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crime world The legally-sold American weapons fuelling the blood-thirsty Mexican Cartels and drug wars

Author reveals shocking flow of arms in drug battle


Police guard a massive collection of guns
taken from drug cartels in Mexico

Police guard a massive collection of guns taken from drug cartels in Mexico

Police guard a massive collection of guns taken from drug cartels in Mexico

Automatic weapons sold legally in the US are flowing over the border into Mexico to arm narco terrorists who control the drug supply that floods back.

Deadly drug cartels are using 50-calibre rifles - used to rip through armoured vehicles - against police and the military along with AK-47s and AR-15s in gang wars that are claiming tens of thousands of lives.

Yet the firepower, illegal to buy in Mexico, can be purchased in shops just over the border where the powerful gun lobby make sure the US constitution of the 'right to bear arms' is protected.

Journalist Ioan Grillo, who has reported for more than 20 years from Mexico on cartels and narco wars, says an iron river flowing from the US is arming violent drug gangs wreaking death and destruction.

Half a century since former US President Richard Nixon declared his war on drugs, Grillo's new book Blood, Gun, Money paints a picture of the ridiculous amid a sea of pain and suffering.


Author Ioan Grillo

Author Ioan Grillo

Author Ioan Grillo

"In 1971, Richard Nixon gave this very famous speech and said we are gong to declare a war on public enemy number one - i.e drugs - and after that the DEA (Drugs Enforcement Authority) was created and came into action in 1973. He declared war in absolutist terms and it was that heroin should be banished from American lives.

"There had been massive increases in heroin use and he said he could get rid of it totally, that there would be no more heroin. So the DEA began this long campaign.

They couldn't just go after people selling it on the street corner, they had to go after their bosses and then on to those who traffick it. Fifty years of this long war on drugs has played out," he said.

In the last year, Mexico counted more than 35,000 drug-related murders, while 72,000 US citizens died from overdoses, proving that Nixon's policy is firmly not working.

In his book, Grillo concentrates on the gun, the sale of which is heavily controlled in Mexico where just one legal gun shop is operated by the army and where buyers need seven pieces of ID.

Across the border in the US, more than 393 million guns are legally in the hands of civilians while a massive black market operating due to loopholes in the legislation means that criminals and narcos can buy them too.

"In the last 11 years, around 164,000 guns taken from criminals in Mexico have been traced directly back to American gun shops and factories - but this is only the tip of the iceberg. Authorities here believe the real number is likely north of two million.

"In the US, guns cannot be bought in shops by criminals or with felony offences, but they can easily buy guns on the black markets. In fact, I discovered that once they are being bought from a 'private collector' there is no ID required," says Grillo.

In his book, he details how America is the biggest drug market in the world, spending more than $150 billion a year on heroin, cocaine, crystal meth and marijuana.

It has the biggest prison population in the world with two million people behind bars, the highest level of police shootings in the industrialised world and also a hard stance against organised crime.

Over the border in Mexico, institutions are weak and corrupt and the drugs war is no longer gangsters fighting but paramilitary groups taking on the military, and at times, overwhelming the country.

In an interview on this week's Crime World podcast, Grillo says that a third of Mexico's two million square kilometres and population of 130 million people are living under serious narco cartel problems. Another third has a cartel presence, while other parts of the country are only as violent as Belgium. But it is the level of firepower in the hands of the narcos that causes the real casualties.

"I have come across lots of murders over 20 years covering the violence and there are many scenes where victims have been ambushed with AK-47s and AR-15s. These are weapons bought legally in the US and converted to fully automatic once they are smuggled into Mexico.

"At crime scenes you will see how a group of people might have stopped at traffic lights and unleashed 500 bullets. These weapons can release 10 bullets a second when fully automatic.

They just kill everyone, the targets, the people in the cars around, the guy selling tacos. That is one of the reasons many regular people have been dying in this war," he says.

"A lot of people have an idea that weapons in the US can be bought by anyone, but there is a complicated mosaic of legislation around them. The second amendment recognises the right to bear arms but that doesn't mean anyone can have a gun; for example a criminal or a mentally ill person cannot.

But different states and cites have their own regulations and laws. The basic rule is you fill out a form and there is an ID check and you buy a gun but the reality is that there are private sellers who can legally sell to someone who claims to be a collector without even looking for ID."

In his wide-ranging interview, Grillo describes visiting the Mexican army site where some of the seized assets of cartel bosses are kept, including a stuffed lion and tiger once used to eat victims.

He describes the sicario who told him how he learned to behead humans while they were still alive and he describes a visit to Baltimore, Maryland - one of the most violent cities in the US, where life is cheap.

"It is very frustrating in some ways, covering all this. When I started out 20 years ago, it was exciting and glamorous and then you just see so much pain and suffering that you can't just talk about the bad stuff, you also have to look for solutions."

He believes closure of a number of loopholes in the US gun laws, more rehabilitation for those who need it and small changes could have a great effect on the problem.

"Mexico has a huge challenge in reducing organised crime, and guns are part of that equation. The country has huge problems to deal with, huge issues with young people being recruited in neighbourhoods.

You have to look at a comprehensive solution and reducing the flow of guns is part of that.

"Imagine Ireland, if every young guy out of control had grenades and an AK-47 fully automatic slung around their shoulders. Just imagine what that would look like. Because that's what Mexico is like."

  • Ioan Grillo is this weeks guest on Crime World. His book Blood, Guns, Money is available online and in stores nationwide.

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