Haiti’s Customs Agency has seized an extremely large quantity of illegally imported ammunition the same day that its director was replaced on suspicion of arms trafficking, highlighting the Caribbean nation’s struggle in combating weapons flows.
On July 1, customs and police authorities interdicted roughly 120,000 rounds of ammunition on board a container ship at Port-au-Paix wharf. The illegal cargo, which had come from the US state of Florida, was almost entirely composed of bullets and magazines for high-powered assault rifles.
Police have issued arrest warrants for three individuals, one of whom was reportedly detained and then released last year on charges of arms trafficking, according to Haitian news outlet Le Nouvelliste, citing senior law enforcement.
The operation came the same day that the Haitian government appointed a new director and deputy-director of Customs, to replace the agency’s former head, Rommel Bell. Since May, Bell has been under investigation by Haiti’s anti-corruption unit (Unité de lutte contre la corruption – ULLC).
The accusations against him reportedly stem from allegations of illegal arms trafficking, which he has strongly denied, according to statements made by both him and the customs union.
On May 20, the ULCC raided the customs building and initially prohibited staff from accessing computers and files. However, by May 24 this measure was reversed after the customs union retaliated by announcing a departmental strike that shut down port controls.
InSight Crime Analysis
While US-to-Haiti gun smuggling is not new, Haiti’s current customs debacle touches on a number of important developments within the country’s security crisis.
Firstly, the alleged role played by state institutions in arming gangs. Haitian police have been implicated in illegal arms trafficking before and the current PHTK administration has reportedly provided weapons and vehicles on several occasions to leaders of the “G9 and Family” gang alliance (G9 an famni – G9).
After the raid of the customs building, the director of a prominent Haitian NGO made headlines by telling news outlet Alterpresse that state-sanctioned illegal arms regularly arrive at both private and public harbors of Port-au-Prince, with customs agents who seize them risking punishment.
“The situation has worsened under the leadership of Rommel Bell…[t]he Haitian State, through the customs offices, is the largest supplier of arms and ammunition to armed groups, particularly to the G9 federation,” he said in late May.
Secondly, and related to the first point, the dire need among the gangs of Port-au-Prince for a steady stream of bullets. Many parts of the US are currently experiencing an ammunition shortage, including the state of Florida, one of the main export hubs for illegal arms to Latin America and the Caribbean.
This has raised ammunition prices, yet with battles raging across Port-au-Prince, particularly in Croix-des-Missions and Martissant, Haitian crime groups cannot afford to count cartridges. The possibility has therefore even been raised that the June invasion of the Palace of Justice was simply about securing money for munitions.