As American-made guns continue to be Caribbean gangs' primary source of weapons, heads of government are demanding that the US do more to rein in arms trafficking.
Philip Davis, Prime Minister of the Bahamas, met with US Vice-President Kamala Harris on January 17 to discuss “the importance ... of reducing the flow of guns illegally entering The Bahamas from the United States.”
Days earlier, the Prime Minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Ralph Gonsalves, also took a strong stance during a radio interview.
“The United States of America has to do something about...the easy access to guns and the easy exportation of guns. They have the resources to help us with that,” he urged.
Finally, Grenada’s Prime Minister Dickon Mitchell echoed the same fear on January 16.
“Our island(s) are under constant threat from the importation of small firearms in particular. They are coming in barrels, they are coming in containers … we are probably the last bastion of little or no gun violence in the region,” Mitchell said, adding that St. Lucia, Trinidad and Tobago, and Jamaica all faced the same problem.
And while there is a long history of arms trafficking from Miami, Florida, to Haiti, a surge of high-powered weapons has arrived there in the last two years, feeding the spiraling security crisis. In 2021, one Haitian-American citizen was indicted for trafficking weapons to 400 Mawozo, one of Haiti’s most ruthless gangs made famous for the kidnapping of 17 US missionaries.
Rapidly rising violence across the Caribbean saw several countries record high homicide rates in 2022, including St. Lucia, The Bahamas, Trinidad and Tobago, Turks and Caicos Islands, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
According to statistics compiled by InSight Crime, the Caribbean accounted for four of the five most-murderous countries and territories in the region in 2022, with the Turks and Caicos Islands topping the rankings, followed by Jamaica, Venezuela, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines. There were no reliable figures for Haiti. The overwhelming majority of murders in the Caribbean are carried out with firearms.
InSight Crime Analysis
US-made weapons flooding into Latin America and the Caribbean are nothing new. Over 2.5 million guns have been smuggled from the United States into Mexico alone over the last decade, according to journalist and author Ioan Grillo.
But Caribbean nations are particularly vulnerable and have limited options to deal with this crisis internally. Individuals on US soil have been implicated in illegal arms seizures in Haiti, St. Lucia, Trinidad and Tobago, and Turks and Caicos Islands, among others.
In the Bahamas, 98% of illegal firearms recovered and submitted to the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives for tracing in 2020 came from the US. Similar trends could be seen in Haiti (87%), and the Dominican Republic (73%).
US territories are also at serious risk. In Puerto Rico, only 13 percent of guns seized by authorities were legally sold there, as opposed to a 66 percent average on the US mainland. For the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, arms trafficking was a major factor as to why the US Virgin Islands had a 2020 homicide rate nine times higher than the mainland.
In Latin America, some countries are tired of asking for US action. Mexico, which sees thousands of guns imported from the US every year, launched a lawsuit in August 2021 against American gun manufacturers, including Smith & Wesson, Colt, and the US subsidiary of Beretta. The lawsuit sought $10 billion in compensation and cited that as many as 597,000 weapons made by the companies had been retrieved in Mexico.
“The companies that the government is suing for their negligence...actively facilitate the illicit trafficking of their firearms to Mexico,” Mexico’s lead attorney in the case, Alejandro Celorio, told Texas Public Radio at the time.
The lawsuit was dismissed a year later by a US judge, but set a precedent.
While this cannot be provably linked to the lawsuit, the US did take some action to help stop the flow of guns. In August 2022, new legislation sought to close off several arms trafficking loopholes. This included a crackdown on unregulated private sales and increasing penalties for so-called “straw buyers,” a practice where individuals with clean records purchase guns and lie about their intended use, before selling the weapons to criminal groups.
“Straw-buying in the US is the most common channel [of trafficking arms to Mexico] as most straw buyers are not going to get caught,” John Lindsay-Poland, an activist who coordinates the Stop US Arms to Mexico project, told InSight Crime.
At the same time, however, US lawmakers cut 11.8% of the budget for the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative, which provides border and port security aid to Caribbean nations, in fiscal year 2022 (July 2022 through June 2023).