An Exchange of Violence

On the “exit wounds” of America’s gun industry in Mexico

A woman speaking at a podium, with an image of a high-power rifle projected beside her

Ieva Jusionyte spoke at the Radcliffe Institute on the effect of American firearms on Mexican society.Screenshot by Harvard Magazine

“Before I saw the guns, I saw the wounds.” That’s how anthropologist Ieva Jusionyte—who spent years working as a paramedic along the United States-Mexico border—described her earliest encounters with the devastating effects of the U.S. gun industry on Mexican society. During a lecture earlier this week, titled, “Exit Wounds: American Guns, Mexican Lives, and the Vicious Circle of Violence,” Jusionyte outlined her recent research on the subject, part of a book-in-progress that she said “has been occupying my days and sometimes animating my nightmares.” The event was hosted by the Radcliffe Institute, where Jusionyte, an associate professor of international security and anthropology at Brown University, is a Maury Green Fellow this year. 

She opened the talk with an account of a 2019 gun battle that took place in Villa Union, a Mexican border town 150 miles south of San Antonio: a gang of armed men, affiliated with the Los Zetas drug cartel, laid siege to the town hall in pickup trucks mounted with machine guns, and were eventually fought off by state police. The shootout lasted for more than 24 hours, and 22 people were killed. Afterward, authorities recovered a number of high-caliber weapons, including .50 caliber rifles made by Barrett Firearms, a manufacturer based in Tennessee. Accurate at distances of more than 1,000 yards—“that’s 10 football fields,” Jusionyte reminded the audience—.50 caliber rifles can, at closer range, blast through nine inches of concrete and shoot down helicopters. Barrett makes about 6,000 of these guns every year; during the past four years, Jusionyte said, Mexican security forces have seized nearly 400 of them, mostly in the state of Tamaulipas, in northeast Mexico.  

But Jusionyte’s first exposure to the toll of American weapons in Mexico had come years earlier, when she was working as a paramedic and EMT, volunteering at a migrant aid center in Nogales, to help people who got injured or sick during their journey north to the United States. Her 2018 book, Threshold: Emergency Responders on the US-Mexico Border, emerged from that period, exploring relationships of dependence and care on both sides of the international divide, and examining issues of migration, healthcare, state violence, and border security. 

Some patients there told Jusionyte stories of the violence, murder, kidnappings, and extortion that had motivated them to flee northward. “But even without their words,” she said, “their bodies—exhausted, dehydrated, marked by scars—were sufficient evidence that something had gone seriously awry.” She also began to pay attention to signs along southbound roads and at ports of entry, warning those leaving the United States that it was illegal to carry guns and ammunition into Mexico. “It took some asking around and some reading up before I put two and two together and realized that the people I was encountering on the border were fleeing threats enforced by guns, many of which were made and sold here in the United States.” 

During her talk, Jusionyte guided the audience through the history of colonization (with its own legacy of violence) in the United States and Mexico, as well as an explanation of the role that firearms have played in each country’s development. “Like in the United States, gun ownership in Mexico is a constitutional right,” she said. “But unlike in the United States, where the gun lobby has been able to use the weakness of the Second Amendment to block laws regulating gun ownership, in Mexico this right is not absolute.”  

She offered statistics highlighting the asymmetry between the two countries. One of the most eye-catching: the number of gun stores in American states bordering Mexico is nearly 10,000, but the total number of gun stores in the entire country of Mexico is two. The lowest estimate for the number of firearms smuggled over the border each year is 200,000; higher estimates are closer to 500,000. Some 70 percent of the guns recovered from Mexican crime scenes come from the United States. 

A large part of what Jusionyte called the “violence exchange” between the two countries relates to the drug trade, and the American demand for outlawed substances, “which since the 1980s has been largely satisfied by Mexican smugglers working for organized crime groups” whose arsenals were amassed from the United States. “It is impossible to talk about gun trafficking without also talking about the drug economy,” Jusionyte said. 

In her lecture—and in the book to come, due in 2024—she discussed the system of straw buyers who bring weapons into Mexico, the illicit gun market thriving on the WhatsApp encrypted messenger application, and the well-to-do Mexican gun enthusiasts who like hunting and target shooting and turn to the United States for the powerful guns that support their hobby. She talked about the U.S. agents working on the American side of the border to try to stop the flow of smuggled weapons, and the lawsuit filed in Massachusetts federal court last year against American-based gun manufacturers by the Mexican government, which, Jusionyte said, “has been struggling with mounting costs for medical care, mental health services, has incurred significant expenses for police, courts, prisons, and has endured extensive economic losses.” That suit, which called guns “the venom in the snakes that are the drug cartels,” was dismissed because of a U.S. law shielding gunmakers from civil liability for the harm caused by their products.  

Jusionyte’s research, besides complicating the reflexive American idea of the border as a place of “danger, perpetual crisis, and invasion” (an image that ignores the U.S. role in fostering the violence that feeds the threat), also raises a question that is less often considered, she said. Yes, her work is about the consequences of U.S. firepower and gun trafficking on Mexico, but it is also about the consequences for the United States: “the ricochet effects,” Jusionyte said, “from the militarization of border communities to ever-louder anti-immigrant rhetoric that drives nationalist politics and fuel hate crimes around the country. For those are exit wounds too.” 

Read more articles by Lydialyle Gibson

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