HomeTop StoriesGuns trafficked from the US are fueling gang violence in Haiti

Guns trafficked from the US are fueling gang violence in Haiti

As Haiti has once again plunged into violent chaos, images of gang members carrying high-powered rifles, pump-action shotguns or automatic weapons on the streets of Port-au-Prince have become ubiquitous.

But this weaponry is not made in Haiti, a country with no production capabilities for firearms or ammunition.

It’s an arsenal that largely comes straight from the U.S., with most of the weapons, experts say, likely coming from states with lax gun laws, many smuggled into Haiti from Florida.

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This clandestine trade gives Haiti’s gangs a vast supply of illegal weapons and far greater firepower than the country’s despondent and underfunded police force.

A 2020 estimate published by the Haitian Disarmament Commission estimates that there could be as many as 500,000 small arms in the country, of which only 38,000 are legally registered. Analysts say this number is now likely to be even higher, following an increase in human trafficking in recent years.

Much of this, says Robert Muggah, a security expert and co-founder of the Igarapé Institute security think tank, is obtained in the US by straw buyers (buyers who obtain the weapons on behalf of the smugglers). The guns are largely purchased in states with weak gun regulations such as Florida, Arizona, Texas and Georgia.

“Easily accessible firearms from the US are one of many factors increasing Haiti’s instability,” Muggah said. “The abundance of high-powered rifles, pistols and ammunition dramatically increases the power of criminal gangs that easily outmaneuver Haiti’s depleted national police and modest security forces. They also play a key role in fueling the high rates of sexual violence, violent attacks, kidnappings and internal displacement.”

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A number of recent seizures have exposed the relative ease with which traffickers operate. In February, US prosecutors handed down guilty verdicts for two high-ranking members of the 400 Mawozo – the gang that became internationally infamous for the 2021 kidnapping of 17 Christian missionaries from Ohio who were visiting an orphanage in Port-au-Prince.

Investigators discovered an arsenal of at least 24 firearms, including AK-47s, AR-15s, an M4 Carbine rifle and a military-grade .50 caliber sniper rifle, after purchases at several gun stores in the Florida cities of Miami, Orlando and Pompano Beach. according to an unsealed indictment.

Joly Germine, a 31-year-old leader of 400 Mawozo, sent specific requests for powerful weapons via WhatsApp messages sent from the Haitian prison. The requests were made to American citizens in Florida, including Germain’s romantic partner, and the weapons were then placed in garbage bags, loaded into large barrels and hidden under “clothing, shoes and Gatorade,” ready for shipment.

To the extent that human traffickers succeed, it is due to the enormous amount of goods that cross borders

Matt Schroeder

In July 2022, authorities in Haiti seized a shipment of seventeen semi-automatic weapons, a 12-gauge shotgun, four handguns, and 15,000 rounds of ammunition packed in a shipment from Florida bound for a Haitian Episcopal Church, which enjoys certain customs exemptions.

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“None of the smuggling techniques or concealment methods are innovative, unique or require expertise,” said Matt Schroeder, senior researcher at Small Arms Survey. “The extent to which traders succeed is due to the sheer volume of goods moving across borders and the difficulty of thoroughly screening each shipment.”

U.S. authorities have made efforts in recent years to step up enforcement, including expanding Homeland Security operations in Florida, establishing a new regional task force with other Caribbean community states, and toughening penalties for straw purchases, including in bipartisan gun laws starting in 2022.

But, says Muggah, the results, even if they make some progress, are likely only scratching the surface.

“It is widely believed that authorities in both countries seize only a fraction of the total amount of firearms and ammunition entering the country, whether by land, air or sea,” he said.

Crucially, the Haitian government’s customs and border forces are chronically under-resourced. A recent report published by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime found that the Border Patrol Unit of Haiti’s National Police has just 294 officers, while the country’s coast guard has just 181 personnel and a single operational ship. Haiti has a coastline of 1,770 km and a land border of 392 km with the Dominican Republic.

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As a result, there has been a proliferation of illegal arms trafficking routes, according to a number of recent UN Security Council reports reviewed by The Guardian. This includes shipments from Florida to Port-au-Prince and to the northern cities of Port-de-Paix and Cap-Haïtien, and land smuggling routes across the border into the Dominican Republic following shipments to two major ports.

UN investigators have also identified 11 clandestine airstrips across the country, many of which were developed for humanitarian purposes after a catastrophic earthquake in 2010 but are now barely monitored. Some are, according to satellite images cited in the report, “in large private properties.”

The U.N. Security Council report, published in January, warns that there are as many as 30 U.S.-registered private planes based in Haiti, which are difficult to track when flying below 18,000 feet because Federal Aviation Administration regulations mean that they do not need official flight plans. .

“The reality is that as long as there is a large supply and demand for firearms and ammunition, they will continue to be smuggled from the US to neighboring countries, including Haiti,” Muggah said. “This is due not only to the tens of thousands of firearms outlets in the US, but also to the continued hunger of the hundreds of criminal gangs in the Caribbean.”

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