How U.S. gun laws and South Florida ports help fuel Haiti’s escalating gang violence

·13 min read

When the cargo ship “Miss Lilie” left Miami one recent afternoon and pulled into port along Haiti’s northwest coast, it had all the markings of a legitimate government operation.

Men in canoes waited until nighttime to unload the freight and stash it on a nearby island. Armed anti-drug trafficking officers showed up at the wharf and claimed they were sent to take the cargo, while vehicles with official state and police plates waited to transport the load along a perilous, gang-controlled road.

But the cargo was far from legal. It contained 120,000 high-power rounds — a deadly cache outlawed under U.S. law. And that’s not all. The rounds were bound for senior political officials in Port-au-Prince, according to two police reports obtained by the Miami Herald.

Haiti does not manufacture ammunition or weapons, and its poorly equipped security forces are subject to U.S. arms restrictions in place since the late 1990s. Yet the volatile nation, which is being terrorized by kidnapping gangs and other politically connected criminals, is awash in hundreds of thousands of firearms and ammunition — with the vast majority of the illegal weapons coming from South Florida.

“Today the trafficking of guns, the trafficking of ammunition and kidnapping appear to have supplanted drug trafficking,” said Gédéon Jean, a lawyer who runs the Center for Analysis and Research in Human Rights in Port-au-Prince, which monitors kidnappings. “The money that used to be made in Haiti in the trafficking of cocaine is now being made in these other types of trafficking.”

Among the Haiti-bound weapons that were recently seized in South Florida: military-grade .50 caliber assault rifles that use bullets “the size of a Tabasco bottle,” according to a senior Haitian police official with knowledge of the seizure.

Still, stopping the flow is nearly impossible, say experts, who cite Haiti’s deeply rooted drug trade, smuggling networks, systemic corruption and lucrative black-market firearms profits — along with the United States’ lax gun laws.

“The United States is the biggest gun store in the Western Hemisphere — by volume, by manufacturing, by culture,” said Carlos A. Canino, a former Special Agent in Charge of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives field offices in Miami and Los Angeles.

Smuggling operations out of South Florida and seizures at regional ports have spiked — along with the caliber of weapons.

“It’s disturbing the amount [of firearms] and increase in firepower we are seeing being sent down there,” said Anthony Salisbury, Special Agent in Charge of Homeland Security Investigations office in Miami.

While HSI has seized weapons going to Haiti before and investigated a number of cases involving the Caribbean region and certain countries in Latin America, Salisbury said federal agents are “seeing an uptick.” They highlighted that trend at an HSI news conference Wednesday, displaying tables of seized military-grade sniper rifles, belt-fed machine guns and semi-automatic pistols that had been destined for Haiti.

“There’s definitely an increase in the flow of weapons in both numbers and the types of firepower going to Haiti,” Salisbury told the Miami Herald, adding that “there is an increase in activity and seizures.”

Half of all weapons-exports investigations in Caribbean

The Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security, which collaborates with other federal agencies including HSI, says that since 2020 about half of all firearms-export investigations have been concentrated in the Caribbean region — a top smuggling destination fueled by the demand of drug traffickers and huge black-market markups on U.S.-made guns. The other 50% are scattered throughout other parts of the world.

The most popular firearms for illegal exports from the U.S. are pistols: the Taurus Model G2C, the Micro Draco 5.5, which can fire rifle rounds, and 9mm Glocks. Body armor and ammunition are also popular black-market exports.

Commerce-BIS and the State Department, along with other federal agencies, are responsible for enforcing two main laws: International Traffic in Arms Regulations and the Export Administration Regulations. Commerce-BIS regulates “commercial grade” firearms up to .50-caliber that are semi-automatic and other types such as lever action, bolt action or revolvers; Commerce also controls higher-caliber rifles that are for big-game hunting, but they are not typical of the smuggling trade. The State Department regulates “military grade” firearms that are fully automatic.

Among Commerce’s biggest cases: in May, one of Haiti’s most notorious gang leaders, Germine Joly, 29, was transferred from a Haitian prison to the U.S. on an international arrest warrant in connection to firearms trafficking charges against him and three other Haitian Americans from South Florida. They’re accused of illegally exporting dozens of rifles, shotguns and pistols for the 400 Mawozo gang. Joly, who is better known as “Yonyon,” was also charged with conspiracy to commit hostage taking for his role in the armed kidnapping of 16 U.S. citizens in Haiti last year. The victims, including five children and a Canadian national, were Christian missionaries and were held captive by the 400 Mawozo gang.

Despite this high-profile case, the rampant sale of firearms in Florida and other states makes enforcing federal export laws difficult, according to experts and former law enforcement officials.

In Florida, buyers of weapons at federally licensed firearms stores must go through a criminal background check and fill out a form saying they are the actual purchasers. (Background checks and other paperwork are not required at private gun shows.) But “straw” buyers with no criminal history can easily pass a background check and declare that they are the actual purchasers. While making multiple purchases, they claim on a federal form that they are buying the weapons for themselves when in fact they are amassing them for shipment or sale to someone else in the U.S. or abroad.

However, there’s a loophole in Florida law for anyone buying ammunition. Although the law prohibits anyone who can’t buy or possess a firearm from purchasing ammunition, licensed vendors aren’t required to run background checks on buyers of bullets to make sure they’re allowed to do so. In addition, the buyers don’t have to fill out a federal form declaring they’re purchasing the ammunition, so there’s no way to trace the transaction.

A black market for weapons

There are several ways in which traffickers hide and ship firearms and ammunition. Federal agents have seen instances in which traffickers have tried to hide both “in massive amounts of goods,” like consignment shipments of used clothing and donations of toys.

The weapons, which are sold for hundreds of dollars each in the U.S. market, are then resold for thousands of dollars each in the Caribbean.

“There are huge markups on the black market,” a Commerce-BIS enforcement official said.

For example, because of their name-brand popularity, 9mm Glock pistols can sell for $400 to $500 each at a federally licensed firearms store or private gun show in South Florida, but can be resold for $2,000 to $5,000 in St. Thomas, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and then fetch as much as $10,000 in Jamaica, Trinidad or Haiti.

In Haiti, where police have seized hundreds of weapons in recent months, automatic rifles like AK47s, the Israeli-made Galil and military-grade rifles also fetch high prices. The latter is already in the hands of some gangs, according to an individual who has knowledge of gang armaments.

Almost 200 percent spike in kidnappings

Gangs have been part of the Haitian landscape for more than 20 years. But a year after the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse, gang violence has soared and the interim government led by Ariel Henry, a neurosurgeon, seems unable to stem the tide or the country’s free fall.

Between January and July 1 of this year, there have been 1,207 homicides and 787 kidnappings, according to statistics provided to the United Nations by the Haiti National Police and other sources. The kidnappings represent an increase of 193.7%, while killings represent an increase of about 27.5% compared to the similar period last year.

The escalation, blamed mainly on violent gangs, has made tackling the illegal flow of weapons to the country “an urgent problem,” according to several Haiti experts.

Haiti observers and federal authorities say stopping the escalating cycle of violence in the Caribbean nation is only possible if the U.S. government steps up efforts to block the exports of illegal weapons through U.S. ports.

“If you can really squeeze this flow, it would make a huge impact on so many different issues in Haiti, on so many problems,” said William O’Neill, a security expert and international human rights lawyer who was involved in helping rebuild the country’s fledgling police force when he worked for the U.N.

READ MORE: They lack guns, bullets and body armor. How are Haiti’s cops confronting gangs?

Earlier this year, Homeland Security opened a permanent office at the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince. Salisbury, who heads HSI’s office in Miami, said as a result of the expanded presence, there’s going to be “an increased effort to stop the flow of weapons to Haiti,” which could lead to more arrests and prosecutions in South Florida.

Despite their limitations, Haitian police have stepped up efforts to go after armed gangs using lethal force — and to crack down on the illegal trafficking of arms and ammunition.

Police have seized 250 guns as of July, with the overwhelming numbers being pistols. Last year, they seized a total of 401 firearms.

The bulk of the illegal weapons, while not always destined for gangs, do eventually find their way into their hands. Once estimated at less than 100 just a few years ago, gangs now number up to 200, with over “3,000” soldiers, according to some international observers.

They are not only carrying out attacks in mostly poor, working-class neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince, but they also sow other kinds of chaos in crisis-wracked Haiti.

In June, armed members of a gang known as “5 Seconds,” employing drones and heavy artillery, took over the Palace of Justice in downtown Port-au-Prince, where the country’s main courthouse is located, and destroyed evidence and files on multiple massacres committed since 2018. A month later, suspected members of the 400 Mawozo gang set fire to a courthouse in the Croix-des-Bouquets region east of the capital.

The head of the National Human Rights Defense Network said gangs are responsible for at least 17 documented massacres and armed attacks over the past five years, including two this year.

The vicious cycle of gangs, trafficking, kidnapping

Previously, a few dozen armed groups were used by politicians to help get them into office or to keep them there. Now, the number of gangs has escalated as the political and economic elite turn to them to do their bidding while young people seek them out for jobs.

It’s all part of a vicious cycle, said Jean, the human rights lawyer in Port-au-Prince..

To afford firearms and ammunition, gangs need cash, he said. To acquire the cash, they kidnap, demanding tens of thousands of dollars in ransom payments that are later used to purchase guns and bullets from highly connected individuals with the ability to pay off customs officials, police officers and sometimes government authorities.

Jean, however, cautions that those behind the emerging criminal enterprise are not the gangs per se.

“They are being used,” he said, accusing Haiti’s traffickers, politicians and elite of provoking the deadly clashes so they can reap the financial benefits. “For the guns to sell, for the bullets to sell, they always have to create conflict, to make the gangs fight so that they would unload their bullets.”

Jean said two recent seizures at the ports in Port-de-Paix and in Port-au-Prince have shown that the individuals involved in the illegal gun trafficking in Haiti “are people in sectors that you would have never thought of.”

In July, the Port-de-Paix smuggling case implicating “Miss Lilie” led to the arrests of an acting state prosecutor, Michelet Virgile, and the secretary general of the Federation of Bars of Haiti, Robinson Pierre-Louis. Haiti National Police accused them of using their authority to get two weapons-smuggling suspects, the Lilie boat captain and an associate, released from jail.

Pierre-Louis, who was an adviser in the justice ministry, is accused of calling Virgile, and demanding that the prosecutor release the boat’s owner, Jonas Georges, who is from Miami, and the associate, Fritz Jean Relus, accused of transporting some of the ammunition and firearms to the home of an accused trafficker. They were released without the Haiti National Police’s approval, but their whereabouts are unknown.

Less than two weeks later in July, scandal struck again. This time, it involved shipping containers that came in the name of the Episcopal Church from Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale into Port-au-Prince.

The arrival of the containers coincided with ongoing gang warfare in Cité Soleil. As police approached the port, about a mile away from the fighting, the “5 Seconds” gang traveling in a boat fired on the cops to stop the search of the illicit shipment.

Eventually, police officers made it inside the port. The containers, marked as “Donated goods,” held 22 firearms, including 19 assault rifles, 140 magazine cartridges of different calibers, nearly 15,000 rounds of ammunition and $50,000 in counterfeit dollar bills. The Episcopal Church, which has had 105 containers arrive in its name between October of last year and June, according to shipping records, has denied any wrongdoing in both a statement put out by a spokesman and its lawyer.

“The criminals are operating with impunity and with money to spend for arms,” said Canino, who retired from ATF in 2020 after 30 years. “Sit down and do the math. How many freighters are coming in? How many freighters are going out? Whether you’re talking about the Miami River, Port of Miami or Port Everglades, that’s a lot of freighters and they’re not going to be easy to stop.”

Canino said straw buyers with clean records can pass the scrutiny of criminal background checks on multiple gun purchases at federally licensed firearms stores and then resell the weapons on the black market to criminals here or overseas. Moreover, thanks to the internet, buyers can go to any private gun show in Florida and buy weapons without going through a criminal background check.

“Now you buy high-capacity semi-automatic weapons, you can buy military grade rifles — something that will take down an airplane, a helicopter and armored personnel carrier. Add the internet to it,” Canino said. “In the old days, you had to buy it from a federally licensed firearms store, but with the use of technology, you have more access to more people. You can hit all the gun shows in Florida.”

Canino also said that no matter how many federal resources and agencies are thrown at the problem, the stream of weapons will continue to flow, despite higher numbers of seizures in South Florida.

“Even if this is a priority, no matter what you do you can’t stop it all,” Canino said. “It’s impossible.”