Seizures of military-style assault weapons in the Dominican Republic are raising concerns that criminal groups are accessing powerful firearms smuggled from the United States and elsewhere.
On May 26, Dominican customs and police authorities launched a sting operation to dismantle an arms trafficking ring smuggling weapons into the Caribbean nation from the United States, according to a news release by the nation's customs authority.
During the raid at Haina Port, close to the capital of Santo Domingo, authorities seized 11 rifles, six pistols and ammunition. Cash and vehicles were also seized.
Another large weapons seizure took place at the port March 15, when a shipment of high-caliber rifles, pistols and explosives was intercepted. Customs officials said in a news release that the weapons were worth millions of dollars and that the seizure was made thanks to a new scanner, which was recently installed with the intention of increasing the port’s security protocols.
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A week after the seizure, President Luis Abinader expressed his concern about the large number of illegal guns in the country, calling it a public health and public security issue. He stated that there are up to three illegal weapons for each of the country's 238,000 registered guns.
In total, Dominican authorities seized almost 5,000 arms between April 2019 and March 2022. In the same period, police registered some 1,800 stolen arms.
In 2017, the Small Arms Survey, a platform that provides figures on firearms, estimated the total number of guns owned by civilians in the Dominican Republic to be 795,000, a ratio of 7.4 firearms for every 100 citizens.
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Aside from growing demand, the Dominican Republic's influx of assault weapons also underlines the centrality of US-based Dominican crime networks – combined with an abundance of US guns – in fueling insecurity in the country.
Most seizures of illegally imported arms are made in Haina Port and come from the United States. In 2020, almost three-quarters of all guns traced by the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to the Dominican Republic were produced in or first imported to the United States.
The trafficking is enabled by an international network of Dominicans in the United States who send the weapons to Santo Domingo, security analyst Kelvin Jimenez told InSight Crime.
“There are a lot of Dominican migrants in the United States, and a lot of companies specializing in shipping goods like clothes and food to the Dominican Republic. That’s how firearms enter the country,” he said.
Part of the demand for firearms is caused by a culture of private gun ownership, which the current administration is trying to reduce through a buyback program for unregistered arms.
However, it is criminal groups that use high-caliber arms, not civilians, security analysts in the Dominican Republic told InSight Crime.
“Citizens want pistols and revolvers, but no one will buy an AK-47 to keep at home. Those [AK-47s] are exclusively purchased by organized crime groups,” said security expert Daniel Pou.
A recent dramatic robbery at a gas station in Santo Domingo, carried out by six men armed with assault weapons and wearing bulletproof vests, supports Pou’s suggestion.
“It is likely that Dominican drug traffickers finance and send these arms to the Dominican Republic to arm their people,” Jimenez said.
The Dominican Republic government also believes arms arrive into the country from neighboring Haiti, where criminal gangs are at war. This suggestion formed part of the argument that led to plans to construct a 164-kilometer fence along the countries' border. The fence is scheduled to be completed by November.
Yet the reverse is also true. Some guns trafficked into the Dominican Republic actually end up in Haiti. An estimated 500,000 illegal arms are circulating in Haiti, the Miami Herald reported.
SEE ALSO: US Guns Flow into Haiti, Fuel Gang Violence
“It makes sense: the Dominican Republic has the infrastructure and the commercial activity with other countries that Haiti simply doesn’t have,” Pou noted.
In July 2021, a Haitian law enforcement source told the Center for Economic and Policy Research that at least part of the arms entering the country are smuggled from the Dominican Republic. Several sources confirmed this route to InSight Crime during a visit in September 2021.
So far, the influx of illegal arms has not directly translated into a huge increase in lethal violence in the Dominican Republic. Although the rate of homicides committed with firearms doubled between 1996 and 2019, numbers are still nowhere near that of other Caribbean nations like Jamaica and Barbados. But the Caribbean nations with high levels of violence do also report high numbers of illicit guns entering from the United States.