How US Guns Destabilize Latin America and Fuel the Refugee Crisis

December 02, 2021

Book Review: Blood Gun Money: How America Arms Gangs and Cartels by Ioan Grillo

In August, the Mexican government sued US gunmakers for facilitating the high gun homicide rate in Mexico. Most people in the US who heard this news were probably confused, not understanding what US gunmakers have to do with homicides in Mexico. If they were to read Ioan Grillo’s excellent book, Blood Gun Money: How America Arms Gangs and Cartels, they would understand completely. They would learn that Mexican law enforcement estimates that 2.5 million guns have been smuggled from the United States into Mexico over the past decade. They might even wonder why other countries in Latin America aren’t also suing US gunmakers.

The Americas is the most homicidal region on the planet due, in no small part, to the “iron river” of guns flowing from the United States to Latin America and the Caribbean. The above figure from Our World in Data, based on data from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, shows that Canada had a gun homicide rate of 0.5 deaths per 100,000 in 2017. In the US, the rate was 4.63, approaching 10 times the rate in Canada, while in Mexico, it was 11.49, more than 20 times the Canada rate. Excluding the Americas, all countries in Europe, and most countries in the rest of the world had lower gun homicide rates than the US. (Some people incorrectly believe that there is a higher rate of gun ownership in Canada than in the US, but the Small Arms Survey reports that in 2017 Canada had 34.7 guns per 100 residents, compared to 120.5 in the United States. The gun ownership rate in the US is more than three times the rate in Canada.)

Criminals in Latin America and the Caribbean have easy access to US guns because US gun-rights extremists are continually weakening our gun safety laws, making it easier for gun traffickers. Grillo quotes the US Department of Justice: “There is no federal statute specifically prohibiting firearms trafficking.” Only tangential laws can be used against trafficking. Although the second and third words of the Second Amendment to the US Constitution indicate that guns should be “well regulated,” the US Supreme Court has recently only stripped away the government’s power to regulate guns, ignoring the actual words of the amendment. Grillo informs us that US pharmacies have stronger safety and security requirements than US gun stores.

In Mexico, there is only one legal gun shop in the entire country, and it is very difficult, if not impossible, for criminals to obtain guns from this shop. In the US, however, criminals can purchase guns with extreme ease. It is simple for a known criminal to pay someone — a “straw buyer” — to buy a weapon for them. The criminal can even buy guns directly from private sellers, who do not need to do background checks; known criminals, and even terrorists, face no obstacles.

One of Grillo’s Mexican informants, Jorge, thought that he was making an illegal purchase when he bought guns for a Mexican criminal gang at US gun shows without showing identification. But all of Jorge’s purchases were legal because of the “gun show loophole” which exempts private sellers from conducting background checks. “It really was possible to walk into a gun show and buy an AR-15 [military-style assault rifle] with no paperwork,” Grillo discovered on a trip to a gun show in Texas. There, Grillo noted, “On various tables, so-called private sellers had dozens of weapons, including many AR-15s and Kalashnikovs. Many looked brand-new, with some boxed up.” Although there can be little difference between the inventory of so-called private sellers of guns and licensed gun dealers, private sellers are unregulated, while licensed dealers have to try to do background checks.  

Licensed dealers have to try to do background checks, but a completed background check is not required for a sale. If the background check is not completed within three business days, the dealer can sell the gun to the purchaser without proof that the purchaser is legally eligible to own a gun. Dylan Roof, the white racist who shot and killed nine Black people in South Carolina while they prayed in church, was prohibited from obtaining a firearm. The FBI was not able to complete his background check within the three-day limit, and so he was able to obtain the gun that he used to kill the parishioners. This is another example of how pathetically weak US gun safety laws are.

Grillo was able to speak with several people in the US and Mexico involved in purchasing guns for criminals. A Mexican gang hit man informed Grillo, “[Our guns] come from El Paso [a city in Texas bordering Mexico] . . . . We get them on demand, and anything we want come from there.” And by anything, he means almost anything. In recent years, Mexican drug cartels have even purchased .50 caliber sniper rifles, which are powerful enough to shoot through concrete walls. Grillo describes the .50 caliber:

These supersize weapons fire bullets the size of small knives, and army snipers use them to shoot long distance and blow through armor. Despite their military potential, customers can buy them in stores in Texas and Arizona as easily as buying a pistol.

Customers buying .50 calibers in Texas and Arizona include people like Jorge who work for Mexican drug cartels.

This ease of access to AR-15s, .50 calibers, and other guns means that local Mexican police are literally outgunned. US guns help to undermine the power of the Mexican government to secure the safety of its citizens and to prosecute crime. US guns are also being used to kill journalists who report on crime in Mexico. Mexican journalist Miroslava Breach was shot with a gun from the US gun manufacturer Colt — a limited edition Colt .38 engraved with the image of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata. “An American gun with a picture of a Mexican freedom fighter was used to try to silence Mexico’s freedom of speech,” observes Grillo.

Grillo reports, “Of the 16,343 firearms that Mexico submitted to the ATF [the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives] for tracing in 2018, 70.4 percent were definitively confirmed to have been made or sold in the United States.” He makes clear that the US share could be higher because some searches are inconclusive, in part because US law prevents the ATF from using computerized systems. Yes, the ATF is prohibited from establishing a gun database, so a search that should take a few seconds with a computer database instead involves searching for several days through mountains of paper files.

While Grillo’s main focus is the trafficking of guns from US states on the US-Mexico border into Mexico, he also discusses gun trafficking within the United States, and between the US and other Latin American countries and the Caribbean. For example, Grillo reports, “between 2014 and 2017, almost half, or 45 percent, of the firearms that Honduras submitted to the ATF for tracing were confirmed to be made or sold in the United States.” Again, this is likely to be an underestimate because some inconclusive trace results are probably also from the US. Honduras had a firearm murder rate of 26.14 deaths per 100,000 in 2017 — more than 50 times the Canadian rate. Grillo notes, “Honduras [is the] home of the biggest number of refugees arriving at the southern U.S. border.” This broader discussion makes it clear that US-Mexico gun trafficking is only one example of a much wider problem.

The lawlessness and terror enabled, in part, by the trafficking of US guns causes people to flee Latin America and the Caribbean for the relative safety of the United States. When people in the US are distressed by refugees at the southern US border, they should be aware that many of these refugees are fleeing criminals armed with guns legally purchased in the United States.

Blood Gun Money includes a lot of information about gun trafficking in the Americas, but it is also filled with stories of people on both sides of the law, police and criminals, murderers and gun victims. It is a well-researched, well-written, and informative book.

Grillo concludes with several policy recommendations to reduce the easy flow of guns to criminals on both sides of the US-Mexico border. He calls for universal background checks: a criminal who is prohibited from owning a gun should not be able to go to a private seller and purchase a gun because no background check is required. Grillo also thinks that there should be stronger punishments for straw buyers, who currently face minimal punishment. Grillo recommends limits on the number of guns a person can purchase at one time, which would likely make it easier to identify and differentiate straw buyers from real buyers since straw buyers would not be able to buy 10 identical Kalashnikovs at the same time, to use a real-life example discussed in Blood Gun Money. Grillo calls for the United States to regulate “ghost guns” as real guns. Ghost guns require some assembly before they are functional, and are popular among criminals because by law they are not considered guns and therefore can be obtained without a background check. They also don’t have serial numbers so they are harder for police to track. And Grillo proposes stronger regulation of gun shop security, as some criminals obtain guns by stealing them from shops with weak security. Grillo has other policy ideas that may make a lot of sense to people who are not gun-rights extremists.

In the US, such extremists tend to view the government as the enemy and support the weakening of gun regulations, which makes it easier for criminals and terrorists to obtain weapons. These individuals sometimes say it is their AR-15 that preserves their “freedom.” Grillo suggests these individuals take a close look at criminal gangs in Latin America. He writes:

But it is not those guns in civilian hands that make the difference between the United States and Latin America—it is institutions. Most Americans are not safe from a cartel storming their home to kidnap them because they have an AR-15. They are safe because the police and federal agencies have been hammering organized crime for decades. In Mexico, you see what a cartel hit squad looks like, and it is not something that you can stop on your own if they come for you, even if you have a bunch of guns.

US gun extremists say that by opposing gun safety laws they are making people in the US freer, but what they are really doing is making it easier for criminals to murder, terrorize, and traumatize law-abiding people in high-crime communities in the United States, and even more so people in countries with weaker institutions south of the US border.

The Mexican suit against US gun manufacturers is a desperate attempt to try to reduce the “iron river” of guns flowing into Mexico. The Mexican government cannot turn to US laws on gun trafficking to stop the flow, since US gun safety laws are a joke. One hopes that, at the very least, the suit will bring attention to the US role in making the Americas the most homicidal region on the planet. If people in the United States are aware of this problem, maybe more of them will demand more sensible gun laws from policymakers.

Support Cepr


If you value CEPR's work, support us by making a financial contribution.

Si valora el trabajo de CEPR, apóyenos haciendo una contribución financiera.

Donate Apóyanos

Keep up with our latest news