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The U.S. says it's 'ramping up' its campaign against arms trafficking to Haiti and the Caribbean

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Lynne Sladky
/
AP
Some of the high-powered military-style rifles Homeland Security Investigations on Wednesday said were recently seized enroute to Haiti.

Haiti’s violent gangs control much of the country today thanks to the high-powered weapons being trafficked to them. U.S. authorities on Wednesday said they’re cracking down on that "marked uptick" in gun smuggling — especially from Florida.

At the Homeland Security Investigations office in Doral, Miami Special Agent in Charge Anthony Salisbury stood by tables displaying large semi-automatic rifles recently seized on their way to Haiti. They included a .50-calibre sniper rifle and a belt-fed machine gun.

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Haitian authorities say more than half a million illegal weapons like those are in the country today. Salisbury said the trafficking is growing worse — not just the volume, but the higher caliber of the weapons — and not just to Haiti, but to the entire Caribbean.

He and representatives from a host of other federal agencies, such as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), insisted the U.S. is making it an interdiction priority.

"We are ramping up our efforts to stem the flow of illicit weapons in Haiti and the Caribbean, including extra interdiction resources," Salisbury said.

“Homeland Security Investigations and its partners will investigate and seek to prosecute any individuals involved in the illegal arms trafficking. From the straw purchasers, to the smugglers, to the criminal kingpins that desire these weapons.”

U.S. authorities have acknowledged they suspect members of Haiti's political and business elite are helping Haitian gangs — whom they often use as enforcers — to purchase trafficked guns.

Salisbury also made it clear Florida is a key source of those smuggled weapons. In the past year some of the more high-profile cases of arms trafficking to Haiti have involved guns purchased in Florida. Smugglers often exploit the large quantity of shipping containers leaving the state's ports — Salisbury conceded the high volume of Florida-Caribbean commerce presents a big challenge — or the scant interdiction resources on the other side in countries like Haiti.

“The United States and in particular South Florida is not open for business regarding the illegal trafficking of weapons," he said. "But we cannot do this alone. We need the help of the public, the private sector, the shipping companies, the freight forwarders. Everyone.”

Salisbury said people with information can call an HSI tip line: 1-866-347-2423.

At the Doral press conference, Rear Admiral Brendan McPherson, commander of the Coast Guard's 7th District, pointed out the violent chaos armed gangs have wrought in Haiti is a major cause of this year’s enormous number of Haitians fleeing to Florida’s shores.

Turf wars between Haiti's gangs have killed scores of people in the past year, especially in and around Port-au-Prince. Gangs are estimated to lord over half of that capital city, as Haiti's government continues to collapse. They are also responsible for a terrifying wave of ransom kidnapping in Haiti and the hijacking of food and fuel trucks.

WLRN explored the growing instability in Haiti on a recent episode of the South Florida Roundup.

Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.