Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Ioan Grillo's "Blood Gun Money"

Since Ioan Grillo started reporting in Mexico in 2001, he has been knee deep in covering drug cartels and crime. While it began as a glamorous assignment writing about the billionaire kingpins who were celebrated in ballads, he found himself reporting on a humanitarian catastrophe with an endless stream of weeping family members and mass graves. His third book Blood Gun Money: How America Arms Gangs and Cartels looks at where all the firepower comes from for this hybrid crime-war.

Grillo applied the “Page 99 Test” to Blood Gun Money and reported the following:
Page 99 of Blood Gun Money takes you bang into the National Tracing Center of the ATF (the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives), in a vast grey federal building in rural West Virginia. Here is where they trace all the guns nabbed from criminals and crime scenes across the United States and in over 130 countries where American guns turn up. It’s a surreal operation, thanks to the weirdness of U.S. firearm laws stating that it is illegal to keep gun records In a digital data base. So they have vast mountains of papers stacked on pallets everywhere you look. The average trace time for a firearm, even a literal smoking gun found by the bullet-ridden corpse, is eleven days.

It’s a scene at the heart of the story of Blood Gun Money, which looks at the gargantuan black market of guns that flows around the United States and floods south over the border. The book takes you to all stages of the journey of the shooters, from a factory in Transylvania, Romania, to the biggest firearms trade show in the world in Las Vegas, to murder scenes that I have been covering for too many years, in Mexico, Honduras, and up in Baltimore, Maryland. It also goes up close with the gangsters who are pulling the triggers, including a serial killing gang member in Honduras.

So the Tracing Center on page 99 is not the most dramatic scene. But it is a scene at the core of the story, with the operation giving you a deep view of all the trafficking, the agents doing hundreds of thousands of traces every year, and following the guns moving over states, borders and oceans like they are blood cells flowing round a huge body and you can hear a muffled beating heart as this all ticks on.

It also touches the fiery politics of American gun culture that provide a background to this tale. The ATF are not allowed to do the digital searches as the gun rights hardliners fear this would be a prelude to federal agents kicking down their doors and coming for their weapons. I cover brutal crime and am not against the Second Amendment. But I had to get into the spiky row over guns to make sense of how the cartels in Mexico, drug dealers in Baltimore, and even guerrillas in Colombia are packing so much firepower. So yes, I think that Blood Gun Money might just pass The Page 99 Test.
Visit Ioan Grillo's website.

--Marshal Zeringue