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AOAV speaks to Ieva Jusionyte about her book ‘Exit Wounds’ – a glimpse into the world of firearms smuggled south from the United States to Mexico and their reverberating effects

Ieva Jusionyte (PhD) is the Watson Family University Associate Professor of International Security and Anthropology at Brown University. A legal and medical anthropologist who studies violence and security, she is the author of three books, including multiple award-winning ethnography, Threshold: Emergency Responders on the US-Mexico Border (2018) and, most recently, Exit Wounds: How America’s Guns Fuel Violence Across the Border (2024). Her research has been supported by the National Science Foundation and fellowships from the Harvard Radcliffe Institute, the Fulbright Program and the Rockefeller Foundation, among others. In addition to academic publications, Jusionyte has written about her research for The Atlantic, the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, and The Guardian, and discussed it broadly in the media, including on CNN, BBC and NPR. She is a member of the Advisory Committee of Global Action on Gun Violence and the Research Network to Prevent Gun Violence in the Americas. She is also a certified EMT-paramedic who volunteered as emergency responder in Massachusetts, Florida, and Arizona. Here she talks to Iain Overton, AOAV’s Executive Director, about her latest book, ‘Exit Wounds’.

Iain Overton: Thanks very much for joining us. Could you describe to me a little bit about what the book – Exit Wounds – is and what you hope to have achieved through writing it? 

Ieva Jusionyte: The book follows the guns from the United States to Mexico in order to understand their contributions to gun violence, which makes so many Mexican people leave their homes and head towards the United States to seek safety. They’re running because of various types of violent crimes enforced with guns, from killings to kidnapping, extortion, and other forms of threats.

The idea for the book came when I was doing my previous project and volunteering as a paramedic on the US-Mexico border. I was crossing the border almost every day and every day I met people heading north – migrants, asylum seekers. In the United States, we are very concerned about drug trafficking, about what crosses the border north, what comes from Mexico. While living on the border, I realized that we’re not paying equal attention to how this northbound movement of people and drugs is related to the southbound smuggling of firearms from Arizona, Texas, and other parts of the United States. So I decided to follow those guns, and to do that as an ethnographer, complementing my immersive fieldwork with archival and legal research because there were certain situations that were too dangerous for me to participate in.

Iain Overton: Can you give us an idea of the sort of scale of the gun trafficking from the north to the south?

Ieva Jusionyte: Numbers are quite unreliable when it comes to measuring illicit activities. What we know is that recently the Mexican security forces have been recovering about 20,000 firearms annually, all around the country, and asking the ATF (the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) for help tracing them, to see where they had come from. According to that data, about 70% come from sources in the United States. That percentage is likely higher because some guns don’t have serial numbers and they cannot be successfully traced. In terms of numbers – how many guns cross the border – there is wide speculation. For many years, sources in the Mexican government said it was about 200,000 to 250,000 firearms that cross the border southbound every year. 

In the lawsuit that the Mexican government filed against US gun manufacturers in 2021, they cited a higher number, estimating that more than half a million firearms were crossing the border annually. The truth is we don’t really know; we have no idea how many guns cross the border. We know that at the border, the number of guns intercepted by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and by the Mexican Customs is in the hundreds. Until 2019, it used to be around a hundred or two hundred guns seized by each agency each year. Lately, the numbers have gone up. The last records I saw from CBP regarding their outbound seizures of guns in 2023 was around 800. So seizures are increasing, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that more guns are being smuggled across the border. It just means border agencies are doing a slightly better job at catching them. 

Iain Overton: But we do know two hard facts. And one is the number of people killed by guns in Mexico, as well as in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador. And we also know, I think there’s one fact that there’s only one legal gun shop in all of Mexico. I think. Is that right? But can you talk a little bit about the homicide levels and also the availability of legal guns in those countries?

Ieva Jusionyte: Homicide levels in Mexico have been pretty high for the past almost 20 years. They go down some years and then rise up again, hovering around 30,000 every year. The majority of homicides are committed by firearm. Last time I checked it was around 70 percent. And this doesn’t include the number of people who have been disappeared, which is now officially over 100,000. Mexican gun laws are very strict. They have been strict since the early 1970s, when the Federal Firearms Law was passed. It allows most civilians to have one handgun for home defense that they keep at home, not carry around. Very few people have a license to carry. And then people who engage in hunting or recreational shooting and belong to gun clubs can also have up to nine rifles and shotguns of smaller calibers. Firearms of larger calibers, like 7.62x39mm used for AK-47s or .223 rounds many AR-15s use, are designated for the exclusive use by the military and police forces. 

The Mexican military, through the Secretariat of National Defense, is the only institution in the country that is allowed to import guns and to sell guns to civilians, as well as to institutions that have collective licences, like private security firms or the police. For half a century after this strict firearms law was passed, until 2019, there was only one gun shop in the whole country, located in Mexico City. In 2019, the Secretariat of National Defense opened their second store in Monterrey in Nuevo León. So now there are technically two stores in the whole of Mexico selling firearms. That is a really stark contrast to the United States where just across the border in Texas and in Arizona, there are over 10,000 licensed gun dealerships that have a storefront and even more individuals who have licenses to sell guns. And they sell all types of guns, not limited to those that the Mexican government can sell to civilians.

Iain Overton: There was one time when I went to Ciudad Juarez, which is on the northern Mexico border with Texas. And I noted that the country, the city to the north, El Paso, was considered one of the most secure and safest cities in America. Whereas Ciudad Juarez, I think at the time, was the second most dangerous city in the world. So there’s a very, very clear demarcation, isn’t there, between the American north and the Mexican south in terms of levels of gun violence. Do you put this level of gun violence very strongly due to American guns coming south?

Ieva Jusionyte: Yes. There has been some research, for example, about the expiration of the assault weapons ban and what effect it had in Mexico. There were other reasons why violence and violent crime in Mexico increased in the early 2000s. There was a change in government and a change in how it approached gun trafficking organizations. When President Calderon came to power, he started a militarized campaign against organized crime, which resulted in increased violence. But there was also an expiration of the US assault weapons ban in 2004 that had some effect on an increase in violence on the other side. California maintained the assault weapons ban at the state level, whereas Texas and Arizona did not. At about the same time, violence in those areas in Mexico bordering Texas and Arizona increased more than it did in Baja California, across from California. So there is correlation. But that does not necessarily mean causation. There were also criminal group dynamics, competition between them, fracturing of some groups, happening at the same time that resulted in increased violence. Still, that’s one data point tying US guns to violent crime in Mexico. 

Yes, guns to Mexico also come from Central America, where countries have big weapons arsenals left over from the civil wars and where the security forces continue buying guns from Europe and from the United States, some of which end up diverted to illicit markets. But, as I mentioned before, the majority of the guns captured by Mexican security forces are traced to the United States. And the models of guns seized in Mexico also show they come from the United States. Take, for example, 50 caliber Barretts. Most of them are caught in Tamaulipas, the closest state to Texas, where they are sold without any restrictions. Those are exclusively made in the United States. Most AR-15s are also made here. As for AK-47s, a significant portion of them are first imported to the United States from Eastern Europe or elsewhere, from Serbia or Romania or Egypt, and then sold here to people who smuggle them across.

Iain Overton: One of the things that’s interesting about the debate around the impact of guns in the US, both within the United States as well as on its borders and its neighbours, is the challenge from an academic perspective of articulating cause and effect, even though it seems self-evident, showing 100 percent proof. And in the gap between being able to absolutely prove that the Second Amendment fuels American gun, Mexican gun violence, then you get swathes of people sort of leaping in going, well, prove it, prove it, prove it. And it’s very difficult to prove, even though it’s self-evident that there’s some sort of dynamic occurring there. 

In your book, did you find you had to sort of be very careful in what you said so you weren’t held up as a kind of a hostage to fortune by NRA supporters who would want to discredit every word you’ve written?

Ieva Jusionyte: Well, I try to, because I think you’re right that we cannot pinpoint the fault for the situation on just one cause. The Second Amendment, for one, has been interpreted differently throughout the years. The idea that owning a gun is an individual right has only solidified since the Supreme Court’s decision DC v. Heller case, which happened in 2008. In the aftermath of that, we’ve seen more loosening of restrictions on guns. But that’s just an interpretation of the Second Amendment. In itself, it doesn’t fuel violence in Mexico. It’s what we do with this interpretation that can increase or decrease violence. There is also responsibility of the gun industry and the gun lobby that protects the gun industry. There is PLCAA, the Protection of Legal Commerce in Arms Act (2005), which prevents people who are directly impacted by guns from suing gun manufacturers and gun dealers for harm caused to them. So there are both legal and economic and even cultural factors related to how we approach guns in the United States that enable this flow of guns to Mexico where they cause violence. 

When I began working on this book, it was very clear to me that I needed to be open-minded about the subject. I was not coming in as someone with pro-gun or anti-gun agenda. I honestly didn’t know much about guns. I had to learn the vocabulary. I had to learn how to use them, how to be safe around them. That’s one thing why I like being an anthropologist. We don’t take anything for granted. We unpack cultural objects, like guns, and ideas around them. That’s important because guns are many things. They are tangible material objects. They are commodities. And they are also woven into our ideologies, such as nationalism, they are tied to our ideas about sovereignty and individualism and freedom. These ideas that guns are tied to are not the same in the United States and Mexico, which was interesting for me to look at and use this contrast to question the dominant narrative about guns in the U.S. 

At the very end of the book, I discuss some policy recommendations and that is probably the only part that the NRA would find objectionable. For example, Mexican law regulates what types of firearms and how many civilians can buy, even how much ammunition they can buy per month. What if we considered these caps in the United States? Do we really need to be able to buy 10 AR-15s every month? Or do we need 10,000 rounds of ammunition every month? I’m certain that these ideas would receive criticism from the gun lobby. But my main takeaway from doing this research is that we cannot solve this problem by only addressing the supply of firearms. Yes, it is very important. We need to ask why it is so easy to get such powerful guns and so many of them in the United States with almost no oversight. But we must also address the demand. Why is there a demand for these weapons in Mexico? Organized crime groups need guns to compete for territory to supply drugs to the United States and engage in other activities, like extortion, and they can’t go to the two stores in Mexico and get the weapons they want from there, so that’s why they turn to the U.S., where they can get anything they want and quite easily. So until we address the problems in Mexico, we won’t change much. This is a bi-national problem. 

Iain Overton: I was very much struck by the various cultures that sort of seem to proliferate around machismo settings such as the cult of Santa Muerte, the narco songs that would be sung by local musicians, the fetishization of certain types of firearms, the gilding of certain firearms. They had golden grips and golden stocks. Did you sort of feel that there was this sort of very rich narco subculture of which the gun was an integral part of?

Ieva Jusionyte: Yes and no. I’ve been to the so-called narco museum, Museo del Enervante, and saw all these gold plated and diamond crusted weapons seized from leaders of organized crime groups. They play an important role in narco culture, which is how most people know about organized crime – through films and songs. I also saw much of this in prisons, where members of organized crime are more powerful than the wardens and can do as they please, decorating the walls of their cells with Santa Muerte images. But what I saw as an ethnographer outside prison walls, hanging out with foot soldiers and mostly low level leaders in organized crime, was that narco culture was not as prominent in their everyday activity. Maybe it’s similar to what is happening in the United States, where we have a popular rap and hip hop culture and songs about guns, but most gun violence, even in urban areas, even when it is related to gangs, is not linked to that cultural idolization of weapons. On the ground, it’s much more about being pragmatic. Most people I interviewed didn’t really care about engraving their guns. Many didn’t have a choice about what firearms they used. They took whatever gun was given to them. They preferred the ones that wouldn’t jam and they didn’t care much about whether it is American or European. 

Iain Overton: You seem to have spoken to a very wide variety of people. How did you manage to secure access? Was it relatively easy or did it take months and months of negotiation?

Ieva Jusionyte: The beauty of ethnography is that it gives you a lot of time to do the research. When I began this project, I had no idea where it would take me. I was interested in following US guns to Mexico. In the beginning, I didn’t even know which part of Mexico I would go to. I certainly didn’t plan on getting access to this or that organized crime group. It was by accident that I ended up in Monterrey. I was invited to give a talk at the university there and I used that as an opportunity to talk to people. I realized that the region around Monterrey had a strong gun culture, with many hunters and gun hobbyists, and so I thought it was a good place for me to begin asking my questions about guns from the United States. 

I was very open, very honest about what I was doing. I was telling everyone I met that I was interested in what American guns were doing in Mexico. I asked people whether they knew someone who had a gun and then would try to get those people to talk to me. I told everyone that I was writing a book, but that I was not a  journalist and didn’t need to know their real names. I asked them to share their stories, to show me how they got their guns on the black market. It took time and patience and meeting and talking to a lot of people: politicians, doctors, businessmen, Uber drivers, journalists. It was a journalist who connected me to a social worker who worked with at-risk youth and youth who had been incarcerated who first introduced me to someone who worked for the Zetas. 

And then, once I was on the edges of that world, I continued by talking to the next person who was interested in talking to me. Although I interviewed dozens of them, the truth is that most people I met never agreed to talk to me for the book. When you are studying something that’s criminalized, like gun trafficking or gun violence, the condition of doing that kind of research is establishing trust with your interlocutors. Building trust takes time. And even then, trust is always tentative. The people I interviewed never fully trusted me. They knew I was an anthropologist, a scholar writing a book, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t also be a spy, an undercover agent. That suspicion was always there, even when it wasn’t on the surface. Not just their suspicion about me, but also my suspicion about them. After all, I was meeting with men (and some women) who had killed people, who had kidnapped people, who knew how to threaten and extort. Although I developed quite strong relationships with some of them, I can’t say that there weren’t tensions and worse. I had to know where my limits were and how far I was ready to go to get the story and how much risk was too much. Suspicion and uncertainty accompanied my every step. 

Iain Overton: Did the whole situation and the dynamics of gun smuggling become a clearer or more complicated the more you dug into it?

Ieva Jusionyte: Yes, it turned out to be more complicated because it’s harder to see things as black and white after you spend so much time immersed in this social world. I hung out with people who were members of organized crime groups and who were smuggling guns from the United States to commit crimes as well as with people who were smuggling guns from the U.S, to defend themselves against being kidnapped by the former. There is this dynamic, a relationship between those who use guns to threaten and those who use it for protection and they both buy illegal guns. Doing this research also showed me just how murky the boundary between victim and perpetrator of violence can be. Some of the people I interviewed experienced violence, but instead of remaining in this category of victims, they picked up guns themselves and pointed them at others. Some did so voluntarily (or so they want to think), others were forced to. The more you know about how messed up it can be, how complicated peoples’ lives are, the harder it is to have a clear picture. I think it is okay that it’s complicated. 

Iain Overton: I can think of three people who have really investigated this in any meaningful way. Myself, Iain, you – Ieva – and Ioan Grillo.The three of us with similar sounding names are also all from Europe. I do think that there is something about us not being Americans and being able to maybe ask the question, you know, what is the American obsession with guns having as a consequence south of the border? And I raise this often in lots of meetings and I say, well, what about the international consequences of the Second Amendment and this proliferation of arms in America? There are scholars who have never even contemplated it, it seems. So I think it’s an interesting way in which maybe because, you know, from Europe, we do appreciate the nature of cross-border. We’re not necessarily only thinking of our own nation, but also our nation’s relationship with others. That maybe we are inspired by this. But I think there’s also, as you pointed out, there is some elements of by being a foreigner, particularly a more distant for than a Yankee, so to speak. We might have access or maybe we’re just foolish enough to venture in where angels fear to tread. 

Ieva Jusionyte: Yes, I agree! I like the idea of us three Europeans with similar sounding names asking these questions about what US gun laws are doing to other nations.  

Iain Overton: Is there anything that you feel that you really want readers to take away from your book? 

Ieva Jusionyte:  The main thing I want readers to understand, and to think deeper about, is that gun violence, as big of a problem as it is in the United States, doesn’t only affect this country, but it affects the entire region: Mexico and Central America, as well as the Caribbean (Haiti being a prime example recently). The other part of realizing that our guns are doing harm abroad is that this comes back to bite us – we see this on the border, which has become the site of perpetual crisis. But we don’t make those connections. We don’t see that asylum seekers and migrants, who are fleeing home and coming to the United States do so for reasons that include criminal violence, which is materially produced by guns sold in the United States. I hope that people start thinking more regionally and globally about the effects of US guns and understand the vicious circle of violence that ties guns, drugs, and migrants.

Iain Overton: Well, it’s, I think, a very timely book given that the Mexican government is currently pursuing through the courts an attempt to sue the gun manufacturers of North America for this violence. And have you been involved at all in the process of evidence for that court case? 

Ieva Jusionyte: The lawsuit against gun manufacturers is happening right here in Boston, Massachusetts, where I live, and the other case, against gun dealers, is in Arizona, where I’ve also done a lot of research. It’s not surprising some members of the legal team representing the Mexican government have reached out to me and I’ve shared what I knew with them. I suspect that they may use some of the findings from my book as evidence in these ongoing litigations. But the book presents a more nuanced argument than putting the blame only on US gun manufacturers and dealers. It reveals failures on the part of the Mexican government and points to their responsibility for the current situation. There is widespread impunity for violent crime in Mexico; there is the involvement of the security forces in human rights violations; there is collaboration between state institutions and organized crime groups. The situation wouldn’t be as bad if it weren’t for the supply of guns from the United States, but this doesn’t let the Mexican government off the hook. 

Iain Overton: I hope that your book at the very least raises the fact that the US obsession with guns isn’t just a US matter, that it has profound regional and I would say even global consequences. So thank you very much for your time and I recommend any of the readers of this get the book as soon as possible.