Latin American leaders are renewing their commitment to confront arms trafficking, but it remains unclear how much of a dent they can make in this complicated, transnational criminal trade.
Security forces across 15 Latin American countries, including Mexico, Brazil, and Colombia, seized over 8,000 firearms in the largest-ever regional anti-arms trafficking operation coordinated by the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol), the organization announced on April 18.
On the same day, leaders from Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, the Bahamas, St. Lucia, and Barbados agreed to introduce bans on assault-style weapons, citing the steady climb of the region’s homicide rates. They also announced their support for legal action against US gun manufacturers brought by Mexico.
To better understand the potential effect of these actions on arms trafficking in the region, InSight Crime spoke with Ioan Grillo, author of Blood Gun Money: How America Arms Gangs and Cartels, which explores the enormous black market for firearms in Latin America.
InSight Crime (IC): Can you summarize how so many US-manufactured weapons flow south into Mexico? What methods should we worry most about today?
Ioan Grillo (IG): The United States is the biggest source of illegal guns in the Americas. The US has the world’s most extensive legal firearms market, with more than 400 million firearms in the hands of civilians, but a parallel black market of guns feeds off the legal market. Many are illegally trafficked to Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America. Sometimes the weapons are hidden in appliances like stoves or fridges on trucks headed to Mexico, or they’re taken on boats across the Caribbean or to South America, often in shipping containers, smuggled among other packaged goods.
Gangs and cartels use four main methods to get firearms from the United States. The first is through “straw buyers,” someone with a legal ID and without a record of a felony who is paid to go buy a firearm for someone else. The second is a loophole that allows people to sell firearms even though they are not licensed firearms dealers. This could be somebody pretending to be a private collector when really, they are buying and selling guns illegally. The third method is theft, either from citizens or from the military and the police of various countries. There is also corruption inside these military units, and guns are sold by these authorities, sometimes including guns previously seized from criminals. The fourth is “ghost guns,” which is a rising issue. These do not necessarily mean 3D-printed guns, but parts of firearms that are taken from kits and assembled.
IC: Many of these weapons end up in the hands of drug trafficking organizations and Mexico’s vigilante self-defense groups. Who is doing the actual trafficking of weapons and what is their relationship with these larger criminal groups?
IG: Many individuals and groups traffic guns from the United States to Mexico. Sometimes groups of people will traffic guns and sell them to the cartel but do not directly work for the cartel. In Ciudad Juárez, for example, you have the Juárez Cartel, also known as La Línea. There are people who traffic guns for the cartel and pay La Línea a quota for the right to sell guns to sicarios, or hitmen, and other people working for the group in the city.
Other people work directly for criminal groups. I interviewed a member of the Barrio Azteca (another criminal organization operating in Ciudad Juárez), working directly for the group to move guns over the border. Then you have more scattered groups, which send guns to and have relationships with large criminal organizations, but themselves are semi-independent.
Finally, you have “ant trafficking,” which refers to individuals who take guns back across the border alone. You might have somebody from Guerrero who’s working in the United States, goes back to Mexico for holidays, takes a couple of guns with him, and gives them to family down there, who maybe belong to one of the self-defense groups there.
IC: Your research describes how guns flow illegally from Mexico to other parts of Latin America. Can you explain how?
IG: Firearms trafficked to Mexico are trafficked to other places, including Colombia. We have examples of guns in Arizona sold to traffickers linked to Mexican drug trafficking organizations, taken to Mexico, and then appearing in Colombia.
I interviewed a pilot who trafficked drugs from Colombia and Venezuela to Mexico and was incarcerated in the United States. He would fly from Colombia to Mexico with cocaine, and on the way back, they would bring stuff they could sell to their suppliers in Colombia: guns, riding saddles, tequila. These are profit-focused organizations; if they’re paying for fuel for an airplane to fly from Mexico to South America, they likely want to take these highly lucrative guns with them. A significant quantity of firearms is trafficked south from Mexico like this. Also, because of proximity to the US, Mexicans have access to harder-to-acquire guns like the Barrett .50 caliber rifles. They help traffic these more uncommon guns, which Colombian groups want but cannot get quite as easily down there.
IC: Your book also talks about the robbery of military stock and police officers selling their weapons to criminal groups. Is the number of weapons that fall in this category significant? How much of a problem is this compared to arms smuggling from the US?
IG: It’s significant, but it varies from country to country. For example, affiliates of the Brazilian criminal group the Red Command (Comando Vermelho – CV) were known to acquire guns from militaries around the continent, including security forces in Bolivia, Suriname, and Paraguay, then sell those guns to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) in exchange for cocaine.
In Mexico, however, the number of weapons stolen from security forces seems much lower than those trafficked from the United States. Between 2006 and 2018, officials reported 15,592 guns missing from Mexican security forces. This is a significant number, but compared to the estimated 200,000 guns coming from the United States each year, it’s much smaller. So, in the case of Mexico, the idea that organized crime receives most of its weapons from the armed forces isn’t true.
IC: What are the similarities between arms trafficking to Mexico and arms trafficking to the Caribbean?
IG: Gun trafficking in the Caribbean is similar to Mexico. I’ve reported on Jamaican posses and interviewed a witness against notorious gang leader Dudus Coke, who talked about how easy it is to traffic guns and drugs. Like the Mexican groups, Jamaican posses have affiliates who will go back and forth trafficking arms and drugs and also have people who worked directly for the posse who traffic weapons. There are also direct links between the posses in Jamaica and their affiliated gangs in the United States. But again, that is an affiliation: an established chain of sale, an arms trafficker’s loyalty to one organization rather than strict membership of organizations.
IC: Caribbean leaders have agreed to ban assault-style weapons primarily manufactured in the United States. Do you see this impacting the flow of weapons, given that almost all these assault-style guns are already trafficked illegally?
IG: It likely will not have a significant impact, as their problem is trafficking from the United States on ships arriving in Caribbean nations. It may help to clamp down on how criminals get these guns in the United States. But there also should be more investigation in the Caribbean about what’s coming off ships and corruption at the docks.
IC: In April, Interpol announced a historic operation against arms trafficking throughout Latin America, confiscating over 8,000 guns across 15 countries. Are operations like the ones coordinated by Interpol effective or have any lasting impact on arms trafficking networks?
IG: The Interpol operation was interesting, it was a bunch of local operations strung together, but I would say it’s only scratching the surface. Eight thousand guns across 15 countries may sound like a lot, but it’s not many when considering the number of gunmen in Mexico, Brazil, Honduras, Colombia, Venezuela, and the region as a whole. It’s good to show these efforts and taking guns away from criminals is always a good thing. But is this really a strategic thing to stop guns? No.
IC: Last summer, the Biden administration passed several gun regulations that dealt with some of these issues. Have they helped and what should be done next?
IG: Following the Safer Communities Act, approved in June 2022, most media attention focused on clauses that aimed to help prevent school and mass shooter events. But Section 12004 of the law focused on stopping the illegal trafficking of firearms. It included many things I had recommended in the first edition of Blood Gun Money, such as increasing sentencing for straw buyers and recognizing federal firearms trafficking as a crime. Many people involved in trafficking firearms, by moving guns between states, were previously hit with minor offenses like lying on forms. But these new regulations help establish that federal firearms trafficking is a conscious crime, akin to trafficking drugs. Have they helped? I think they could be a big game changer. But we must see how much they’re enforced.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What are your thoughts?
Click here to send InSight Crime your comments.
We encourage readers to copy and distribute our work for non-commercial purposes, with attribution to InSight Crime in the byline and links to the original at both the top and bottom of the article. Check the Creative Commons website for more details of how to share our work, and please send us an email if you use an article.