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'Exit Wounds' finds the majority of gun violence in Mexico is committed with guns from the U.S.

The cover of "Exit Wounds" beside author Ieva Jusionyte. (Courtesy)
The cover of "Exit Wounds" beside author Ieva Jusionyte. (Courtesy)

Host Deepa Fernandes speaks with Brown University associate professor Ieva Jusionyte about her new book “Exit Wounds: How America’s Guns Fuel Violence Across the Border,” which is a deep dive into how and why guns from the United States are continually flowing into Mexico.

Book excerpt: ‘Exit Wounds’

By Ieva Jusionyte

It was January 5, 2016, and Alex and Jackson were in Nogales to oversee another seizure for a different case they were working on when earlier that afternoon they got a tip from a gun store up in Phoenix about a large purchase of ammunition. Jackson then called a sergeant he knew at the Department of Public Safety and asked him to push a notification to all units in the corridor between Phoenix and Tucson to be on the lookout for the SUV with such-and-such plate numbers. About an hour later, his phone rang—officers stopped the wanted vehicle for a traffic violation: the driver, Jazmin, had a suspended license. She also turned out to be someone the agents already knew about—they had a record of her behind the wheel of another car they connected to the smuggling operation. When the police pulled her over, officers noted that the rear of the SUV was almost scraping the surface of the road, its taillights pointing down. The heavy cargo, which weighed about half a ton—like a grand piano—were twenty-six thousand rounds of ammunition.

The agents left Nogales and headed north to Casa Grande to talk to Jazmin. At first, she told them that she was a member of a shooting club. But when Alex asked her what guns she liked to shoot, she couldn’t answer. Most of the ammunition she carried—nineteen thousand rounds—were 7.62 × 39mm; the rest were .223, .38 Super, 9mm, and .45, all calibers for guns the ATF called “the weapons of choice” for organized crime groups in Mexico. But Jazmin had no clue about which weapons used what ammunition. The agents could see that she knew nothing about guns. After some more questioning, Jazmin finally admitted she got the ammunition for her boyfriend, who lived in Mexico. She said he gave her the money. She also said this was not the only time she had done it. Later, when the agents visited UN Ammo, the store where Jazmin bought the rounds, and asked to see sales receipts, they learned that in the span of three weeks, between December 15, 2015, and January 5, 2016, Jazmin spent $32,000 in cash for 94,500 rounds of ammunition, plus 100 magazines for AK and M4 rifles.

The thing about guns is that they last a long time. An AK-47 will serve for years, likely decades.2 Unless their rifles are seized by the Mexican military, organized crime groups in Mexico did not need to routinely smuggle replacements. But they did need ammunition, tons of it, and UN Ammo was the place to go. Located at a strip mall on West Glendale Avenue in Phoenix, with a green army jeep parked in front and a picture of Obama with the caption “Greatest gun salesman of the year” on the counter inside, it specialized in bulk sales: piles of large metal bins and wood and cardboard boxes full of cartridges crowded the floor. Gun owners flocked to this place to purchase thousands of rounds at a time for less than they would have to pay at Cabela’s or other sporting goods stores. UN Ammo was known for having a large stock of 7.62 cartridges, mostly from Wolf, which imported them from factories in Russia. But they also sold one-hundred-round drums for AR-15 rifles, specialized subsonic .308 Winchester rounds, tracers, and other less usual items. Alex and Jackson began keeping an eye on the store, which seemed to be a major source for the group to get bulk ammunition, and on January 7, only two days after Jazmin’s arrest, they received another tip about another woman making a large purchase there. This time they came up with a plan, which, depending on who is telling the story, would be remembered as operation “Box of Rocks” or operation “Rock’N’Roll.”

By then the agents were familiar with the cellular structure of the organization: the separation between people who handled the money from those who did the buying from those who transported the goods down to Nogales from those who took them across the border. Not everyone knew each other, which worked in their favor: when someone got arrested, like Darius or Ricky, they could be replaced without the need to rearrange the whole structure. With help from a confidential source in the group, Alex and Jackson were able to insert an undercover agent into this sequence. The agent picked up the ten thousand rounds from the store in Phoenix, where the woman had paid for them, and was to get $400 for delivering it to whoever was supposed to cross it over the border. Once he loaded the ammo into his car, the undercover agent hit I-10, but instead of going straight to Nogales, he got off the highway in Tucson and headed to the ATF office, where Alex and Jackson had been waiting for him.

Their investigation entering its third month, the floor of the ATF evidence vault, where they kept the guns and ammo they were seizing, had begun to sag. They preferred the ATF vault to the one at CBP facilities in Nogales because CBP didn’t treat the items they confiscated as evidence. At ATF, each gun was test-fired and the agents entered ballistic imaging results into an integrated database, so that investigators could look for correlations between ballistic evidence recovered from various crime scenes. After that, weapons were tagged and securely stored in the vault, where the agents could easily access them when they needed to bring evidence to the courthouse. By the time this case went to trial, they would have 32 rifles, including a .50 caliber Barrett, and 36,380 rounds of ammunition stored there. Fearing the vault floor would collapse on the offices downstairs, one day the agents brought a U-Haul truck and moved some of the evidence boxes to another location.

That night in early January, even though Jackson and Alex planned to keep surveillance on the undercover agent taking the ammunition to Nogales and were prepared to arrest the person who would come pick it up, they knew things could go wrong. Still reeling from what happened with the guns that Ramiro bought—the guns that his brother Kevin hid and then handed over to the guys from Mexico—they didn’t want to risk losing the ammo. The undercover agent got to Tucson a little after ten p.m. and he had to be down in Nogales before sunrise. They had to work fast. First, they unloaded the boxes from the undercover agent’s car and emptied them of ammunition, which they put into grey plastic containers and carried to the evidence vault. “Should something catastrophic happen and they take off and get away with those boxes, they wouldn’t be getting away with any ammunition,” Jackson would later testify about why they decided to swap the rounds with something else—something that “looks and feels and sounds like ammunition.”

Had someone accidentally found themselves in the large parking lot between a drive-through Walgreens and a red-brick building with external staircases leading to the second floor that ATF shared with the offices of the Department of Economic Security, they would have witnessed an unusual scene: a handful of men frantically shoveling landscaping rocks and pouring them into empty cardboard boxes. But nobody had any business being there late at night: all the offices and even the Walgreens were closed at that hour. Once the agents filled a few boxes, they weighed them on the scale: not heavy enough. Someone suggested they could use plate weights and they sent him home to bring what he had in his gym. They began calling whoever else they could think of. “We were waking people up in the middle of the night asking if they had any plate weights we could use, preferably 10 pounders,” Jackson recalled. When they got the weights, they mixed them with the rocks until they arrived at the right ratio of metal to stone. Each of the ten cardboard boxes now weighed like a thousand rounds of ammunition—thirty-seven pounds, “almost to the ounce”—and, when they shook the boxes, it sounded like there were cartridges inside. For the final touch, they arranged some empty black Wolf WPA ammo boxes on top, so that if the buyer cut the tape to inspect the contents, they would be reassured. They threw a tracking device into one of the boxes and then loaded them all into the undercover agent’s car.

With the boxes full of sham ammo in the trunk, the undercover agent proceeded south on empty I-19. He had to be in Nogales by 5:30 a.m. and wait for further instructions. Once there, he was told to go to the parking lot in front of Safeway and the Big Five off West Mariposa Road, where he would be meeting with a person in a white Ford Focus. Alex and Jackson managed to get there ahead of their undercover colleague and set everything up. They were ready. Or so they thought.

Excerpted from “Exit Wounds: How America’s Guns Fuel Violence across the Border” by Ieva Jusionyte, published by University of California Press. © 2024 by Ieva Jusionyte.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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