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“Exit Wounds: How America’s Guns Fuel Violence across the Border,” Interview With Ieva Jusionyte

You can listen to the full interview here.

Jovanka Palacios: We are honored to have Ieva Jusionyte with us today. She is a Watson Family University Associate Professor of International Security and Anthropology at Brown University. She is a distinguished legal and medical anthropologist who has dedicated her career to studying and writing about violence and security.

Ieva has authored three insightful books, including her latest work, “Exit Wounds: How America’s Guns Fuel Violence across the Border,” and her previous award-winning ethnographies, “Threshold: Emergency Responders on the US-Mexico Border” and “Savage Frontier: Making News and Security on the Argentine Border,” which have delved deep into the power dynamics and social impacts of security policies and practices.

Today we will explore the intricate and often harrowing narratives of gun trafficking and its devastating effects on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border as depicted in Exit Wounds.

JP: So, Ieva, thanks for joining us.

Ieva Jusionyte: Thank you so much for having me. 

JP: To start off, I would like you to share with us the pivotal moment or experience that led you to delve into the complex issue of gun trafficking.

IJ: I was working on my earlier research with emergency responders on the border. That was in southern Arizona and northern Sonora, west of Texas, and I was meeting a lot of people who were running away from violence in Mexico, people who were risking their lives and people who got injured crossing the border. Living there in southern Arizona and going into Mexico to volunteer at the migrant aid clinic, in the beginning, I didn’t pay notice to these signs that you see on all southbound roads and also when you are just walking through ports of entry into Mexico, that guns and ammunition are illegal in Mexico.

It took me a while—I think several months—living in the borderlands and working with injured migrants, before I put two and two together, that people were fleeing Mexico and they were coming here because guns were going in the opposite direction, from the United States to Mexico.

I learned more about the laws in Mexico, how the gun industry and gun sales are regulated, and basically learned that most of the guns recovered at crime scenes or used in crimes in Mexico come from the United States.

So that’s what set me off on this journey to follow American guns—guns sold in America, sometimes imported to the U.S. and sold here, then taken to Mexico—and see who is smuggling them and what impact they have on society in Mexico.

JP: I do think it’s something that isn’t too obvious.

Now that you have researched it, I know you are like: “How did I ignore all these signs?” But, I actually grew up at the border, San Diego with Tijuana. And people hear news about migrants and insecurity in Mexico or the financial costs of the border for the U.S., but they often see these as separate issues without understanding the connection. 

There is an emergency at the border and there is an emergency with gun laws. 

And on that note of policies and laws, I did listen to you on another podcast where you mentioned how organized crime groups are the main buyers of guns from the United States. You say: “I really wanted to delve more into who these people are that perpetrate the violence and how they become a part of these groups.” 

Your book presents cold facts, but it also weaves in narratives and storylines of the people affected, which I think makes it more effective in conveying the impact of gun violence. So I wanted to understand why you chose this dual approach, and how it contributes to a deeper understanding of the effects of gun violence.

IJ: Yeah, there is a historical chapter in the book, several historical chapters. One is more in-depth because I came to this topic, and, you know, as you mentioned, we don’t understand how Mexico and the U.S. came to this situation where gun laws are so different, and that the U.S. has tens of thousands of gun stores while Mexico now only has two.

So I wanted to tell that story, but I’m not a historian, and I think the most important thing is the stories of the people. They show just how intertwined these issues are.

So one of the main protagonists of the book, this young woman I call Samara, her story, for example, connects. Her parents migrated to the U.S., they migrated to Texas. She grew up with her extended family, with her grandparents, and with her aunts, and then, in the beginning, she is, well, she’s a victim, in a way, of family separation and things like that. And then she is forcefully abducted by this organized crime group. And then she’s trained to be a killer.

So she becomes a perpetrator. I think it’s often the case when we talk about migration or any border issues, we tend to focus on extreme stories—people who are really, really good or really, really bad—while a lot of people live in this gray zone.

What happens if you are growing up as a kid in a neighborhood where everyone belongs to a gang? What really happens to people who live in a situation where government institutions are unable to provide security or provide justice, where there are a lot of opportunities to get involved in drug trafficking because it’s such a big business and there is so much demand for drugs in the United States? What really happens to these people and how are American guns implicated? Like, how do they make the situation worse?

JP: I really liked that story because I feel it gets that point across, by sharing about Samara’s journey—how she grew up, where she ended up, how she got out, and how she views it from the outside as well.

This ripple effect that gun violence has, as you mentioned earlier, sometimes starts when someone enters a community affected by it. When somebody is dealing with gun violence, their family members might become victims as well, you see how this kind of goes beyond just one person.

And you have a really good quote in the book that I want to share because I feel like it really encapsulates what we’re trying to do with Gun Violence Watch—our website, which tries to get this point across as well, emphasizing not just statistics and numbers, but the human elements and the importance of remembering those victims and their stories.

And so you say: “Gunshot wounds reverberate through the community. The impact of a bullet exceeds the punctures and scars it leaves on the human body, penetrating the social fabric, creating collective damage shared by families, neighborhoods, and passed from the present to future generations.” 

I’ve read studies about this and about the ripple effect and how communities are affected. Exit Wounds focuses on the U.S.- Mexico border but I’m also really interested in the ripple effect that goes beyond just these two places, because we’re living in a very technological age, and information gets around across the world in seconds.

How do you think these stories and images that you’re portraying in your book, affect  not only these border communities but other parts of the world?

IJ: That’s a great question. So, definitely. Even when we’re thinking about, well, gun violence is a huge problem in the United States. There is no need to repeat that. You know very well, working on this, but the guns that are made or sold in the United States have consequences for communities and societies, not just in Mexico, but also in Central America and the Caribbean.

More recently, we saw a lot of Haitian refugees and migrants seeking safety from Haiti in the United States. And in Haiti also over 80 percent of guns come from the United States. The story is definitely much, much bigger than what guns are doing in Mexico.

Thinking about images, what we hear around the world is everyone associates the United States with these horrific mass shootings, which are terrifying.

My own nephew, who lives in Europe, is afraid to come visit me. He’s 11 years old and says he doesn’t want to get shot because that’s what he learns about living in the United States.

But I think we don’t necessarily make the connection that, even when we talk about gun violence like that, it’s not just the guns or gunshot wounds that affect individual people who either get killed or get injured, but that there is more. The trauma is much more extensive and pervasive, as well as the fear and insecurity that guns create in various parts of the world.

JP: Talking about the media still, you share the story of a journalist in Mexico and how it is very dangerous and, so literally life or death, and I do want to get to the other side that in Mexico it is very dangerous to be a journalist. I think in the first three months of this year, there were eight journalists that were killed in Mexico – who were under a protection plan.

That leads to not enough documentation, since journalists are scared. So, questions arise: Have they just stopped reporting on it, or is the government changing the facts? And how do you think that increased awareness and documentation of gun violence can influence policy change in both the US and Mexico?

IJ: So that’s a very important question. I’m grateful you brought it up because, on the one hand, like in the U.S., the news that we hear from Mexico are painted in these very broad strokes. So Mexico is dangerous. So there are cartels and build this big wall.

And then in Mexico, there are parts of the country where being a journalist is almost impossible just because of how dangerous it is. There are news spread through social media, so people do have ways to get information, but that information is very difficult to verify. It creates all kinds of situations where people avoid talking about certain issues.

Even in the mainstream media, there is reluctance by government officials or journalists to name specific organized crime groups, and for good reason—people have been killed when they do that. So there is this kind of culture of silence and media censorship. One of the reasons I wanted to include a journalist’s story specifically is to ask those questions about how do we know what we know about violence in Mexico and what it takes to tell that kind of story.

So Juan is also under protection, but that protection is very unreliable, as everyone knows. It’s very hard to know who to trust in terms of organized crime groups or local police forces involved with organized crime. So news reporting has been a challenge. Also, the Mexican president has not been very respectful of a lot of the work that journalists do, especially when it comes to criticizing the extent of organized crime that exists in the country.

So, it is a big challenge. I do not think that this book will provide, let’s say, I see the main audience in the United States. For many Mexicans, a lot of this will not be news. Yes, maybe they will learn more about how guns get into the country through which channels and whatnot, but much of it is already known to people.

However, in the United States, I think this part has completely escaped our public conversation about border security. Therefore, Americans are the primary target audience for the book. It hasn’t been translated into Spanish yet, so I’m looking forward to seeing what changes would need to be made for a Mexican or Spanish edition because some of the things in the book might be too self-evident for a Mexican audience. We’ll see about that, it is a binational story.

JP: That’s true. Yeah, and I feel even if it might be kind of obvious, like you said, for Mexico, I myself still have a lot of family in Mexico. I visit often, and I am aware of everything, but most of the story, like maybe your audience is a younger generation because a lot of what you put in the history part of it, I was just a child and really didn’t notice it.

Maybe some of it with family, maybe I heard here and there. But I feel like growing up, you didn’t really notice it that much or didn’t really realize the impact, and this does help understand better.

IJ: Well, as a foreigner, I feel like I was able to ask more pointed questions. Some, some will hang out with people that some of the Mexican journalists would not necessarily risk doing because there is some form of protection for foreigners.

JP: We can continue talking about your experience in Mexico and the border and just how you felt throughout it all. I’m really interested because being in the field like that, there are some places that you went to-that I know for a fact I wouldn’t go to, so that’s very brave. How did you feel writing about it?

IJ: So when I began this project, I didn’t know how far—how far I would get. Like, it was never my intention to, you know, interview members of the Zetas. I just—it’s like a snowball effect. I asked people about guns from America, anyone else I can talk to. I ended up talking to both people who have legitimate careers in law or were doctors or politicians or business owners, who buy smuggled guns from the United States.

But I also ended up talking to people who are in gangs and in organized crime groups. Doing this research was always a question of negotiating my limits or the boundaries—like, how far am I ready to go to get to the story, and how far would be going too far, exposing me to too much risk.

So in some parts of the country, like in Tamaulipas and Coahuila, I traveled with Juan, with local journalists. It was safer for him to go with me, and safer for me to go with him. In Monterrey, where I did most of my research, I very rarely went out at night. I always told my friends where I’m going, and every single interview, every single invitation to hang out, every single prison that I went to, I had that question in my head.

Like, is this okay? Should I do this? So it was difficult. One person who I met just after he left prison survived several prison massacres while he was incarcerated. I asked him, “How are you not afraid? How are you not afraid in prison?”

And he said this thing that I now have on my little post-it note. He said that fear is natural. You make it your friend; you use it to survive. So when he told me that and I thought about it, it made a lot of sense. It’s not okay to be fearless; you use fear as a guide.

To know the limits of your research and to also never forget that this is a dangerous subject, like people do get killed and there are firearms involved and things can happen. I prepared as much as I could. I trained in self-defense. I talked to journalists who cover, you know, who worked in conflict zones, like what precautions they take.

I am a trained EMT and paramedic, so at least I knew if there were gunshot injuries, I would know how to act in those situations. So I did everything that’s possible. But then there were a lot of situations that were, like, I couldn’t control. The fact that I came back and I’m okay, at least physically, I think, means that I didn’t cross any boundaries.

IJ: I was very, very open with everyone about what I was doing, so it wasn’t, there was no kind of covert, let me try to smuggle a gun or let me do this or that. I said I’m a researcher. I’m writing a book. I want to talk about guns. I don’t need to know your name. I won’t even write it in my little notebook.

I will give you a pseudonym by default. So even if my notebooks get confiscated by the military, they will not know who you are. So I tried to give that protection to people. And one thing that, we as ethnographers, like that’s in our favor is that we have a lot of time. So there was no deadline. I didn’t have to submit a story at the end of this month or next month.

I could come back month after month, year after year. And those people knew that I was still there, and I was still interested in their story, and they shared it with me. And then a lot of people never agreed to talk to me, and I didn’t push it. I didn’t want to talk to anyone who was uncomfortable talking to me.

Although, I mean, mistrust was always there. I could never trust my interlocutors completely, that they would not kidnap or, you know, me or extort me, and they could never trust me completely that I would not, you know, give the information to law enforcement in the US or in Mexico. So that trust was always very tentative.

JP: Yeah, and I feel you can sense that in the story You can feel you are there—like at the prison—and it’s a real, nerve-wracking experience for the reader. I think that you made the reader actually feel like the guns are real. 

Now we have made it a very-and it shouldn’t be- but a very normal thing. We talk about it a lot. They’re always in the conversation. There’s always shootings. It’s like, people don’t really get as impacted. It’s just like: “Oh, it happened again”. Not like, how could this happen? So I feel that part of the story is really required. 

JP: So in the book, you mentioned that authorities in Mexico often merely repeated the government script, which consisted of blaming the victims. I really felt this parallel with Mexico and the United States. Just giving an example of the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, that left 19 children and 2 teachers dead. After that happened, Governor Abbott immediately focused the narrative on the mental health issues of the shooter, and not on how the shooter had access to an AR-15 rifle.

I feel that this is often the narrative—”Oh, it’s the mental health issues,” or “Oh, there wasn’t enough security,” and it’s never really about why the NRA is being funded or why these gun laws are so lax.

Can you further reflect on how this narrative is harmful and distracts from addressing the underlying issues in gun policy?

IJ: That’s an excellent question. It is really hard to leave the confines of the prescribed narratives that we have, both in Mexico about blaming and immediately calling people involved in any kind of organized crime activities or people who the military or the police kill.

They are already kind of branded as enemies. In the United States, as you mentioned with mental health, primarily, I think it’s easy to have a narrative to fall back on. The problem is that it very rarely tells the whole story.

It’s like, very often people have mental health issues, although mental health issues don’t mean… most people with mental health issues never engage in gun violence. In the same way, there are people involved in organized crime in one way or another, but there are reasons that we need to understand how organized crime comes to be. What creates this? And that has to do with the supply and demand of drugs and things like that.

And I think this is our task as storytellers—both researchers and journalists. We need to reframe these narratives because, again, this is the easiest way to do it.

So when I was writing the book, one of the main influences on me was Mexican writer Yuri Herrera. In his books he writes about migration and organized crime. But he doesn’t fall into the vocabulary that is stale and that kind of stops any kind of thinking. If you call a group of people a cartel, that makes you not ask the questions anymore: Who are these people? What are they doing? Why are they there? Why do they engage in violence? And why do they get these guns so easily?

So I think it’s kind of similar on both sides of the border. The narratives are somewhat different, but it’s easy to find a scapegoat, and it’s easy to fall into the storyline that precludes any further interrogation of the issue at hand, right?

JP: For our readers interested in advocating for improved gun policies or seeking a deeper understanding, could you share practical steps for them to get involved?

Because you mentioned in an interview that you weren’t intending for this book to establish any gun policies or push an agenda, but could you share insights on how people can get involved. 

IJ: Yeah. I think in order to know what to do, we need to understand the problem. So the book is first and foremost for readers to understand what’s going on from a people centered perspective and based on research.

But then in the end of the book, I do have several suggestions to which I, I kind of stand by. So, anything, really anything that would make guns safer in the United States would also have big effects in Mexico. Like if we had smart gun technology that would only allow the registered user to unlock that gun the same way you unlock your cell phone. Well, that would prevent a lot of accidental shootings by children, and it would also make guns less appealing to smugglers. There would be fewer guns in Mexico, therefore.

Then there are the private sales, which is a big, big issue because in federally licensed dealers, they at least have to conduct background checks. And if they sell more than a couple of long guns in a five-business-day period, they have to inform the ATF. So there is some oversight of what they are doing. However, there is no oversight of guns being sold through Facebook groups and Walmart parking lots. So that’s a big thing. And then the bigger question is to think whether we need such powerful guns accessible to civilians in unlimited quantities.

You know, you can go to a store and buy 15 AK-47s or AR-15s. Like—do we need that? So that’s the bigger question that I think Americans are wrestling with. It’s so hard to change policies, even when children are involved. After the Uvalde shooting, now we have gun trafficking as a federal crime, which it never used to be until 2022.

So it is proof that we want to change something, although it is very, very hard for us to do.

JP: Well, thank you. I got a lot from this conversation.

IJ: Thank you so much, I really admire the work you are doing.

JP: Thank you, same. And I hope you keep publishing books. I will definitely continue to read them. 

Jovanka Palacios
Jovanka Palacios
Jovanka Palacios, a Mexican-American Politics Reporter and Managing Editor at RA's Gun Violence Watch, unveils the Capitol's inner workings. Focused on Public Education and Gun Policies, she passionately advocates for informed dialogue, delivering concise, impactful insights into the intricate political landscape.


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