American guns have entangled the lives of people on both sides of the US-Mexico border in a vicious circle of violence. After treating wounded migrants and refugees seeking safety in the United States, anthropologist Ieva Jusionyte boldly embarked on a journey in the opposite direction—following the guns from dealers in Arizona and Texas to crime scenes in Mexico. An expert work of narrative nonfiction, Exit Wounds provides a rare, intimate look into the world of firearms trafficking and urges us to understand the effects of lax US gun laws abroad.

Ieva Jusionyte is an anthropologist and associate professor at Brown University. A former paramedic and Harvard Radcliffe and Fulbright fellow, she is the author of the award-winning Threshold: Emergency Responders on the US-Mexico Border.

The primary narrative in the US about the border with Mexico is one of people and drugs moving north across it. But in Exit Wounds, you flip that to show the south-bound flow of guns—and the devastating consequences of that pipeline. How might sharing that reality change how Americans think about the border?

Many of us see the border as a barrier that is meant to protect us—our country, our society—from outside threats. But what are those threats? The US border with Mexico has long been used as a filter to regulate migration: to allow some people in and to turn others away, based on their race or nationality or wealth. It has also served to uphold our changing moral codes by stopping, for example, whiskey or rum during the Prohibition Era, or marijuana, cocaine, and fentanyl more recently. Migration and drug addiction are critical issues in our society, but the sensationalized focus on the border as both the source and the solution to these issues is not only inaccurate, but also dangerous. It feeds populist rhetoric and gives rise to calls for taller and longer walls, which don’t stop either migrants or drugs, only change how they get across.

One of the reasons why border walls don’t work is because they are built on a faulty premise – a view of border security that is one-sided, focused on what is moving north. This view ignores the exchange that is happening on the border and misses a crucial link in this circuit: guns and ammunition that are moving in the opposite direction, to Mexico. It is important for us to understand that these guns, sold here in the United States, are implicated in violence south of the border. They are the material tools of criminal violence that so many people are fleeing from. We wouldn’t be seeing so many migrants and asylum seekers crossing the US southern border if it weren’t for the weapons that are going south. Exit Wounds shows how this vicious circle of violence — of drugs and guns and refugees — works. My hope is that understanding these connections can help us find solutions that are more effective than investing in border walls and surveillance cameras and detention centers.

We wouldn’t be seeing so many migrants and asylum seekers crossing the US southern border if it
weren’t for the weapons that are going south.

Ieva Jusionyte

You worked as an EMT along the US/Mexico border and saw the devastation that guns caused in both countries. How does the path of American guns moving into Mexico shine a light on the broader relationship between the two countries?

The idea for this book emerged while I was providing medical aid to migrants and asylum seekers on the US-Mexico border. Most of them were on the run because of armed violence in their communities: some were wounded, many were threatened, or they could no longer pay extortion fees. When I started volunteering as an EMT/paramedic, I did not know that Mexico and the United States have such different gun laws, that Mexico limits the types and quantity of firearms civilians can buy, that there is a rigorous application process, so I didn’t immediately realize that it is our guns that are being used in most crimes in Mexico.

Once I learned that, I couldn’t stop thinking about this complicated relationship between the neighboring countries, about the supply and demand. If it weren’t for the high demand for drugs in the US and our permissive gun laws (for example, being able to buy dozens of semi-automatic rifles in one go), organized crime groups in Mexico would not have become so powerful and Mexican citizens wouldn’t have to run for their lives towards the US border, further enriching criminal groups that control smuggling routes. I don’t think it is possible to understand what is happening with the border—to understand migration and drug trafficking—without looking at the United States and Mexico together, because policies and laws in one country have enormous consequences on the other. Unfortunately, too often we only see the border from one side, and that limits our grasp of the situation.

In the run-up to the 2024 election, we are going to hear a lot about building walls to stop migrants and fentanyl coming in from our Southern border. What do politicians and the general public miss with this simplistic understanding of the issue?

Both migration and addiction to drugs are very complex issues that our society is dealing with. They are not new issues, however, so by now we should have learned that building walls on the border does not stop migrants nor drugs. In my last book, Threshold, I documented how border walls injure migrants who are not deterred by them. Besides, a large number of people showing up at the US southern border are asylum seekers — they don’t need to scale border walls, but rather show up at the port of entry and present their cases to the immigration officials. Most drugs and almost all fentanyl get into the country hidden in vehicles or carried by people who cross through official ports of entry as well. The walls might look impressive and imposing on TV, but they don’t work as advertised. Even more, they exacerbate the problems they allegedly solve. When crossing the border becomes more difficult, the prices organized crime groups can charge for smuggling people as well as drugs go up too.

I’m surprised by how oblivious we are about our own role in perpetuating this. Take Texas, for example. Governor Abbott is a strong proponent of building the wall on the border to stop unauthorized migrants. But he is also a strong advocate of minimal gun laws. Somehow he—and other politicians who are campaigning for the wall to stop migrants—don’t add up two and two: that the guns from Texas are a big reason why there are so many migrants and asylum seekers on the border. Nearly half (43%) of all guns found in crime scenes across Mexico between 2017 and 2021 — over 14,000 firearms — were originally sold in Texas. And, despite rising numbers of asylum seekers from Venezuela, Haiti and other countries, Mexican nationals remain the largest group of migrants apprehended by the Border Patrol. Seeing this as a circle of violence and not a one-directional movement is not convenient for politicians on the campaign trail because there are no easy fixes that can be summarized in slogans such as “build the wall”. But without understanding these connections we are just digging ourselves deeper into trenches.

43% of all guns found in crime scenes across Mexico between 2017 and
2021 — over 14,000 firearms — were originally sold in Texas.

Ieva Jusionyte

Short of changing existing gun laws in the US, which doesn’t seem likely anytime soon, what can be done to limit the number of weapons moving into Mexico?

I don’t think that changing gun laws in the US is a lost cause. Some states have quite robust and reasonable regulations. Massachusetts, where I live, is among them. If Texas and Arizona and Tennessee adopted similar laws, that alone would make a big difference in reducing the trafficking of guns and ammunition. Because ammunition is a huge issue too: while Mexico is already full of our guns—and those guns will last years or decades without the need to replace them—criminal groups in Mexico depend on the US for their regular supplies of ammunition.

But there are many other things we could do besides rewriting the laws. That includes adopting smart technology that would make guns work only for their legal owners (like thumb scans we have on our phones); providing more resources to the ATF so they could step up inspections of firearms dealers; prosecuting negligent dealers for selling guns to straw buyers; doing more inspections of vehicles leaving the country. However, it is just as important to attend to the demand side: on why people in Mexico want weapons from the US? That would require strengthening the criminal justice system in Mexico and building trust between Mexican citizens and law enforcement institutions, among other things. It would also entail dealing with the drug addiction epidemic in the US. So both the United States and Mexico have a lot of homework to do and they can do much without passing new laws.