Acclaimed journalist Ioan Grillo to speak on 'Fentanyl Crisis and Cartel Violence' in Houston
HOUSTON - America's drug war may never end, but steps are certainly being taken to get narcotics off the streets and out of children’s hands.
In Harris County, for example, District Attorney Kim Ogg announced recently there would be a Major Narcotics Division within her office partnering with local agencies with dealers as their main targets.
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Journalists like Ioan Grillo, who have examined the drug crisis in Mexico for more than 20 years have always tried to make sense of it all. On the one hand, no one wants children to be exposed to the harmful, and often deadly effects of fentanyl.
However, because popular mediums like music, television, and cinema seem to portray certain villains who happen to be drug dealers or king/queen pins, it’s understandable for one to find a sort of fascination behind stories.
This is only because the real stories are too graphic and heart-wrenching to fathom.
The ‘Iron River’
Grillo exposes the dark underbelly behind the drug war by shedding light on the overlooked topic of gun trafficking in his latest book, Blood Gun Money: How America Arms Gangs and Cartels. As provocative as the title is, Grillo brings up an unbelievable perspective that addresses concerns on both sides of the political aisle noting while America has blood on its hands, it’s not for lack of trying.
"This book is about America’s ‘iron river’ of guns that flow from the legal industry to the black market, feeding criminals across the nation and drug cartels across the continent," Grillo writes. "It delves into the twisted relationship between the illegal drug and gun trades, how they play off each other like angry lovers. It shows how this historic case of gun trafficking came to be and why attempts to stop it have failed so miserably."
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In other words, there appears to be a broken system where legal loopholes make it easy for guns to be trafficked, thereby adding fuel to the players in the drug war, and not enough (or not anyone willing) to fix it.
"I'd seen the issue of guns for a long time, firearms, and where that, you know, where are they coming from? How are these firearms still moving? And for a long time, I thought, well, this is an important issue," Grillo tells FOX 26 via Zoom. "In 2017, I had the opportunity to interview a gun trafficker in prison in Sierra Juarez and was talking to him about how he trafficked guns from the United States to Mexico. And he was describing how he would do it with no paper trail at all."
He adds and mentions periodically in his book, the issue is not a criticism of the 2nd amendment or Americans’ ability to own guns. In fact, Grillo notes the subtle irony he has being British and discussing guns in the United States but exercises diplomacy while reiterating how extensively researched his work is.
"I'm from the UK originally, been in Mexico for 20 years; seen a lot of gun violence here and also around Latin America, and even in the United States," he explains. "But, you know, going into America, and it's one of the sacred issues in the United States is the Second Amendment and gun rights, so I tried to have a humility there and talk to everybody on this debate from the president of the AR-15 Owners of America, you know, to people in the Alaska Machine Gun Association to people in militias…to the victims of gun crime and activism on all sides."
The Texas Connection
And in Texas, which has seen countless cases of human smuggling, drug trafficking, and murders, it’s overwhelming how serious gun trafficking has become in fueling this war.
"So Texas you've got a border with four cartels on the Mexican side," Grillo explains "And you know, a huge amount of drug trafficking and huge amounts of gun trafficking when you look at some of these cases."
Drugs & Guns: A Modern-Day Bonnie & Clyde Story
This is certainly not to minimize the gravity behind drug trafficking from the U.S. - Mexico Border, nor the work law enforcement officials like the Drug Enforcement Agency or what Harris County DA’s Office is working to accomplish, but showing how the two crises are linked.
"When you look at the gun trade and the drug trade, I said, it's kind of like two venomous plants wrapped around each other; you can see these parallels, but we're kind of working together," Grillo notes. "It's terms of the drug you've got, you've got basically what cops are doing, and cops right now dealing with their laws and trying to try to deal with this epidemic of fentanyl; so you've got from that sense, they're hitting these dealers and the street dealers."
Despite the flurry of news headlines about fentanyl, it can seem easy to think it’s just another buzzword, but there have been statistics shown by the DEA to show how serious a problem it is for the Greater Houston area and Texas. Back in December 2022, for example, DEA officials told local media they seized enough fentanyl that "can kill potentially everyone in Houston and the surrounding areas."
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"I do agree with the fact that fentanyl is a really serious problem," Grillo adds. "It needs to be talked about openly, and we need to report on this - the news is not creating hype when you have 107,000 Americans dying and a year of overdose deaths when you have 70,000 of those with fentanyl in their system."
The comparative numbers between gun and drug trafficking, of course, are meaningless to people who have lost loved ones from both issues.
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And that’s why Grillo says any efforts taken to reduce the statistics is progress and new ideas on doing so by law enforcement officials should be met with open minds.
"So now in the short term, if they hit hard, a narrative, like things like homicide charges, on fentanyl dealers," he explains. "When somebody dies from your fentanyl, you get homicide charges. That's kind of hard. Now, I don't know how much appetite people have for that…really like locking up people for these big sentences, but that could have an impact in the short term.
"But one of the problems we've seen in the long term we've seen 50 years the war on drugs, is that although you kind of hit this stuff hard, [dealers] keep on finding new ways of moving around this and change up tactics and so forth," Grillo continues.
What to do about it?
As for how to properly address the real issue of gun and drug violence, Grillo offers four solid measures that arguably most people can get behind, which focus on the humanitarian aspect of it all. For one, it’s examining straw purchases, where people with clean records are sought after to make purchases for those deliberately unable to do so.
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Second, is universal background checks or cracking down on people abusing the sale of firearms without a license.
Third is by practicing gun safety storage and not leaving a gun exposed or leaving them in a vehicle to reduce the risk of gun theft.
This ties into the final measure of examining ghost guns, where people buy parts online and assemble them, so they’re harder to track.
How Houstonians can learn more
The myriad of knowledge Grillo shares in his book and through the interview are digestible enough to help see the spiderweb of how blood is spilled and who has it on their hands. And for this reason, people are encouraged to attend his speaking events with the World Affairs Council of Houston.
On Tuesday, April 25, Grillo will be talking about his latest book, as part of a Global Young Professionals Event at Pour Behavior on Travis St. There will be an opportunity for networking at 6:15 p.m. before the moderated discussion starts at 7 p.m., which includes a Q&A session followed by a book signing at 8 p.m.
CONTINUED COVERAGE OF THE OPIOID EPIDEMIC
If you’re unable to attend Tuesday’s event, you can still find him Wednesday, April 26, at the Junior League of Houston on Briar Oaks. There, Grillo will give a lecture on his work documenting the cartel as well as the fentanyl crisis from 7 p.m. - 8 p.m. Students and educators will be able to attend an exclusive session (by registering with their school email address) beforehand from 5:30 - 6:30 p.m.
Conclusion: Hoping through heartbreak
After receiving my own copy of Blood Gun Money, I can honestly say I was captivated by the first few pages. Not just because of his writing style and storytelling ability, but because Grillo’s only motivation is to inform and share his experience with others.
"As a journalist, it's always about connecting to people and trying to raise their consciousness," he admits. "I don't want to tell anybody what to think. But I can just say, when I spent 20 years, around these cartels talking to, in this case, gun traffickers book, talking to hitmen, talking to high-level cartel people, talking to military victims, all kinds of people want to make sense of this kind of crazy war that's been happening in Mexico and beyond.
"I just want to give people some more knowledge about that," Grillo continues. "So they can make more informed decisions or just have more knowledge about what's happening there."
The fact he has spent two decades of his career gathering sources and conducting interviews with some of the bravest and most frightening people in the world (as well as received threats from)and is able to share that in a powerful, expressive way, there’s nothing really for him to celebrate. If anything, it’s a stoic reminder of how much work we still have left to do while simultaneously having faith that it won’t always be this way.
"It's kind of sad. I mean, the first book [El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency] came out in 2011," Grillo says. "I remember giving these first talks about drug cartels and saying, ‘well, maybe we'll talk in 10 years' time, this will be better,’ sadly, now it's about 12 years time and it's worse. You know, more deaths in Mexico, more drug adverse in the United States.
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"But we've got to hope in our 10 years and our 20 years - I mean, some point, you got to hope there's gonna be an improvement in this situation," he concludes. "You don't see young people, especially schools - heartbreaking young people, but anybody dying of this violence or drug overdoses on both sides of the border."
You can learn more about Ioan Grillo and his work by visiting his website. You can also watch him speak at the World Affairs Council of Houston on Tuesday or Wednesday, by clicking the respective dates.