As attention continues to focus on Jamaica’s spiraling homicides, the country’s prime minister has promised to stem the violence by clamping down on illegal firearms – a proposition that is easier said than done.

More than 90 guns have been seized as part of the government’s “Get Every Illegal Gun” campaign, which launched in early February. The Jamaica Constabulary Force confiscated the latest batch at a gated community in Trelawney after a shootout that left a top gang member dead. Police seized 13 guns, including three M16, two AK-47 and five AR15 rifles.

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When unveiling the initiative, Prime Minister Andrew Holness promised stricter penalties for illegal weapons possession, as well as an increase in police operations targeting illegal gun owners. The campaign also includes rewards to encourage residents to report illegal guns.

“People know where the guns are. All you have to do is pick up your phone and call… and you could get anywhere from $250,000 to $500,000 [$1,600 to $3,200 USD] depending on the gun,” he said.

Jamaica, meanwhile, remains engulfed by violence The country has topped InSight Crime’s Homicide Round-up two years in a row. Last year, the country recorded 1,463 killings, giving it a homicide rate that reached nearly 50 per 100,000 people.

InSight Crime Analysis

While the campaign is a step to address soaring gun violence in Jamaica, the crackdown on illegal weapons faces a countervailing force – a constant flow of firearms smuggled into the country.

Such campaigns have failed in the past to produce meaningful results due to a lack of focus on entry points for illegal guns. Anthony Clayton, a security expert and professor at Jamaica’s University of the West Indies, told InSight Crime that guns enter the country hidden in shipping containers. The guns are disassembled and mixed with auto parts to make them harder to detect during searches. To stop the smuggling requires “inordinate” costs and logistics, Clayton said.

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The US is the primary source for Jamaica’s illegal gun market, with hundreds of guns being smuggled in each month, according to a New York Times investigation

Haitian gangs are also providing their counterparts in Jamaica with arms. In 2020, InSight Crime reported that the illegal weapons trade between the two countries was worth roughly $1.5 million. Clayton estimated that “150 to 200” guns are smuggled to Jamaica from Haiti on a monthly basis. Most of these are old, low-caliber weapons known as “rusty guns,” while the US market provides the high-powered firearms

What’s more, stopping the flow of weapons from source countries remains unlikely.

“It would be wonderful if we could get the source countries to do more to shut off supply,” Clayton said. “But in Haiti’s case that would not be realistic to even expect them to be able to do very much. And in the case of the United States, for political reasons, they are also unlikely to do very much.”

Clatyton said that other forms of criminal activity in Jamaica are relatively stable or declining, whereas “the one problem that remains obdurately and persistently high is the exceptional level of violence. There is a dreadful cycle of fear, aggression and retaliation,” he said.

Even community efforts to reduce violence have ended in grim headlines. In November 2021, The Jamaica Gleaner reported that a man was gunned down at a seminar for peace management and gender violence.