Blood Gun Money - How America Arms Gangs and Cartels - Ioan Grillo

Thousands of guns used by Mexican cartels, as well as other gangs throughout Latin America, have been traced back to U.S. gun manufacturers. Journalist Ioan Grillo describes how the flow of guns to Mexico from the U.S. exacerbates the drug war and its accompanying forced displacement of people. Baroncelli and Grillo debate drug legalization and whether it can break up cartels that use American guns to maintain global drug distribution.  Cartels increase their profit margins by cutting their product with fentanyl and other lethal substances at the expense of people’s lives. 

Talia Baroncelli

You’re watching, and I’m your host, Talia Baroncelli. I’ll shortly be joined by journalist Ioan Grillo to speak about how the U.S. arms cartels throughout Latin America.

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Joining me now is journalist Ioan Grillo. He’s currently based in Mexico City and has been reporting from Mexico for over 20 years. He’s the author of several books, including El Narco and Blood Gun Money. It’s really great to have you today. Thanks for joining.

Ioan Grillo

Yeah, great to be here.

Talia Baroncelli

So your most recent book, Blood Gun Money, is really interesting because it identifies how so many weapons that are in the hands of cartel men or cartelito, as you like to call some of them, as well as other criminals in Mexico and other parts of South America, actually come from the U.S. So they’re produced in the U.S. You trace this web of how these weapons proliferate throughout the globe, but particularly throughout Latin America.

My first question would be, what got you into reporting on this specific topic of guns and the way guns are manufactured and illicitly sold to different parts of South America to drive cartel wars? You’ve been reporting on so many aspects of the drug wars in South America. I just wonder, what really made you hone in on that particular topic of guns?

Ioan Grillo

Yeah, sure thing. Like you said, I’ve been reporting on this now for 23 years. I’ve been in Mexico and seeing this catastrophic violence which really rose up in the time that I was here. I found myself first reporting what was a fun, exotic crime story of these crazy gangsters who had songs about them and made billions of dollars moving cocaine and managed to escape the DA and the Mexican army. Then it turned into reporting on the humanitarian catastrophe, mass graves with 300 bodies, families devastated, their sons and daughters dragged away and murdered.

I knew about the gun issue from early on. I used to work for the Houston Chronicle out of Houston, Texas. Right back then, 19-20 years ago, I was writing stories about the gun trafficking. But I thought, well, America’s got a Second Amendment. What more is there to say? The guns come down here to Mexico, and what can we do about it?

In 2017, I managed to get an interview in Ciudad Juárez at the prison there with a gun trafficker. He described in detail how he was trafficking firearms and was driving up from the state of Chihuahua in Mexico to Dallas every weekend and buying a dozen or so AR-15s, mostly, and taking them back. He described how he was doing it and said he was actually doing this by buying them at the gun shows with no paperwork whatsoever. He completely described this black market at the gun show. I thought that was interesting. How does it really work?

I went to the gun show in one of these gun shows in Dallas, where he was buying from, and recorded the conversations with people and realized there were two sides to the business there. One, there were the regular gun shops who were working at the gun shows and would still ask for ID and a background check. But the other was these people who would be selling brand new guns for nothing, which he describes as a black market at the gun shows. It sometimes gets into what’s called the private sale loophole, where people are selling guns, saying that I’m a regular collector and I’m going to sell you the gun with no ID. If I’m an old record collector, I can sell you a record, or I can sell you some of my old books, and I don’t need any paperwork. They were selling brand-new guns. I thought, wow, this is actually a pretty interesting subject.

I started talking to many, even of the pro-gun people, the gun sellers, who are like, “No, we don’t like the idea of massive amounts of firearms being sold to drug cartels who are carrying out mass murder in Mexico.” I found one gun seller who himself would become a confidential informant to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms and Explosives. I was recording sales and looking into this thing.

I realized this is a really big issue. It’s not as simple as the Second Amendment. You can still have a perfectly good defense of gun rights, but try and reduce selling the firearms to the cartels. Then the numbers started coming out of how big this problem is. We started seeing that it’s more than 200,000 guns a year going to the cartels. In the last decade, more than two million firearms. One of the biggest episodes of gun trafficking, what effectively is like a hybrid armed conflict in Mexico. 

Yeah, that’s when I got into this four-year odyssey of trying to go, with a certain humility, stepping into the American firearms industry, the American gun debate, but to go right into this issue.

Talia Baroncelli

I think in your book, you mentioned that between 2007 and I think it was 2018, over 150,000 guns were definitively traced back to the U.S., guns that had been used by Mexican criminals and cartel men. You’re saying that a lot of the guns come from private sales, but I’m sure some of them are also a result of straw purchases. Is that something that you found out as well?

Ioan Grillo

Yeah, absolutely. There was the two biggest methods that the cartels get the guns from the United States which was these private sales, which, again, they’re not really private sales. These are gun traffickers abusing the private sale idea to sell quite large amounts of guns. You’ve got cases of people selling more than a thousand firearms, buying and selling guns. They’re really engaged in the business of selling firearms. But also straw buying, straw purchasing. So straw purchasing is if somebody’s got a clean ID. I asked Talia, “Can you go and buy me a firearm? You got a driver’s license here. You have no bad criminal record for violence. Go to the store. I’m going to give you 700 bucks, the cost of the AR-15 or the cost of the AK-47, plus 100 bucks for yourself.” People were doing that.

One of the things that grabbed my attention with this, you start seeing: why is it such a small amount of money? In one case, a guy walks into the store and buys 10 identical AK-47s. There’s obviously something up. Why would you go in there and say I’ll have 10. Why is there 10? The guns were called Romanian AK-47s, and he bought them in a store in Texas. If you are buying 10 of the same rifle, it’s weird you want 10 of the same rifle. So something’s up. But he bought those to sell to a cartel, and he was given a $600 fee plus the cost of the rifle. So he made $60 bucks a gun. It’s a pretty small amount of money.

In that case, one of the guns was used in the killing of a U.S. agent in Mexico, as well as these guns were used for mass murder. He was arrested and found for it. His crime was lying on the floor. His sentence was probation. Nothing. So even people involved in very clearly proven cases were getting no jail time. That was one of the reasons why straw buying was such an easy thing. 

You had cases of people buying more than 500 guns in a single sale. I mean, it is incredible stuff. People are going around and spending half a million dollars on 750 firearms in different stores, going from store to store to store. People are buying big guns, like 50 rifles that fire .50 cal bullets and all of these things. So it’s amazing. The scale of it is really low-hanging fruit of just like, yeah, again, it’s about the Second Amendment. How come you’re so openly and so easily allowing these guns to go to such violent organizations?

Talia Baroncelli

Well, something that you mentioned, which struck me as really fascinating, I didn’t realize this actually, was that the U.S. has laws that can prosecute drug running across the border, drug trafficking, but it doesn’t have the same legal framework or regulations to prosecute the trafficking of guns en masse. They, for example, could get people for smaller violations such as engagement in firearms businesses without a license, or as we were already talking about, straw purchases or knowing a sale to a prohibited person, that sort of thing.

You also document that because you attended the trial of El Chapo in, I think it was 2019. A part of the trial was they were able to get him on drug trafficking and other similar charges, but there were no mass U.S. guns trafficking or gun running against him and other members of his organization. I’m wondering, why do you think that is? Is that perhaps a result of some of the gun lobbying in the U.S.? Because your book is about Blood Gun Money: How America Arms Gangs and Cartels. Perhaps there is some incentive there to prevent certain legislation from being enacted.

Ioan Grillo

Yeah, absolutely. I saw the trial about Chapo, which was after covering things here for many years, it was surreal and crazy. I mean, you suddenly see these guys. They’ll be like a superstar. A lot of the U.S. media were enjoying and finding it a fun trial of this guy out there. But also, the violence during the last 20 years is like, well, yeah, it’s fun, but also, this guy has been involved in a mass murder down here. 

It was very interesting. They brought the guns out. They bought the AK-47s, they bought the grenade launchers, they bought them into the courthouse, and they said, “This guy is trafficking one and a half thousand, 2,000 AK-47s down here. He’s arming this war in Mexico.” They made that case verbally in the trial, but they didn’t have him charged. When I discovered there was no federal conspiracy for trafficking firearms, I thought, wow, how come we don’t know this? This is really weird. And then, what do these people get charged for with firearms cases? A lot of the time it’s, as I say, lying on the floor. And that’s why the case is so low.

Now, I must say this is a big turn. I wrote all this in the conclusion of my book, published in 2021, how this was the case, and they need federal firearms laws and higher sentences on straw purchases. Now, in 2022, in the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act in the United States they made a change. I don’t want to make an over-claim that it was my book that caused a change, but I do know that some of the assistants of the Congress people involved in this have been emailing me and asking me to speak to staff and various things. So maybe it could be involved in this.

This went down quite quietly, and the American media didn’t really spot or see these changes, mostly because this Bipartisan Safer Communities Act was also focused on mass shooters. People going to schools and spraying them up, Parkland style, spraying up kids. The media were very focused on those points. Rather than this gun trafficking, they made for the first time a federal conspiracy to traffic firearms and have started charging some people with those since then. So it’s a game changer, or we hope.

One of the things that we need to see is you can pass laws, but you still have to see them enforced and you still have to see things happening to try and make an effort with this. The conversation has been changed in a big way.

Now, we also had in 2021, in late 2021, the Mexican government suing the U.S. firearms companies over this firearms trafficking. So that was a big change. They also cited my book in that lawsuit. That was a big change as well, which really changed the conversation, and has made it much more in the media. So we’ve seen this change in the conversation. We’ve seen certain changes in laws, but will we see change in the action to see if this problem can be resolved or reduce the firepower of the cartels.

Talia Baroncelli

Well, we live in an incredibly violent society, and a lot of the violence is driven by gun makers who receive state subsidies from the U.S. government or even from other governments, such as the German government.

In your book, you also discuss the case of peace activist Jürgen Grässlin. For many years, Jürgen Grässlin has been campaigning against the really large gun manufacturer Heckler & Koch. Heckler & Koch has been manufacturing assault rifles such as G36 rifles for many years. He suspected that these guns were ending up in the hands of criminals and other violent actors across the world in really dangerous areas in which human rights violations were being committed. This was very difficult for him to prove. 

As a result of some evidence published by whistleblowers, he was able to get a Stuttgart court to fine Heckler & Koch for $3.4 million for their sales of G36 assault rifles to the Mexican government, which ended up selling some of these weapons to other parts of the country. Heckler & Koch guns were then actually used in the killing of 43 students and teachers in 2014 in Guerrero. It was as a result of this particular case that Heckler & Koch was sued.

What do you think needs to change on a more macro level in order to reverse some of the incentive structures of producing these guns?

Ioan Grillo

Yeah, his case is a very important case. I went there to interview him in Freiburg, and I went to the H&K factory up in the mountains there. It’s bizarre. You got these beautiful mountains in the Black Forest, this little town, producing millions of guns that end up in the hands of cartels in Mexico, in all of these conflicts around the world, just churning out these firearms.

Now, the bigger issue there is very, very difficult. People ask, “Can you actually stop the cartels from getting guns?” Now, what can you really do with that? In Mexico, you have these many organizations. They have this endless stream of AK-47s, AR-15s, .50 cals, grenades, all these weapons that they’re using for this kind of terror and using it for these things.

I’m working with corrupt police and corrupt military and so forth. How can you really turn that around and stop that? Then other people come around and say, “Well, it’s never going to stop. The only way is to give everybody guns. The more guns will actually make it more peaceful because then everyone would have one.” Then you realize in Mexico that doesn’t necessarily work because I work around these places, work around these super violent places, and even if I have a pistol, they would have an AK-47. Then there are groups, 30-40 of these guys with AK-47s. I’m not going to out-gun them.

Sometimes, it is such [inaudible 00:16:54] problems in how you really solve this. I think in some ways, you have to just look at what’s happening right now and how we can do and react to some of these things right now. The fact is the U.S. gun shops, gun factories, and gun distributors because someone’s bringing European guns– Romanian AK-47s are not made in the U.S., but they’re imported to the United States, sold in the United States, and they’re taken to Mexico. Why not try and challenge that? Especially in this time when we are at least trying to reduce, even if you’re not going to say we’ve got no guns, reduce that flow of firearms.

One of the problems is there’s such an excess of guns because they have so many guns, they use a gun in a crime. It’s a bit of a hot gun, they call it. They call it [foreign language 00:17:50]. The gun’s been burned because it’s been used in a pretty high-profile crime. So they sell it for cheap for like 100 bucks. The kids, the younger kids in the neighborhood, have got guns as well. They’re getting thrown down. Kids in schools have got guns and all this stuff. You’ve got such an excess of bullets where they don’t only just fire on the target, but they’ll fire 500 bullets and kill the person they’re going after, the guy selling tacos on the side of the street, and a pregnant woman driving in the car behind. You have to have some reduction of this violence to start somewhere.

Now, I don’t want to let Mexico off the hook. The Mexican government is massively corrupt and is working with cartels. Mexico needs to figure out some strategy for reducing violence in this country. But on this issue of gun trafficking from the United States, the Mexican government is right on this issue and has a moral high ground of saying, “Well, you can’t just give this Iron River of guns and let it flow to the criminals here in this country.”

Talia Baroncelli

Well, I think it’s a very complex issue. We can call so many issues complex, but this particular popular issue ties in with the flow of resources, as you call it, the Iron River, so the stream of guns to Latin America. But these weapons are used to ensure that there is a drug trade.

Part of the reason that there is a drug trade is because drugs are criminalized and not legalized. I also wonder how much of this is really driven by Nixon’s version of the war on drugs. We’ve seen various manifestations of that over the years. We know this policy of trying to cut the supply of drugs, but in a way, propping up a whole system, a whole apparatus around it, which actually fuels all of this violence and the power structures that maintain these drug cartels.

We could even go as far as to say that the U.S. government supports various regimes throughout South America and Central America, which are actually doing a lot of the drugs themselves. Someone is profiting from all of this. It’s probably not adequate to analyze one part of the problem and say that we just need to target the guns. It seems like there is an incentive structure there to keep things as they are and to not actually challenge the entire problem. It’s my own personal bias, but I think that if you would at least decriminalize and also legalize a lot of these drugs, then that would turn things on its head for the cartels.

Ioan Grillo

Yeah, so there are some deep issues there. Absolutely, the illegal gun trafficking and the illegal drug trade are totally entangled. It’s like these two venomous plants entangled around each other. You see this on so many levels. You see people selling heroine in Baltimore or now selling more synthetic opioids in Baltimore. People come in from Virginia, and they’ll trade guns for drugs. You see the Mexican cartels bringing guns down from the U.S. all the way down to Colombia and exchanging them for cocaine. Then the guns are being used to fuel a civil war in Colombia for many years.

You see this exchange of guns and drugs, and then because the drug trade is such high money and many people can do it, then who actually dominates the trade? People with more guns and violence. So, you use guns to defend your turf in the drug trade. Whereas the illegal gun trade is worth a relatively small number of total dollars, though some people still get very rich from this, the illegal drug trade, they say, is worth more than $300 billion per year around the world.

Now, questions of drug policy reform. Well, I shall get to your last question, then get to drug policy reform. You mentioned the U.S. government itself supporting regimes or government groups involved in drug trafficking. It is a very, very big issue, and a very relevant issue. It’s like the U.S. government is having a war on drugs and self-sabotaging the war on drugs, whether through policy or just this innateness.

In big cases like Afghanistan, where you saw not just the U.S. but all of the allies in Afghanistan and the biggest heroin state in the world for many years, the Taliban are coming in and starting some horrific stuff for the Taliban, but also start clapping down on poppies. Then, weird things with the U.S. government criticizing the Taliban for clapping down on poppies. Very weird politics to understand. Then you see this again and again.

Going way back up Vietnam. In Vietnam, actually, South Vietnam was involved in drug trafficking, the state being down there. The Secret Army in Laos, the CIA-funded Secret Army, also moved heroine with the poppies, getting the U.S. soldiers addicted, going back to the U.S., and then bringing this addiction problem. It is just again and again.

We go to the Contras in Nicaragua in the 1980s. The Contra army against the Sandinista government and the Contras getting cocaine money. So you see, again and again, there’s the U.S. self-sabotaging its own war on drugs or politics overriding that, which is, again, a real problem.

On to the drug policy reform. I’ve been now involved in this for 23 years. I grew up in an area; I grew up in the city of Brighton in the U.K. We got a lot of drug use back in the 1980s. I knew four guys, teenagers and a young man who died of heroin overdoses back then. We had our own opioid epidemic back in the day.

I was thinking that legalization is the silver bullet that will solve this. We can legalize it. In 2012, I wrote op-eds in the New York Times, very clearly arguing for legalizing marijuana. This is going to hit the cartels. Take the marijuana away from them.

We get to now, and I have more disillusionment about this, and I explain why and where I am with that kind of thinking. One thing is that the marijuana money being taken away hasn’t weakened the cartels, unfortunately. I still believe in marijuana legalization. But the cartels are moving to other drugs and moving to everything else, from extortion to kidnapping, to human smuggling, to sex trafficking, to oil theft, all of these different crimes. I still think marijuana should be legalized, I could say, but I was hoping there’s a bigger impact in weakening the cartels there.

Then we had this revolution. I do believe there has been a revolution in drugs, from plant-based drugs to synthetic drugs. In the last few years, this has accelerated. It’s been coming for a while. We have synthetic drugs going back a long time, but then we really started to see it in the last couple of years. First, we see crystal meth, and then we see them selling more crystal meth than cocaine, and then more fentanyl than heroin. The numbers are just absolutely going off the chart.

So now we see more than 107,000 overdose deaths in the United States in a single year, about 70% with fentanyl in their system. Devastating. You go back to the crack epidemic in the 1980s, the worst years of the crack epidemic, and they had like 5,000 overdoses. There were other issues of shootings and problems in communities, but the level of overdose deaths now is off the chart. I just wonder what the hell we do about fentanyl. Now it seems sadly that heroine was the good old days.

Now, I still do believe we should have a conversation about drug policy reform, about what we should have as drug policy in our societies, in America, in the United States, in Canada, in the U.K., in Germany, particularly with big consumption, with cocaine. What can we legalize and decriminalize? But I’m less optimistic that it’s such a magic bullet. Also, I realized now the actual business of drug policy reform is like we got the marijuana, and then we got a bit stuck here. The discussion is kind of dissolved. I totally agree. We need a big conversation about this. I am a little bit less sure of what exactly the moving forward should be.

Talia Baroncelli

We don’t really have a case in which there are ideal circumstances or conditions for that. I mean, yes, of course, many countries, Canada, for example, and then different parts of the U.S., have legalized or decriminalized marijuana, but they haven’t done so with all drugs to see how that would affect drug trafficking, how that would affect the cartels.

I do remember that Roberto Saviano, who is this writer, I’m sure you’re familiar with his work, he was, I guess you could say, undercover with Camorra, with some of the Italian Mafia in and around Naples. He was, in a way, a whistleblower. He came out of that experience and was able to, based on his statements, was able to get a lot of Neapolitan Mafia guys behind bars. But he’s interviewed lots of or several crime bosses who are now in jail or who are willing to actually speak to journalists. A lot of them did say that if drugs were to be legalized, that would totally upend the business that these Mafia guys are conducting and that it would, in a way, result in more taxes being paid and more regulation of the entire flow of weapons and drugs. That would essentially help Italy as well. It would increase their growth and the amount that they’re able to get from taxes and that sort of thing.

To hear that from someone who is so deeply, from criminals essentially, who are so deeply embedded in the Mafia and in the drug trade, say that one of the biggest threats that they perceive to their business would be something like legalization and decriminalization. I’m sure it means something, but of course, we haven’t had those conditions to see how it would work in practice. I take your point that it’s not the silver bullet or it’s not the one-size-fits-all policy for all the problems that we have that are related to the drug trade.

I did want to move on to one other issue that I think is really important. We’ve seen so many deaths in Mexico, and you term it a hybrid conflict because it’s not officially categorized as an armed conflict by many other countries. So that means that asylum seekers from Mexico, some of them get asylum, but not all of them are recognized as refugees because the conditions in Mexico are not really labeled as an armed conflict. I wonder how you think that plays into some of these issues and issues at the border, for example, between the U.S. and Mexico.

Ioan Grillo

Yeah, sure thing. Basically, I’ll go into something just to say it. Look, the drug issue has been there for a long time. I pushed for a long time with this legalization stuff. I got quite disillusioned in seeing this thing stuck, this debate stuck. One thing, we have a lot of popular opinions saying, “Well, we should end the war on drugs and legalize stuff.” Then you have to really move into legislation. I totally agree, we haven’t tried a full-on legalization, and we have examples like Portugal, which have certainly been successful models. There certainly needs to be a lot of stuff in terms of health stuff, but it’s a complicated, difficult issue.

Really, for example, if we’re going to look at the United States, what do you push to legalize or decriminalize first? How do we do this? Sometimes, what we end up with in the U.S. is you end up with the drug market being decriminalized. Maybe you can consume drugs without being punished, and I know that’s fair enough, but the selling of drugs is still being controlled by cartels. That’s one of the things with decriminalization: it is still allowing it in their hands. That’s the thing there. Get on with what you’re saying.

Talia Baroncelli

Right. Thanks for bringing up the Portugal case because that’s actually an example of things working in a very limited context, of course. It’s not the whole of Europe, so there are still issues in other parts of Europe, but Portugal has been quite successful in legalizing drugs.

Ioan Grillo

Absolutely, or decriminalizing. One of the reasons I think that Portugal has success where parts of the U.S. have failed with this is because they still have a health system in Portugal. People can get help, medical help, and remuneration help. Whereas in the U.S., and if you look at some of these West Coast cities, there’s just a lot of people with no health help at all. Some people are taking fentanyl on the street and so forth, but they have no real backup or support to actually help them get out of it.

But anyway, going back to talking about the conflict. Across Latin America, we’ve had this violence in a bunch of countries. So you have Mexico, we’ve had Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Colombia, Venezuela, with a lot of these same issues where criminals have become a form of para-militarily organized crime. Rather than being gang members, these are like para-military organizations with people with radios, AK-47s, and structures who are taking over and being like a duopoly of power in these areas. Then a lot of people are fleeing that violence.

People at the beginning, when people started to become aware of the ability to claim asylum for this, they started coming with these cases of why  I’m fleeing these organizations.

Now, the original asylum law, going back to the 1950s and the refugee freedom and so forth, were very much geared to more thinking about things like the Holocaust. They were like, we’re looking at governments that are really repressive, and we’re looking out for persecuted ethnic minorities, like obviously the case of the Jews in Germany. People were looking back and said, “How come these people were not given refugee and were not able to be refugees anywhere.”

Talia Baroncelli

Well, to add some important context, in 1951, when the Geneva Refugee Convention was created, it had a geographical demarcation or requirement, and it was primarily for Europe. Then that later got expanded in 1967 to include refugees coming from elsewhere. It was really a product of the outcome of World War II and the horrors of the Holocaust. It was really specific to Europeans, essentially. But then that was broadened out. I think Mexico has also played a large role in shaping asylum laws and pushing for the broadening of that asylum body of law.

Ioan Grillo

Yeah, absolutely. Then you see, in these cases, people are saying, “Well, we’re going to argue that these cartels and these gangs, the law was beefed up to show the government being repressive or were persecuting groups.” So, these gangs are effectively working with governments.

In Mexico, if the Sinaloa cartel wants to kill you, and the Sinaloa cartel has massive amounts of police and military working for them, then you have to leave the country. Your government is not protecting you, and you’re effectively being persecuted by the state. So people are going to the United States and arguing these cases in courts and start to have a success rate in this, getting successful cases and winning asylum on this basis. So then what you got was you had this massive increase. This was what the judges at the beginning were quite apprehensive about trying to grant asylum in these cases. People were fleeing China. Will get into it much more.

What people say for one of the reasons was the judges were apprehensive about awarding asylum in these cases. We’re going to open the floodgates if we start giving asylum to people from Mexico and Latin America. Now, they had good lawyers, good lawyers like Carlos Spector, a lawyer in El Paso, a very good lawyer, arguing these cases, and bringing in experts and showing this quite well, and people will give them these cases. Then you got this massive increase in asylum claims. Also, there were a lot of people from the United Nations Refugee Agency going around handing out leaflets and raising the people’s understanding of asylum cases.

Talia Baroncelli

Which is also their right to be informed as to what their rights are under the asylum rubric.

Ioan Grillo

There has been a big backlash in the United States. First, a backlash with Trump, and then this big back and forth on this. Now, what you see right now, or you’ve seen now, is the number of asylum seekers going so high in the United States. You’ve now got a backlog. Last time I checked, it was one and a half million cases backlogged, it is probably a lot higher now. It goes up a very steep rise there. Large amounts of people. A lot of people come from Venezuela, continuing to come from Cuba, and from across Latin America.

The immigration here in Mexico has changed massively. When I first began covering this a couple of decades ago, it was the vast majority of Mexicans. They’ll go over the Sonoran Desert. Now it’s less than a quarter of those going over that are Mexican, about three quarters from outside Mexico, mostly from Latin America. These cases were similar stuff coming from Jamaica, from Haiti, from Honduras, from Nicaragua, from all of these different countries, and also people coming from further afield.

Now you’ve got the situation where you’ve had these various attempts. You had the attempts by Trump to try and slow this down. It is a very confusing situation of asylum law.

Now, I was just yesterday, I came from Ciudad Juárez. I will give you an example of how confusing and complicated it is now on the border. I went to a camp of refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants. There was a camp of tents and stuff on the border. Met some Venezuelans who were planning to go over. For a time, they would get over the river, neck to the wall, past this barbed wire, and then the U.S. would say, “Okay, we’re going to process you and allow your asylum claim.” Because of the back and forth, suddenly they’re saying, “No, we’re not going to do it anymore.”

I met these guys in the camp on Saturday. On Sunday, I was sitting on the plane about to come back, and the guy called me in a video call right from where he was on the wall. He said, “No, they’re not letting us come in.” It’s a big thing here. So they’re constantly changing the games, changing the rules. So you see people getting pushed further out into the desert to try and go in, and it is a very bad situation. A lot of people, with record numbers at the border but unclear policies of what the rules are, and this is becoming a hot political issue that could even tip the election in favor of Trump in this year’s elections.

Talia Baroncelli

Well, there are a lot of issues there because I think the Republicans want the border to be something that they can campaign on. I don’t think they actually want to improve the situation. When you talk about a crisis, there are different perspectives on this. Some activists would say that it’s also a crisis for people on the move who are trying to claim asylum. It’s not just a crisis of nation-states dealing with people on their borders, but also for the people themselves who are living through this.

You mentioned that there’s a confused set of laws. Under Trump, the Supreme Court or the various courts that were dealing with asylum were enacting laws that were really in contravention with a lot of more international asylum laws and international conventions. They were enacting what’s called safe third country principles, saying that if you’re coming from, say, Honduras, and then you’re in Mexico, and if Mexico is considered to be a safe country, then you should actually be applying for asylum there. Your asylum claim in the U.S. would be thrown out because you pass through a safe country. It goes both ways.

Most scholars would argue that contravenes the right to asylum in itself because there could be various reasons for someone seeking asylum in the U.S. and not feeling safe to do so in Mexico. Perhaps they’re also being persecuted there, or they’re affected by some of the violence there. But that really, I guess, goes into the weeds.

There are legitimate problems, of course. There’s a huge backlog with the courts and not enough people processing asylum claims. There’s a huge backlog where people are waiting for years and years in the U.S. waiting for a determination to be made on their case. I also think that some of the policies just exacerbate the issues. They say that people should be coming in through official ports of entry. If that doesn’t happen, they’re pushed further into the desert to try and cross there and then end up endangering their lives. I think the authorities definitely make it worse.

Then, this standoff with the governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, and the state forces versus the federal government doesn’t really actually help the people on the ground and the people who are searching for somewhere to stay or for asylum.

I guess my final question would be, what do you make of AMLO’s response to all this? The President or Prime Minister of Mexico, I can’t remember.

Ioan Grillo

President of Mexico.

Talia Baroncelli

President of Mexico. Has he largely been coordinating or supporting U.S. policy on migration, or has there been some pushback there? I know in your book, you did mention that he declared that the war on drugs, or the Mexican drug war, was over in 2018. I don’t know what he said since then, but how would you assess his response to these migration issues?

Ioan Grillo

Yeah, sure. Just to respond to the one thing you said there, I think it’s a very good point you made about the Republicans as well. I was there earlier this year. In January and February, I was over on the Piedras Negras, Eagle Pass border, where this take-back-our border caravan went to and where they used this big claim of the military there, stopping the migrants and so forth.

One of the things while I was there that I thought was interesting. I was talking to two guys, and they were more from a right-wing perspective. I was talking to them and they were saying they didn’t really know the border, and they were like, “Wow, this is a farce.” The Republicans, they’re not really interested in solving this issue. They want this bad to campaign on because they have nothing else to run on. They want us to stay in a bad situation. They’re not really solving this. You see, the farce of the way that was done with the take back our border caravan, by the way, was mostly old guys. The average age was 75. It wasn’t very threatening. It wasn’t like there’s some big mass mobilization to the border at that point.

Also, you see the farce of the governors. They had this one park with barbed wire and all the governors taking photographs with the military behind. That’s just one tiny little bit on the border. It’s like, what do they even see them making?

About the desert stuff, I’m just working on a new story right now. I was looking at why the numbers of deaths over the desert are just, we’re talking about for the numbers we know, close to 900 deaths in a year on the border now, the most deadly border in the world, and a lot of deaths happening. I just want to find out what changes are there. One of the worst areas is right next to Ciudad Juárez, in a deserty area called Sunland Park.

One of the issues or some of the issues with this is you have got bigger numbers, and bigger numbers means more deaths. You have got these more barbed wires there and it’s pushing people out. But also, you’ve got these among the human smuggling gangs; they call them Pollero, the human smugglers. Polleros are like chicken herders, and they call the migrants chickens. You have this new generation. You used to have this old-school generation of older human smugglers who move and take care of the migrants to an extent. Now, we were there, it’s like young kids, I mean, 18, 16, 17, 18, 19, the ones running a lot of this human smuggling. There’s such high numbers. They’re treating people badly and people are ending up… they’re letting them out, running them into the desert, and they’re saying, “Oh, just go,” and they’re getting lost and die there. Some crazy conditions.

On your last question about Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the President of Mexico. A fascinating character. I’ve followed his career for the last two decades since he was mayor of Mexico City—three presidential campaigns. We’re coming to the end of his presidency. I’m getting to, I guess, his handing over of power. We can maybe make some observations about him or his presidency. I always quite liked his rhetoric. Personally, I think his discourse was quite a practical left-wing discourse. It was left-wing, and it made the country more equal, restoring communities. It was interesting. It was often about values, about neoliberalism being this idea of everyone for themselves and this idea of more of a society, more of a nation. I quite like his discourse, and I can see why a lot of people are in favor of him.

I think in power, so he called his government the Fourth Transformation and said it would be a transformation of Mexico like the Mexican reform movement in Benito Juárez; this is the 19th century, the Mexican Revolution. What did he actually say? He said, independence, the reform movement, and the revolution, the three or four transformations. He would be the fourth transformation.

When you build it so high, it’s hard to fit that bit of being a transformation of Mexico. I think his presidency, overall, I think it’s been okay in an economic sense. It’s been okay. I think politically, it’s been okay. I think the violence has been terrible, but I don’t need to get out of the car too much, but it has been terrible under him and the last three presidents. So it was terrible under [Felipe] Calderón, under [Enrique] Peña Nieto, under AMLO, even under Vicente Fox. Before that, you saw a rise in violence. So it was a bigger, deeper problem that he’s failed to confront. But then again, so have other presidents.

He never really figured out his ideas on the violence. He initially had this idea of a ‘hugs not bullets’ or ‘end the drug war’ idea, but then he didn’t really follow that through really hard. Then he had another idea, which is more like restoring the power of the state, restoring a national guard.

On the economics and the reason why I think he is popular, and I think why some of the foreign press overplay and attack him in saying, “This is a terrible guy,” then they have to say, “Well, this guy’s pretty popular.” His rhetoric is popular with many Mexicans. His discourse, how he’s saying he’s popular with many people. Now, it’s populist. It is sometimes confrontational and attacks certain journalists and so forth. But still this basic idea of restoring a nation and for the people and having some other leadership and not just being bossed around is popular with people. He has kicked back some money into some of these social programs.

It was interesting that during the pandemic, he had actually a more austerity program. He didn’t run up or borrow loads of money like a lot of presidents around the world and a lot of Mexican presidents would have done. He was like, “Why borrow loads of money, which is going to go into the hands and be ripped off by these rich companies?” Now, I do believe a lot of that extra spending that happened in the pandemic in many countries only ended up in the hands of super-rich people. AMLO, he sustained the economy reasonably well on that. So we’ll see. He’s leaving power, and it looks like Claudia Sheinbaum is from the same party. His chosen successor will become the first female president of Mexico, and then we’ll see how she does.

Talia Baroncelli

In terms of his interactions with Biden, some people would say that the Democrats are usually better on asylum issues. If you actually look at the track record, Obama deported four more asylum seekers than Trump, for example, and the policy itself has largely been the same. Is AMLO still sticking to this remain-in-Mexico policy where there’s a concerted effort on the part of the military and other police departments to try and prevent people from crossing and staying in Mexico and not to try and enter the United States?

Ioan Grillo

Yeah, sure. That is a good point about Obama deporting more people than Trump. It’s a good fact there to remember. I think with Obama, I would often talk about the Democratic administration on this issue. They don’t want to be associated with being heavy on migration or heavy on asylum seekers. But the practice is they will try and push back. There are a lot of low-hanging targets to deport under Obama. What I mean is, I’ve covered a lot of the deportations that happened here, and that was part of what made the drug war explode as well. There are loads of people being deported and then being recruited to cartels, fighting the violence. There are a lot of these towns were people were being deported. It was often people with drunk driving, domestic violence, a simple crime, and then bang, you’re deported. Before you had to be processed for a crime to stay in the U.S. It was deportation, deportation, deportation. It changed the dynamic there.

By the time Trump came in, a lot of them were the migrant community without papers that were being lowered down, so it wasn’t as easy to deport the big numbers.

AMLO was initially, again, I know it’s fine. People should come here. We’re going to give jobs to them and so forth. Under Obama, under Trump, and under Biden, you see the same thing playing out, where when you have these large numbers of people coming through Mexico, Mexico will use its National Guard, it’s military to slow down this migration. It will do that because generally, under a certain, say, duress or under working with the United States, the Mexican government generally recognizes it’s got half a trillion dollars in trade with the United States, and that’s more of its benefit. It can do this and slow it down. Now, that slowing down, which is done, you’ve seen almost like this constant up, my bills go up, down a bit, up again, for the last 10 years. It’s only slowing this down. It paused things. They continue to do that. Mexico continues to do that, at least tries, but still the numbers are… it’s doing that right now. Biden is trying to keep it out of the news till the election. I don’t know. It could be huge numbers over the summer. Again, last year, December, I think, was the highest month ever. Then the Mexican government has been hitting back, but we’ll see how much it will hit back on this going into the summer.

Talia Baroncelli

Ioan Grillo, it’s been great speaking to you. I highly recommend that people read your book, Blood Gun Money, which is right behind you, so people can take a look at it in bookstores. Also, they should check out your recent article on how fentanyl has indirectly killed the opium trade. That was a really interesting piece. I highly recommend that people check out your work. Where can they find you online?

Ioan Grillo

Yeah, sure. So check out my sub stack, I have stories in there. That’s a great issue to talk about: the opium, this revolution of synthetic drugs and the opium farmers being taken out there. It’s You can see all of my stories there. You can see it’s a funny name, I-O-A-N G-R-I-L-L-O. You can see me on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and a bunch of places there as well.

Talia Baroncelli

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Ioan Grillo is a journalist and writer based in Mexico City, covering Latin America with a special focus on drugs and organized crime. Grillo wrote the El Narco trilogy, produced the newsletter CrashOut, and reported for TV networks, including France 24. He has also worked at many big outlets, including the New York Times, Time Magazine, Esquire, CNN, Reuters, The Sunday Telegraph, Letras Libres, and many others. In 2022, he won Columbia University’s Maria Moors Cabot Prize for coverage of the region. theme music

written by Slim Williams for Paul Jay’s documentary film “Never-Endum-Referendum“.  

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One Comment

  1. Malon James A BRIEF HISTORY OF SEVEN KILLINGS Vividly explicates what is really going on in Latin American countries with the endless supply of American guns and drugs. The goal seems to be essentially to almost like Israel does with Palestine Elmar continually under mine any chance of affective social cohesion Infrastructure and governance. Haiti is of course always the prime example!

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