Ships from Miami steam into Jamaica’s main harbor loaded with TV sets and blue jeans. But some of the most popular U.S. imports never appear on the manifests: handguns, rifles and bullets that stoke one of the world’s highest murder rates.
The numbers are much lower than that of U.S. guns that end up in the hands of Mexican drug cartels — Jamaican authorities recover fewer than 1,000 firearms a year. But of those whose origin can be traced, 80 percent come from the United States, Jamaican law enforcement officials said.
And as the Obama administration cracks down on smuggling into Mexico, Jamaicans fear even more firearms will reach the gangs whose turf wars intimidate the island of 2.8 million people.
“It’s going to push a lot of that trade back toward the Caribbean like it was back in the ‘80s,” said Vance Callender, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) attache at the U.S. Embassy in Kingston.
U.S. authorities are beginning to target the Jamaican gun-smuggling network as part of a broad effort to boost security in the Caribbean. But they have a long way to go.
Jamaican authorities have confiscated only 100 guns coming into ports in the past five years, along with 6,000 rounds of ammunition. That is just a fraction of the 700 or so weapons confiscated on the streets each year.
Authorities know they are only seeing “the tip of the iceberg,” said Mark Shields, Jamaica’s deputy police commissioner.
With arsenals to rival police firepower, the gangs are blamed for 90 percent of the homicides in Jamaica - 1,611 last year, about 10 times the U.S. rate, relative to population.
Unlike in Mexico, the vast majority of Jamaican guns seized are submitted for tracing. Jamaica and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) find most of the seized weapons come from three Florida counties - Orange, Dade and Broward - all with large Jamaican populations, according to Mr. Shields.
X-ray scanners were installed two years ago at Jamaican ports, but the gangs use bribery and intimidation to get their shipments past inspectors.
In April, a newly hired customs supervisor had his tires slashed and days later was shot at on his way home from work, authorities say. The man was known for his strict scrutiny of cargo coming into a gang-infiltrated warehouse on the Kingston wharf.
When the gangs apply pressure, “no one says no,” said Danville Walker, Jamaica’s commissioner of customs.
“It’s a massive problem,” said Leslie Green, a Jamaican assistant police commissioner. “There aren’t any checks or any controls on goods leaving the United States. Yet anything leaving here, we have to make sure it’s double-checked and tripled-checked for drugs.”
This complaint — that Americans care only what comes in, not what goes out — echoes that of Mexican authorities, who say cars going from the U.S. into Mexico are not searched for weapons or cash.
Now hundreds of agents are participating in a $95 million outbound inspection program, stopping suspicious-looking cars and trucks as they cross the border into Mexico. Authorities do not know how many firearms get through, but more than 12,000 guns used in crimes in Mexico last year were sent to U.S. authorities for tracing, a number that grows as more agencies in Mexico are trained to submit weapons for traces.
The United States and Jamaica both prohibit the unlicensed transport of guns. But like Mexican smugglers, Jamaican ones depend on lax U.S. gun laws, corrupt customs inspectors and frontmen acting as buyers.
Florida gun laws make it relatively easy to legally buy a firearm, and much of the smuggling is done by family and friends, said Mr. Shields.
The guns are concealed in container loads of blue plastic and cardboard barrels, the kind Jamaicans use to send household goods to their families on the island.
Some shipping companies advertise a no-questions-asked policy in soliciting customers, said Mr. Walker. He declined to single out companies.
In one of the few Jamaican gun-smuggling cases prosecuted in the United States, Tawanna Banton, 36, of Florida, was convicted of buying a Glock handgun later used in the gang killings of four island police officers. She said her Jamaican boyfriend arranged the purchase and she was paid $15,000 to buy the handgun and a .50 caliber “Grizzly” rifle with a tripod mount, according to court documents.
She told ATF agents the guns were then hidden inside kitchen appliances and driven to Miami for shipment to Kingston. Ms. Banton pleaded guilty to making false statements to the gun dealer in 2006 and served a month in prison.
Besides coming in on freighters, authorities say, guns are stolen or purchased from crooked police or in “guns-for-ganja” deals by fishermen, who bring homegrown marijuana to nearby Haiti and return with pistols, revolvers and submachine guns - many of them thought to be from the United States as well.
Mr. Callender’s ICE unit began investigations in Jamaica last year with a focus on guns. He said agents in Miami and New York have been working to “interject themselves” into the shipping networks. Indictments are imminent in two or three cases involving suspected Jamaican traffickers inside the United States, he said, without elaborating.
Then there is the $45 million Caribbean Basin Security Initiative on regional security, announced by President Obama in April, which is designed to help the islands counter any spillover of violence from Mexico.
Meanwhile, at the ports, Jamaican customs officials are training more spotters to patrol the warehouses, including five in Kingston who process an average of 10 shipping containers daily.
But inspectors feel the odds are still stacked against them.
“The guys we’re up against, they have time, they have money and they are very resourceful,” said Andrew Lamb, a supervisor with Jamaica customs’ Contraband Enforcement Team. “They’re pretty good at what they do.”