This an extract from the opening chapter of Ioan Grillo’s book ‘Blood Gun Money: How America Arms Gangs and Cartels‘. The book can be purchased here.
Freedom is beautiful.
—Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, shortly before his third capture, in 2016
Finally seeing El Chapo in the flesh, a few feet away from me, conjured mixed emotions.
Like many in the Brooklyn courtroom, I felt a rush being so close to such a notorious villain as Joaquín Guzmán, who is up there with Pablo Escobar and Al Capone as the most infamous gangsters of the last century. Not only journalists but fans and tourists had been queuing up to get a sight of the sixty-one- year- old from Mexico’s Sierra Madre mountains and see his beauty-queen wife in the gallery. Only the first few dozen would make it into the courtroom, fifty more into an overflow room to watch it on screens, with the rest turned away, so people were arriving earlier and earlier to get in line. On that January 2019 morning, while the polar vortex sprinkled snow on New York, I arrived at four-forty a.m. and still only just made it onto a courtroom bench.
Guzmán was reaching the end of his three-month trial for trafficking cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and crystal meth, which federal prosecutors claimed had made him fourteen billion dollars. As he was so notorious, the prosecutors called an overkill of fifty-six witnesses, including fourteen of his former cohorts, employees, and lovers. The scariest was a Colombian drug lord known as Chupeta, who’d had plastic surgery so many times that his face looked like a rubber mask as he confessed to ordering a hundred and fifty murders. Other gripping testimony came from a computer buff who’d built Guzmán an encrypted cell phone network and then tapped the calls for the Drug Enforcement Administration, and a lover who described Guzmán jumping out of bed naked and running into a secret tunnel to evade capture.
Such tales made great television, and American networks were giving it broad coverage. A cable news reporter at the court told me that his editors liked the story because it provided a light touch from the divisive issues dominating media in the Trump era. Gun violence in the United States, from mass shootings to police killings, cut to the heart of the tribal politics gripping the nation. So did the migrant caravans of thousands of Central Americans arriving on the southern border. El Chapo, meanwhile, could be entertainment.
But seeing the short, stocky figure of Guzmán, in his finely pressed suit with his lively, wide-open eyes, also filled me with anger and sadness. I had been reporting on the drug violence in Mexico since 2001, after I moved there from Britain, and what I first saw as a thrilling tale of supervillains had morphed into a humanitarian catastrophe.
I found myself covering things I couldn’t have imagined. I hit crime scenes across the country where gunmen would spray five hundred rounds at their prey, slaying bystanders and leaving pulverized bodies that began to colour my dreams. Then I saw victims mutilated and decapitated, the rival cartels escalating the numbers of corpses they dumped in public as if they were playing high-stakes poker. In 2012, I found myself in a morgue in Monterrey, my nostrils filled with the stench of forty-nine bodies that had been left on a road, all with their heads, hands, and feet cut off.
Finally, I lost good friends to the bloodshed. Javier Valdez was a prolific and inspiring journalist from Guzmán’s home state of Sinaloa who had penned eight books on the narco world. He generously shared his knowledge with me over long phone calls or longer drinking sessions in a cantina near his newspaper’s offices. On May 15, 2017, he was leaving his office at midday when he was shot twelve times and died at the scene. “In the end, we are a big family of victims in this country,” said his widow, fellow journalist Griselda Triana.
The surreal stories of lovers and tunnels distracted from this colossal human cost. It may have been an exotic foreign villain in the dock, a man with such bizarre stories that there were already two Netflix dramas portraying him. But he was only one step away from those same wedge issues dividing America.
Many in the caravan at the southern border were fleeing mob violence. The same methods used to supply guns to gangs in American cities were used to arm cartels south of the Rio Grande. And the tragedy of innocent people being gunned down in senseless mass shootings across the United States was echoed in the tragedy of innocent people being murdered in equally senseless massacres in Latin America.
Guzmán was not only a drug trafficker. He had helped escalate the turf wars in Mexico into a brutal conflict that destabilized his country, part of the armed violence ripping havoc on Latin America and driving refugees to the U.S. border. He would be seen as a war criminal if it were to be understood as a war. And finally, after escaping from two “top security” Mexican prisons, he was facing justice that could put him away for life in an American supermax cell in the desert.
On my second day in court, Andrea Goldbarg, the assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, unleashed a grueling seven-hour closing argument to convict Guzmán. She showed a PowerPoint presentation explaining Guzmán’s trafficking empire, replayed wiretaps of him plotting with gangsters and guerrillas, and went over some of the juiciest anecdotes his cohorts had said on the stand. Though it was grisly stuff, the long explanation became tiresome. Not only the jury of New Yorkers seemed to be struggling to keep attention; even the eyes of El Chapo himself were wandering.
Until she brought out the guns.
Prosecutors carried in a trio of AK-47s that had been seized from the Sinaloa Cartel in Texas and laid them in the center of the courtroom. As she came to the finale of her arguments, she pointed to the guns and then to El Chapo.
I had been seeing a lot of guns that week. I had flown to the trial from Las Vegas, where I’d been at the SHOT Show, the biggest firearms trade show in the world. It’s just three miles from the Las Vegas Village concert venue, the site of the biggest mass shooting in recent U.S. history. The same models of Kalashnikovs that were in the courtroom were also on display at the SHOT Show, alongside bigger weapons like .50-caliber rifles, grenade launchers, and machine guns mounted on helicopters.
Goldbarg, who was born in Argentina and grew up in the United States, had built a career as a prosecutor going after Latin American gangsters. But El Chapo’s trial was by far the biggest of her career, and the stakes were enormous. It was the culmination of a decades-long campaign by law enforcement to nail the top dogs in the narco world, and he had been billed as the ultimate kingpin. It might have looked an easy win, convicting a drug lord as infamous as Guzmán. But open goals are high-pressure shots.
The AKs were a physical way to illustrate that the short-suited Guzmán, who was calm and smiling in the courtroom, really was a bloodthirsty warlord. It wasn’t the first time that prosecutors had shown off weapons. Just before Christmas, they wheeled out an entire haul of forty Kalashnikov-style rifles seized in El Paso, Texas, and linked by a witness to El Chapo and his Sinaloa Cartel. Some were made in Romania, others in Serbia, but all had been sold retail in the United States, where they were acquired by the narcos.
There to talk about the rifles was Curtis Williams, an officer from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, known widely as the ATF, the U.S. federal agency that polices the gun industry and leads the fight against gun crime. Williams walked around the courtroom with one of the Kalashnikovs, snapping open the folding stock, which made a member of the jury flinch.
The prosecutor cut in: “Can you just be clear: All these have been made safe, correct?”
“Yes,” Williams replied.
The ATF’s next witness, Max Kingery, went further and picked up a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, an RPG-7. El Chapo’s defense lawyer William Purpura objected, saying, “It’s really big. I’m looking at it.”
Judge Brian Cogan overruled but said that Kingery had to be quick. “This is not a weapons show,” he said. “This is a trial, okay.”
There was another shudder from the jury. El Chapo’s wife had brought their young twin daughters to court that day, and at the sight of the rocket launcher, she hustled them out of the courtroom.
In the coverage of the trial, the guns were a footnote, a colorful prop to support the main drama of a billionaire drug trafficker. But they are at the heart of their own momentous story, which I tell here.
This book is about America’s “iron river” of guns, the millions of weapons that flow from the legal industry to the black market, feeding criminals across the nation and drug cartels across the continent. It follows this river from the corners of Baltimore to the battlefields on the border, the factories of Transylvania to the gun shows of Texas, and the gun vaults of Arizona to the jungles of the Andes. It delves into the twisted relationship between the illegal drug and gun trades, how they play off each other like angry lovers. It shows how this historic case of gun trafficking came to be and why attempts to stop it have failed so miserably. It looks at how weapons from the black market spill over to some of the terrorists and mass shooters. And it asks how we can slow the iron river, or if we really have to face a world where anyone who wants to murder can have all the firepower they desire.
While guns are big in the news, American coverage is dominated by two main themes. On one side are the shootings at schools and nightclubs by “madmen,” which have wrenched at the soul of the nation. On the other is the gun lobby’s self-declared defense of law-abiding owners, linked to a wider culture war cutting through the country. But the cold fact is that illegal firearms are used in the vast majority of gun homicides in the United States as well as in Latin America.
The firearm black market has been surprisingly understudied considering its importance. Leaked weapons from the legal U.S. gun industry find their way to criminals in every U.S. state and 136 other countries. The guns are fired by killers who make the American continent the most homicidal one on earth, with forty-seven of the fifty most murderous cities, several in the United States. Despite the United States having the world’s biggest economy and by far biggest military, cities such as Baltimore and St. Louis suffer homicide rates comparable to those in Latin American hot spots. The gun violence is in turn used to justify militarized policing, and the police murders of African Americans scar the soul of the nation—and threw it into turmoil in 2020. Wherever you stand on these issues, it’s important to understand this gun trade.
At the heart of the iron river is the relationship between guns and drugs. The two fit together like a lock and key—boys with Glocks on the corner, inner-city cops kicking down doors to put drugs and guns on the table, and cartel killers carrying Kalashnikovs. But the mechanics of them are inverted. The illegal narcotics trade is huge, worth an estimated $150 billion a year in the United States alone and over $300 billion globally. The gun black market claims a fraction of that worth but provides a tool that allows gangsters to control those drug profits.
The two products are often bartered. And the prices of both go through crazy shifts dictated by the rules of the street. I unravel the “gun-onomics” over these pages by talking to the mobsters who sell them.
Guns from the U.S. retail market are of course not the only weapons in the hands of the continent’s killers. I look hard at other sources, especially the “leakage” from corrupt security forces in Latin America, which are supplied by U.S. and European gun companies. I talk to one trafficker who conspires with Mexican soldiers to sell seized guns back to the crooks. But the United States has an estimated 393 million guns in civilian hands, more than the next twenty-five countries combined, and millions more are churned out every year.2 From this arsenal, weapons pour across the hemisphere.
There is a painful paradox here. The United States lives with heavily armed criminals, and suffers the worst murder rates and highest number of police shootings in the developed world. But it still has relatively strong law enforcement that keeps organized crime in check. In contrast, Latin American countries suffer weak institutions that cannot contain the gun-toting gangsters. The weapons there fuel a hybrid of crime and war, a relentless conflict that confounds politicians and unleashes a refugee crisis.
Investigators have long divided gun trafficking into two areas: the deals between mobsters, seen as a domestic issue, and gunrunning over borders to war zones, seen as an international one. But this distinction is increasingly blurred, and America’s iron river flows into these hybrid conflicts, or “crime wars,” mixing with the arms from the charred Cold War battlegrounds.
The gun lobby is correct in pointing out that people who break the law to get firearms commit most murders. But then it has fought the policing of the gun black market, defending the loopholes and achieving crazy limits on law enforcement of firearms. The result is that it effectively defends the criminal market in guns used by cartels and corner hoods.
Part of this is explained by following the money. Gun companies profit from the black market like almost no other industry does. But digging into the gun business reveals wonky economics, and it is not as profitable as many would believe—or claim. Meanwhile, the National Rifle Association (NRA) makes money by selling a “gun lifestyle,” and has transformed into a media machine in the culture war. And it profits from fighting a fundamentalist battle with no compromise. America’s iron river is born out of the nation’s unique, if mutating, gun culture.
Still, this book is not a rant against the Second Amendment or the right of law-abiding citizens to have guns. It looks at the measures that could reduce trafficking to criminals, while garnering wide support, and reduce the hundreds of billions of dollars of drug money financing gangs and cartels. As lawmakers and the wider society look for a new way forward on guns, drugs, and policing, it is crucial to understand the complexities of the black market. To forge effective enforcement, politicians have to hear from the dirty streets about how gangsters operate. The tales of crime bosses are not just food for Netflix but have become key to governance in the twenty-first century.
I tell the story of the iron river in twelve chapters, each focusing on a different angle linked to gun trafficking in the Americas. I trace the life of a gun from the factory to a Mexican murder scene; talk to men who bring firepower onto the corners of Baltimore; follow an undercover ATF agent who rode with bikers; track guns through the jungles of the Darién Gap; document the struggles in a Texas hospital ward after a mass shooting; and look at a drug cartel assembling its own AR-15s. To tell these stories, I talk to agents and traffickers, to gun sellers and peace activists, to presidents and protesters, to gunshot victims and gun shooters, to militiamen and murderers.
The iron river has sources and tributaries; it meanders into strange ground and bursts open like an estuary. Following the guns leads to all kinds of places: the ATF trace center in West Virginia working with bizarre restrictions, the Colombian war half a continent away, a factory in the Black Forest of Germany.
The tales are interwoven, with some of the same characters, and guns, floating between them. I trace the forces and institutions that have shaped them, from the development of gun technology to the parallel histories of the ATF and the gun lobby. They are not an A to Z of the continent’s arms smuggling, as the web is too big and snarled. But they show different elements that together paint a portrait of the world’s bloodiest racket—and of the flailing fight by law enforcement to stop it.
Ioan Grillo is a journalist and author who has been based in Mexico City since 2001, working for outlets including the New York Times, Time Magazine, BBC, Reuters, National Geographic and Esquire. He is author of the books El Narco (2011), Gangster Warlords (2016), and Blood Gun Money: How America Arms Gangs and Cartels (2021).
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