Florida has been unable to shake its reputation as a go-to destination for Latin American criminals to secure guns and ammunition, with Brazil's most powerful gang the latest recipient.
In early June, five people were arrested on arms trafficking charges in the United States and Brazil, according to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Four people were arrested in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, while one person was arrested in Orlando, Florida.
The trafficking ring sent by mail disguised shipments of weapons and ammunition from the Florida cities of Orlando and Kissimmee – as well as Tucson, Arizona – to Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo.
The investigation began in March 2019 after Brazilian customs intercepted a shipment containing 55 high-capacity magazines passing through Rio's international airport. According to ICE, the operation was named “Iron Tire," since some of the magazines were hidden inside spare tires.
The trafficking of weapons from Florida to Latin America is not uncommon. In 2019, raids in the US, Argentina and Brazil led to the seizure of about 5,300 firearms, including AR-15 rifles and explosives, that were illegally exported from Florida, according to US officials cited by the Miami Herald.
Gun trafficking from the US typically involves "straw buyers," gun purchasers who are suspected of buying weapons from dealers in the United States for others. The guns and ammunition are then moved to other countries, often by mail.
InSight Crime Analysis
While states like Texas and Arizona are well known for their role in arms trafficking schemes across the Mexican border, Florida is one of the most reliable sources of arms smuggled to Latin America and the Caribbean
Relaxed gun purchasing laws and Florida's proximity to the continent and the Caribbean make it an ideal smuggling hub, for which it has been notorious for decades.
The Brazilian Federal Police reported that, from 2014 to 2017, the US was the largest source of illegal weapons and ammunition. Of the eight foreign stores that provided the most illegal weapons during that period, five were in Florida, according to the report. Although more recent data is not yet available, this dynamic is likely to remain in place based on the results of Operation Iron Tire.
Brazil is far from the only recipient of Florida-sourced weapons. In 2012, Colombian criminal groups, including the Urabeños and Rastrojos, were reported to have purchased weapons illegally shipped to Colombia by two family-run arms trafficking networks in Florida.
In 2019, Haitian government officials, including a senator, were also suspected of having conspired with a Florida gun shop owner to smuggle weapons into Haiti.
Florida passed updated gun purchasing laws in 2018 to try and deter straw purchasers and illegal exports but this does not appear to have had a major effect. In addition to the smuggling ring identified in Operation Iron Tire, many cases of small- and large-scale arms trafficking from Florida have been identified in the past three years.
In late 2020, three members of a Bolivian-American family were found guilty of operating a ring of straw purchasers in Naples and Fort Myers, Florida, and of illegally shipping AK-47s to Bolivia.
In 2019, the Miami Herald reported that thousands of guns and grenades bought by straw purchasers were seized while on their way from South Florida to the Tri-Border Area, where Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil meet.
With little political will in Florida to make substantive changes to gun ownership and purchasing laws, as well as a consistent demand from Latin America's criminal groups for weapons, it is unlikely that the flow of firearms from Florida will be stemmed any time soon.