized crime groups, where do these criminals that threaten people get the guns? And it became clear very soon that a lot of those guns, most of those guns come from the stores in Texas and Arizona on the side of the border.

LAUREN GILGER: All right, I mean, and that's such an a flipping on its head of the, the main narrative here. So much of what we hear about the border and border violence in, you know, Arizona and on this side of the border is about violence coming this way. But the guns in fact are coming from us. How does this work? What are the structures like around this?

JUSIONYTE: So usually the people who buy the guns in gun stores or private sales or gun shows, they are U.S. citizens or at least permanent residents because those are the only people who can buy guns, and then usually someone else smuggles them across the border. These organized crime groups have very sophisticated networks. But there are also people who just ask to buy guns through like Whatsapp groups. So it really depends, who is the buyer on the other side? Buying guns in the U.S., especially in these border states, it's, it's extremely easy and people can buy, you know, as many as they want. So that you can buy 20 AK-47s or AR-15s as much money as you as you have, nobody stops you. And those are the guns particularly sought after by organized crime groups on the other side.

GILGER: And this is because we should say gun laws are, are very strict in Mexico, right? Like it's very hard to actually legally buy a gun there.

JUSIONYTE: Indeed. So in the 1970s, Mexico passed this very strict federal firearms and explosives law and it allows most citizens only have one pistol for self-defense that they can keep at home. Only people who are like hunters or recreational shooters and belong to gun clubs and pass this rigorous process of vetting, hey can get some kinds of rifles and shotguns but not the big caliber, semiautomatic types that we, we sell here in the United States.

GLGER: But there are, it seems a lot of guns around, despite those laws.

JUSIONYTE: There are, there are plenty of guns. According to ATF sources, at least 70% and more likely about 80% of all guns recovered in Mexico come from the United States. Concrete numbers, we don't really know how many guns there are in Mexico. Like we don't even know how many there are in the United States. Although by estimates, there are more guns than people, which is not exactly the same way in Mexico. But yes, there is the, the black market is very extensive.

GILGER: So tell us about some of the people that you talk to in reporting this book, right. Like you talk to, you know, people who are smuggling guns, you talk to people who are involved in organized crime, gun traffickers themselves. What are some of the stories that stick out to you?

JUSIONYTE: Well, one of the person I, I got to know quite well was this teenage girl back then, who was recruited into organized crime and she worked for, for this big group known as the Zetas back then. And actually the other person I talked about in the book is this businessman who began smuggling guns from the United States for himself in order to defend himself against people like that teenage girl who became a member of organized crime. So part of the things I try to do in the book is show how the lives of people are connected, how arming organized crime means that also regular citizens who can't go to the police also seek these weapons for self-defense and protection because they are afraid of extortion and kidnapping on the road. So it's very intricately connected. It's not just one group that buys these guns, although organized crime is the primary buyer.

GILGER: So you also talked to kind of the other side, which was the U.S. federal agents who were involved in trying to stop this kind of gun smuggling, right? Like what did that look like? Especially in the wake of something like Fast and Furious, which kind of backfired on them.

JUSIONYTE: Yeah. So Fast and Furious operation really left a very bad bruise on the relationship between U.S. and Mexico because the government or agents allow these guns to be trafficked into Mexico and then they are still circulating, they're still being found in crime scenes. They were, they lost track of them. So today, agents really do anything they can to prevent the guns and the munition from crossing the border. I tell these stories in the book of how they even switch when they, they find like these boxes of ammunition, they switch them with rocks when they had this opportunity. So they really do everything. But it is very, very hard because we are almost not controlling what is going southbound to Mexico. We are so focused on what's coming into the U.S., primarily drugs, but also people.

GILGER: And there are some lawsuits about this now, right? Like from Mexico, from the Mexican government.

JUSIONYTE: There are, there are two, so one is against gun manufacturers which involves a lot of companies from all over the country, including Colt and Smith and Wesson and Barrett, and the other one is in Arizona. So against these gun, gun dealers that have sold a lot of weapons that were recovered in Mexico.

GILGER: So lastly, I want to ask you about kind of the cultural side of this, for lack of a better phrase. Like, like what do guns mean in in Mexico? Like when we talk about guns in the United States, it's so shaded by our own views of this, right, like by the Second Amendment, by this idea of, you know, individual rights in a way. Is that the case in Mexico, what do they represent there?

JUSIONYTE: Well, definitely they don't have the same association of guns with individual freedom and citizens sovereignty, something that goes back to the Second Amendment, but was also very much pushed forward by our gun industry and, and gun lobby. Mexico doesn't have such a gun lobby, and they don't have a gun industry, they're very, very, very weak. So for the longest time in that country, guns were more of a question of national sovereignty. Like they need to have guns at least to arm their own military. So they wouldn't depend on weapons from outside, like buying from Europe or the United States.

And yes, there are gun cultures, there are hunters in Mexico and there are gun collectors, but it's not so politicized in any way as in the United States. Although both Mexican constitution, also the same way as the U.S., does guarantee people the right to bear arms or to, to have weapons. But that, that right is not absolute as we as we have here.

KJZZ's The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ's programming is the audio record.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.