Gang violence driving the Caribbean’s high homicide levels is being fueled by US firearms, according to a report released as regional leaders increase cooperation against arms trafficking.
The report published April 26 by the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) intergovernmental organization and the Small Arms Survey research center comes amid a recent uptick in violence regionwide. In response to the violence, Caribbean leaders announced a “war on guns,” including promises to ban assault weapons and to stand with Mexico in its ongoing lawsuits against US arms manufacturers.
Here, InSight Crime analyzes the report’s conclusions about the relationship between firearms and gang violence in the Caribbean.
US Weapons Driving Violence
Weapons made in the United States contribute significantly to gang violence in the Caribbean, but a lack of accurate data has made it difficult to estimate the extent of the US role.
Data from the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) shows that 80-99% of weapons seized in the Bahamas, Dominican Republic, and Haiti in 2021 and submitted to the ATF for tracing are of US origin.
However, these conclusions do not provide a complete picture. Only firearms that are recovered by authorities can be traced, and even then, not all are submitted for tracing, Matt Schroeder, a senior researcher at the Small Arms Survey and co-author of the report, told InSight Crime.
“What you’ve got at the end of this is a subset of a subset of a subset of a population from which you have to draw most of your conclusions about [arms] trafficking,” he said.
A standardized system for sharing firearms data between CARICOM countries could remedy this issue, the report suggests. This would aid tracing efforts and facilitate criminal investigations.
“As transparency improves, our understanding of the phenomenon could improve exponentially, in which case we could really get a good sense of how these weapons move around,” Schroeder added.
Despite the statistical uncertainties, the report states unequivocally that “there is little doubt that the United States is a major source of illicit firearms in the Caribbean, and probably the largest source in some states and territories.”
Caribbean leaders have similarly blamed their northern neighbor. Some have recently pledged to support Mexico’s legal battles against US arms manufacturers, which allege gun-makers negligently sell weapons used by violent criminals.
Simple Methods, Limited Enforcement
Traffickers employ a variety of methods to smuggle weapons into the Caribbean.
Many Caribbean nations remain ill-prepared to stop the traffic due to low interdiction capacity at ports of entry and limited enforcement resources.
“All you have to do as a trafficker is make sure that the weapons are relatively well hidden so that they blend into this constant torrent of commodities moving across the borders,” Schroeder told InSight Crime.
Even when authorities crack down at ports of entry, traffickers take advantage of the short distances between Caribbean islands, using go-fast boats and yachts to move arms to any point on the islands’ extensive coastlines. In the guns-for-drugs trade between Haiti and Jamaica, fishing boats speed between the two nations, carrying Jamaican marijuana to Haiti and returning with weapons.
Authorities could boost the detection of illicit weapons by identifying patterns in trafficking shipments using data from past seizures, according to the report. More stringent firearms controls for visiting, privately-owned pleasure craft could also help control illicit flows of arms, the report said.
Handguns are King
Handguns were very prevalent regionwide, making up 88% of seized weapons in datasets provided to the authors by INTERPOL, the US, and Caribbean authorities. At the same time, 91% of reviewed ammo cartridges were most frequently used in handguns.
This contrasts with Mexico, where trace data suggests a much higher prevalence of long guns like rifles, accounting for about 30% of all weapons recovered in Mexico and submitted to the ATF for tracing between 2014 and 2019.
The difference in weapon type between regions could be a matter of resources and tactics.
Mexican organized criminal groups are large, sophisticated, and well-resourced, making them more willing to spend money on high-powered rifles. They also seek to control large, open swaths of territory, for which long weapons are more suitable.
The Caribbean’s small street gangs, however, don’t have such resources. What’s more, they operate in urban areas, where handguns are more useful as they are easier to conceal and use in close quarters.
Still, while rare, Caribbean authorities have found caches of rifles, often to be used by organized criminal elements. Seizures of high-powered rifles and ammunition in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Jamaica, show that these firearms also play a role in the violence.
Ghost Guns Pose Nascent Threat
Criminals in the Caribbean are increasingly using privately made firearms (PMFs) like “ghost guns,” which are built using partially finished factory parts that often come in kits.
PMFs are attractive to criminals because they are more difficult to trace than commercially manufactured weapons, but the usage of these weapons in the Caribbean remains in its infancy, the report said.
“You’re still not seeing the explosion of these weapons. You’re seeing increases, but it’s incremental. This is a more long-term phenomenon, and I think it’s pretty unpredictable,” Schroeder told InSight Crime.
Similarly, Mexican crime groups have begun using ghost guns. But easy access to commercial firearms has meant homemade weapons remain a small slice of groups’ arsenals.
The US is likely the origin of finished PMFs and PMF parts that are trafficked into the region, though comprehensive evidence remains scarce. The report highlights three dozen cases since 2020 of receivers, frames, and related parts bound for the Caribbean and seized by US Customs officials.
Training can help law enforcement learn how to identify various types of firearms, including PMFs, the report said. It also suggests the creation of an expert regional forensics team that could process and identify significant arms seizures to supplement individual nations’ efforts.
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