Criminal gangs in Jamaica and Haiti are engaged in a deadly trade: the exchange of marijuana for guns.
Boats loaded with up to 3,000 pounds of cannabis take off from Jamaica’s coastline, speeding across the Caribbean to nearby Haiti, where the drugs are swapped for handguns and high-powered assault weapons. The boats return with the firearms, which are then sold off piecemeal or in bulk.
The guns-for-drugs trade, as it is known in Jamaica, is greased by traffickers and gangs, while Jamaican fishermen serve as both couriers and middlemen, according to an investigative report in the Jamaica Gleaner.
“We have the Haitian connect and we know how to manage the waters,” an anonymous fishing captain told the newspaper. “Most of us do deep-sea fishing for a living, so we know what channel to take to avoid the Jamaican and American Coast Guards.”
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Old Harbour Bay, along Jamaica’s southern coast, is a hotspot for the trade, offering hidden docks and a tight-knit fishing community. With 100 gallons of fuel on board, boats can make the roundtrip — some 600 nautical miles — in a day and a half. The trafficker pays for the gasoline and often provides a faster engine, the captain said.
The fishermen take payment in the form of drugs that are also swapped for weapons. An assault rifle is worth 30 pounds of marijuana, a handgun 10 pounds. A kilogram of cocaine can fetch up to three rifles, he said.
The illegal weapons often end up in the hands of gangs, which have turned the streets into war zones. Jamaica recorded 1,300 murders in 2019. Its homicide rate of 47 per 100,000 people was second only to Venezuela’s in Latin America and the Caribbean, according to InSight Crime’s 2019 homicide round-up.
The bloodshed has continued in 2020, even amid the coronavirus pandemic. By the beginning of June, the country had tallied 550 murders, just three fewer than the number recorded during the same period last year.
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Weapons from the guns-for-drugs trade have flooded Jamaica, fueling violence and creating an arsenal of illegal guns in the country.
Each month, between 150 to 200 firearms are smuggled from Haiti into Jamaica, Anthony Clayton, a security expert and professor at the University of the West Indies, told InSight Crime. To procure the weapons, Jamaican crime groups mostly swap marijuana and, to a lesser extent, cocaine. Meat from stolen cattle, pigs and goats has also been increasingly bartered for firearms.
Clayton said about 20 different criminal organizations are currently involved in the trade, down from a high of 45. A smuggled handgun sells for 100,000 Jamaican dollars (about $700), and assault rifles for much more. Some ammunition is also sourced from Haiti.
He estimated that the illegal weapons trade between Jamaican and Haiti is worth about $1.3 to $1.7 million.
Haiti is not the only source for illegal weapons in Jamaica. US weapons are also smuggled through the country’s ports, hidden among other goods.
“The newer and higher-powered weapons are mostly imported from the United States,” Clayton said. “The ones from Haiti are sometimes called the rusty guns, because they tend to be older.”
Haiti has also become a destination for US weapons, despite an arms embargo. In February 2019, a Florida gun shop owner was found guilty of conspiring with highly placed Haitian officials to traffic more than 166 semi-automatic weapons in the back of a truck seized at a port outside of Port-au-Prince. Later that year, a US Marine was arrested when his flight landed in Haiti after he was found with three checked plastic boxes containing eight firearms, ammunition and body armor.
Some of the guns brought into Haiti ultimately end up in Jamaica.
More than 200,000 unregistered guns were recorded in Jamaica in 2017, according to the Small Arms Survey, a Swiss nonprofit that tracts illicit arms internationally.
Jamaican police seize just 650 guns in an average year, and ballistics tracing has shown that a single illegal firearm often appears in a number of crimes, as weapons get swapped, sold or even rented out.
Security Minister Dr. Horace Chang said in February 2019 that authorities had begun using a “maritime patrol aircraft” to surveil the country’s shores to crack down on the guns-for-drugs trade. But another aircraft — at a cost of $36 million — would be needed for around the clock coverage, he said.
He told the Jamaica Gleaner recently that the Coast Guard has had considerable success in interdicting drug boats, pointing to the seizure of some 4,000 pounds of cocaine in Old Harbour Bay in 2019.
Clayton said that in addition to border security, forcing all vessels to have transponder beacons would serve as a deterrent. Ending the trade, however, requires going after bigger fish.
“There is higher-level collusion,” he said. “Think about the organizing that goes into this, delivering the bales of ganja [marijuana], making sure the weapons come back and then moving them away from the jetty, then distribution. The fishermen are not doing this on their own.”