The proliferation of guns and organised criminal gangs is threatening the stability of many countries in the Caribbean and Latin America. It is also affecting citizens’ democracy and impeding socio-economic development. These challenges were emphasised when regional leaders came together as a united front at a two-day crime symposium (which started on Monday) at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, Port-of-Spain.
The upsurge in illegal guns flowing into the Caribbean and the subsequent explosion in crime and violence led to Caricom Heads of Government comprising Prime Ministers Dr Keith Rowley (Trinidad and Tobago), Mia Mottley (Barbados), Andrew Holness (Jamaica), Philip Davis (The Bahamas), Phillip J Pierre (St Lucia), Roosevelt Skerrit (Dominica) and Dr Ralph Gonzales (St Vincent) declaring war on these weapons, starting with a decision to ban automatic rifles in the region.
On Tuesday they also agreed to send a communiqué to the United States Government registering grave concern at the frequency in which illegal US-manufactured guns have been entering the Caribbean. These weapons, they said, have been fuelling murders, crimes and gun violence at an alarming rate. It has been costing countries in Latin America and the Caribbean billions collectively to fight this scourge.
T&T experienced its deadliest year in 2022 with a murder rate of 601. For this year so far, 178 murders have already been committed and the majority were gun-related.
T&T was ranked sixth among countries with the highest crime rates by the World of Statistics in its 2023 report.
Caricom chairman and Prime Minister of the Bahamas, Philip Davis, in Port-of-Spain last week, said that the crime problem requires all hands on deck and a collaborative approach.
“An epidemic of violence grips our region, one that claims lives and generates fear and anger,” Davis said.
He said every gun used to commit a crime in the Caribbean is smuggled into our countries.
Last July, T&T’s National Security Minister Fitzgerald Hinds told a Joint Select Committee meeting that an analysis from the Strategic Services Agency had determined there were approximately 12,000 illegal firearms in T&T.
Criminologist Daurius Figueira contends that this is inaccurate. Figueira believes there are more illegal weapons in circulation.
He said given the spate of fatal shootings and gun violence, “I believe it is three times that figure.”
Questioning if the 2023 murder rate will surpass 2022, he added, “At the rate that we are going it seems 2023 will be another record-breaking year with murders.”
Giving insight as to how guns have been illegally entering our shores, he said the first manifestation was the bulk that came from Colombia in the early 1990s.
Small quantities were also sneaked into the country from America.
But what happened going into the 21st Century, he said, was that the Colombians’ gun prices escalated and brokers in Trinidad went in search of cheaper suppliers.
Their search led them back to America which had expanded its illegal gun operations in the states of Texas, Georgia and Florida.
Baltimore–northeast of Washington DC–was also booming with illegal guns.
In Florida, laws have been so lax it is easy for smugglers to get handguns, assault rifles, revolvers, pistols, semi-automatic and high-powered weapons including ammunition at prices they are willing to pay.
“So, where do you think the weaponry from the 1990 July attempted coup came from?” Figueira asked. It is Florida, he said. “These are the epicentre of the smuggling corridor.”
While the US is the main supplier of illegal guns, Figueira said the weapons are also smuggled into T&T from Brazil, Venezuela and some countries under the European Union.
FILE: The barrel of guns found at the Medway Customs Warehouse at Old Southern Main Road, off St Mary’s Junction, in March 2022.
AR-15 most sought after
The most highly sought-after American gun is the AR-15 while the Glock, Ruger and Taurus are also top choices by criminals.
Criminals use these illegal guns to kill rivals in fights for drug turf–brazen public killings, including drive-by shootings.
Citizens have also come under the gun in home invasions and robberies, and innocent bystanders have also become collateral damage in revenge killings.
“These weapons are illegally brought into the country by professional smugglers working for transnational organised crime groups of which gang leaders and its members are affiliates,” Figueira said.
Those behind the smuggling trade use sophisticated methods to get the guns here.
While the simple method of bringing in guns is through personal cargo, they have been dismantling the guns and hiding them in engine blocks, automobiles, appliances, coffee cans, and even cartons.
“The same way you smuggle drugs you use the same method to bring in weapons.”
Figueira said drugs would be sneaked into T&T, Jamaica, St Lucia, and St Vincent at the same time to minimise the risks “of interdiction and the closing down of your pipeline.”
Also, there is little resistance by the State.
“So it’s easy to access because their borders are open. You go to the transshipment points that give you the least resistance.
“So, what is happening to us is the pipeline from the United States kicked on with a velocity, and, as usual, the smugglers found and know that our Customs and Excise Division has been gutted.”
The politicians have failed on the job, Figueira declared.
He blamed past and present administrations for allowing Customs division to wither due to shortages of trained staff and obsolete or non-functional equipment to interdict arms coming in.
Last November, the Customs and Excise Division was grilled over the influx of illegal firearms entering lawful ports of entry during a Joint Select Committee (JSC) meeting chaired by PNM MP Keith Scotland.
The JSC heard of the division’s ongoing constraints that had led to just 3,998 shipping containers being inspected out of 23,000 imported into T&T between January and August of 2022.
The guns, Figueira said, are not only purchased by criminals. “Decent and respectable people in Trinidad and Tobago buying illicit weapons at gangland. And they not buying one…they buying them in multiples. So, this whole focus on gang talk, and gun talk is a mirage. While you want to blame the gangland for everything nobody is dealing with the other reality.”
‘Drugs fuelling demand for guns’
Having tuned in to the crime symposium, Figueira said no Caricom leader called for a fight against the booming drug trade which has been the main trigger behind the killings and gun violence in the Caribbean. “Wherever they have drugs there will be guns as they need to safeguard their drugs (mainly cocaine and marijuana).”
The criminologist said the issue of the guns from the United States was just political deflection. “The fact of the matter is the entire symposium did not address the core reason for the violence in the region which is the continuing … heightening of the illicit drug trade through the Caribbean, Europe and the US. We are talking about transnational organised crime who have affiliates within the island state and together they are working a business model to move products from its producing regions in Latin America to its consuming nations.”
Figueira said the volume of drugs entering the Caribbean has significantly increased causing mayhem, bloodshed, fear and social decay.
“The tonnage moving into the Caribbean has exploded.”
Similarly, large quantities of drugs are finding their way into Africa and Europe.
“Wherever the business model goes the cascading collapse of the social order follows. But you stand up for two days and refused to talk about that driving business model … the drug trade that is causing everything. There is a fundamental law that wherever there is a demand supply will arrive.”
The drug trade, he said, has also been driving human smuggling and money laundering.
“So, it’s a whole nexus of illicit trade with the drug trade that has wrecked the Caribbean society.”
Figueira said many of the Caribbean murders have been linked to the control of drug blocks and gang rivalry.
Drugs from Colombia, Bolivia and Peru find their way more frequently into T&T, St Lucia, St Vincent and Jamaica than other regional countries.
Figueira said the symposium simply addressed a 1980s narrative in 2023.
“All transnational organised crime ... It is dope that their citizens are getting killed for. They consider that the issue of the drugs is so intractable they cannot handle it. How do you expect the United States to control its borders to prevent guns from being exported to the Caribbean when we have no control over our borders?”
Figueira said the Government has done nothing to secure our borders, “but expect America to secure theirs for your benefit.”
To end the illegal importation of guns, he said Caricom’s Heads of Government must tackle the drug flow.
Caricom’s crime plan
Going forward, Caricom has promised to undertake a comprehensive overhaul of the criminal justice system, strengthen regional forensic capabilities to improve the quality of evidence and speed to conduct trials, implement a Caricom arrest warrant treaty, augment the jurisdiction of magistrates, reform our education system and strengthen the capacity of the Regional Intelligence Fusion Centre.
Caricom CoPs share challenges, successes
The Bahamas CoP
Police Commissioner of the Royal Bahamas Police Force Clayton Fernander has identified firearms and drug trafficking as their biggest headache in fighting crime.
Speaking to the Sunday Guardian at the crime symposium, Fernander admitted that large shipments of freight containers at their ports have placed a strain on their resources and ability to detect firearms and drugs.
Both illegal drugs and firearms have been increasing the murder rate in the Bahamas which has a population of 400,000.
In 2021, there were 119 murders while last year 128 people were killed.
Many of the murders were committed with high-powered weapons of which 370 were taken off the streets in 2022.
The Bahamas is close to Florida, making the country vulnerable to firearms trafficking, Fernander said.
The guns are dismantled and cleverly concealed in boxes of food items and large household appliances that come through customs.
Nine guns were recently found in a Kool-Aid box at the Bimini Airport which is a mere 50 miles off the coast of Florida. Hidden in the exhaust of a foreign boat that docked into the country, Fernander said law enforcement officers managed to find several kilograms of cocaine which had GPS embedded in the packages.
“So, if the drugs were stolen it could have been easily tracked.”
Fernander spoke about a developing trend where “ghost firearms” and “3D guns” have been circulating in the country.
They have also picked up on a few straw buyers. Straw purchasing is when someone buys a gun for another person who is not legally allowed to own one.
A ghost firearm has no serial number engraved on the weapon while 3D guns are assembled in plastic parts that can be made with a 3D printer.
3D printing uses computer-created digital models to create real-world objects. The printer follows the shape of the model by stacking layer upon layer of plastic on other materials to make the weapon.
“Within the last five years, we have seen an increase in murders as a result of the illegal guns entering the country.”
At least 98 per cent of the country’s murders was a result of illegal guns.
“The Bahamas is surrounded by water so there are a lot of illegal ports of entry” which are not properly patrolled, he said.
Their police service has 3,000 officers.
To combat the gun trade, Fernander said last month a gun task force was established.
Fernander said if someone was caught with an illegal firearm the matter is not delayed in court as they fast-track ballistics testing and gun report to expedite the case.
“You are looking at a two weeks turnaround. Either you’re lucky to get off or you go to jail.”
Jamaica’s Police Commissioner Antony Anderson is seeing a new trend–illegal guns are no longer being controlled by gang leaders and criminal organisations but instead there is a “democratisation of ownership” by young gang members from depressed communities.
“This has flowed from the illegal and illicit money that is derived from lottery scamming in Jamaica. That has provided significant money for young people in any way they chose. We find that young persons who are involved in this trade are actually using their money to purchase firearms and those firearms are playing out in their rivalries in the streets.”
Others buy their guns through money laundering.
These guns, Anderson said, are having a negative impact on society.
To source the guns, one would need a phone, connectivity and a list.
“There is a high barrier to entry. You have to know the people to create the network and you must have enough money to buy the product and then sell it,” he told the Sunday Guardian during an interview.
He said as long as there was a market someone will fuel the trade.
“Some of the largest suppliers here in the region would be the United States. To acquire them in the USA is not difficult. The challenge is how do you get them into the country, so you use various means.”
The guns are concealed and shipped in barrels or stuffed in large appliances and sent to a port in Jamaica.
Haiti and Honduras have also been supplying guns to Jamaican smugglers in exchange for high-grade marijuana and drugs.
Last year 1,498 people were killed in Jamaica with 85 per cent of the murders being committed by illegal guns.
Of the 1,498 victims, 67 per cent were killed by gangs.
Like the Bahamas, Anderson said Jamaica was a transshipment point for drugs.
Recently, Jamaica imposed stiffer penalties for drug possession and gun offences.
At the end of the symposium, the Sunday Guardian asked T&T’s Police Commissioner, Erla Harewood-Christopher, if the TTPS will adopt any of the recommendations put forward by the Caricom leaders to fight crime and criminality, and she said that she had no doubt these recommendations will be discussed at next month’s Association of Caribbean Commissioners of Police meeting hosted in T&T.
“Of course, we will discuss this at the commissioners level,” she added.
Killings in T&T and illegal firearms
• Approximately 87 per cent of the killings in T&T are as a result of firearms.
• Between 2009 and 2019, 6,387 people were charged with firearm possession.
• For this same period, 1,619 murders were committed with firearms.
• Of this figure, 638 were classified as gang-related murders.
• Over these ten years, a total of 17,271 firearm-related offences were committed.
• From 2017 to 2022, the TTPS seized 28,000 guns worth $350 million.
• This year so far the TTPS has confiscated 219 illegal firearms and 6,821 rounds of ammunition.