Guns of the Caribbean: Haiti, U.S. Virgin Islands flooded with firearms — often from Florida
Gun violence is plaguing Caribbean sites like Haiti and the U.S. Virgin Islands, thanks largely to "brazen, out of control" gun trafficking from U.S. states like Florida
In recent weeks, hundreds of Haitian migrants have arrived by boat in the Florida Keys. Almost all of them tell U.S. officials they’re coming to escape the armed terror back in Haiti driven by a federation of violent gangs that now control much of Haiti and its capital, Port-au-Prince.
In videos advertising their power, federation leaders like Jimmy "Barbecue" Cherizier like to brandish semi-automatic rifles and other military-style weapons — guns you can’t buy legally in Haiti. They’re smuggled in, almost always from the U.S., often from Florida.
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In recent months U.S. and Haitian authorities have arrested several alleged smugglers running high-powered guns like AK-47 rifles and 9-mm pistols into Haiti. Haitian officials say as many as half a million illegal firearms are in the country now.
Like the gun that shot Regine Theodat's husband, Junior Abelard, last September as he was going to pick up the couple's daughter.
"He was cornered in a side street by two people that were waiting for him," said Theodat, who at the time was living in Croix-des-Bouquets, near Port-au-Prince, with Abelard and their children.
"They'd obviously been tracking his daily movements," she said, possibly to kidnap him for ransom, "then pulled out their shiny, silver-colored 9-mm pistols" that were almost certainly smuggled into Haiti.
Abelard survived the shooting and escaped. He, Theodat, who is Haitian-American, and their children have since moved to the Dominican Republic.
Theodat's family is from Croix-des-Bouquets, and in recent years she'd settled there to start a successful food-and-beverage packaging company. But today Croix-des-Bouquets is the base of one of Haiti’s most powerful gangs, 400 Mawozo — and Theodat says Haitians are helpless in the face of the firepower gangs like it can rain down on them now.
“Day in and day out we would hear rounds and rounds and rounds of bullets from semi-automatic rifles," she said.
Just as bad, she added, is how they flaunt it.
“Gang members are always on WhatsApp sending videos showing off their weapons and how they got their weapons. The arms smuggling that's supplying them is just very brazen and out of control.”
The guns are coming into the Caribbean in very creative ways from U.S. states like Florida and Texas and Georgia — especially ghost guns authorities can't trace.Alex Nguyen
In one recent FBI case, U.S. prosecutors indicted a Haitian-American in Florida for shipping high-caliber rifles and pistols to the 400 Mawozo gang, hiding them in barrels of clothes. The alleged smuggler boasted on WhatsApp that Haiti’s gangs are clever “snakes” who can “slither” to get what they need.
But guns are being trafficked out of Florida and the U.S. not just to Haiti but the rest of the Caribbean — especially Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. It's a key reason the USVI's gun homicide rate is almost nine times higher than that of the 50 U.S. states, and why it has the second-highest rate of guns brought across its borders of any U.S. state or territory.
“The guns are coming in very creative ways from U.S. states like Florida and Texas and Georgia," said Alex Nguyen, research manager at the nonprofit Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence in San Francisco, who has authored a new report on alarming gun violence in U.S. territories.
BABY BIRTHDAY GIFT
It's legal to own assault weapons in Puerto Rico but not in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Either way, both places are being flooded with guns shipped there illegally — and the Giffords report concludes the biggest driver is gun trafficking from U.S. states like Florida, where gun purchasing laws are relatively lax.
In one case, Nguyen said, "We talk about a couple who go to Florida and North Carolina, ship themselves these guns to P.O. boxes in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and they start selling them around the islands.
"In Puerto Rico, one person got shipped a gun that was disguised as a baby’s birthday gift.”
The Giffords report points out Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands don’t have the resources to block all the U.S. firearms being shipped onto their streets — especially one type Nguyen points to: “The rise in ghost guns they can’t trace.”
Ghost guns have had markings like serial numbers removed, making them untraceable. More and more of them are being trafficked from the U.S. to the Caribbean, which is why the Giffords report urges, along with stronger gun violence-prevention programs in U.S. territories, stronger gun registration laws in U.S. states like Florida.
“You need to be able to track these weapons. We can’t even do that," said former Miami Congresswoman Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, a Democrat, who is a Giffords senior adviser.
"I think that in South Florida," Mucarsell-Powell adds, citing the large Caribbean population here, "if people understand what is happening, they are going to demand people in elected office to do something.”
That’s especially important, Mucarsel-Powell says, because the residents of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are U.S. citizens. But she adds it’s urgent for Haiti and the rest of the Caribbean too — including gun violence-racked nations like Jamaica and Barbados.
Experts say it's no coincidence to see a spike in gun-related deaths in Barbados as more arrests are made in the U.S. for smuggling guns to the island. Last September three men pleaded guilty in Georgia to shipping ghost guns to Barbados.
In August, Mexico's government sued U.S. gun manufacturers, including Smith & Wesson, for contributing to the trafficking of firearms to ultra-violent Mexican drug cartels. Last month attorneys general in 13 U.S. states and Washington D.C. sided with Mexico.
Mucarsel-Powell said the suit is a reminder that "we need to be serious about making sure that we protect the hemisphere.”
If not, the U.S. can expect many more migrants coming here to flee gun violence in the hemisphere.