The US Gun Route to Death


US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken (right) in Trinidad with CARICOM Chair and Dominica PM, Roosevelt Skerritt, and CARICOM Secretary General, Dr Carla Barnett. He has committed US assistance in fighting inflows of illegal guns into the region. Photo: Andrea De Silva

Kingston, Jamaica – On March 1, 2017, a Glock 19 pistol was sold to a Haitian man in the American State of Pennsylvania.

Thirty-six days later, and over 2,500 kilometres away, a bullet from that same Glock pistol ended the life of Wyatt Maxwell in the western Jamaican resort city of St James, local police confirmed, citing ballistics testing.

“A time to crime of 36 days,” said one Jamaican law enforcement operative, referring to the period between the murder and the purchase of the gun.

The weapon was seized by the St James Police in a parking lot on June 11, 2017. No one has been charged for Maxwell’s murder, but a man is awaiting trial for illegally possessing the weapon.

On August 17, 2021, another Glock 19 pistol was purchased by an American woman in her home state of Florida.

Nearly four months later, on December 12 it was used by unknown assailants to snuff out the life of Allan Ferguson, a 56-year-old chef, in his St James community of Flamstead Gardens, 

“A time to crime of 117 days,” said the law enforcement operative.

No charges have been filed in connection with Ferguson’s killing, but several men have been charged for illegal possession of the gun, which was seized in the St James community of Granville.

Guns with quick time to crime are not uncommon in Jamaica, local police officials acknowledged, as the Caribbean island — known globally for its culture and hospitality industry — struggles to stem the illegal importation of guns that have left a trail of death and despair for locals.

With help from their American counterparts, the Jamaican police are able to trace a majority of the guns seized locally, a high-ranking official disclosed.

“We have seen several incidents involving guns that were purchased in America and reach Jamaica within three to seven days…several guns,” the senior cop disclosed.

The official, however, declined to divulge details, citing on-going investigations.

The Government estimates that 200 guns are smuggled into Jamaica each month, or approximately 2,400 annually, by criminal gangs seeking to entrench their nefarious activities, Minister of National Security Dr Horace Chang publicly disclosed in 2019.

US gun seizure in 2017. Cargo bound for Jamaica

A current estimate is not available at this time, the ministry said recently.

Nearly all the guns and ammunition smuggled into Jamaica originate in the US, though they take different routes into the island mainly through the regulated ports of entry, according to senior government and police officials.

More than 46,000 people – a few thousand above the capacity of the National Stadium — have been murdered in Jamaica since the country gained political Independence in 1962, police statistics have revealed. 

A review of the statistics shows that nearly two-thirds of those killings – or 29,642 – occurred since the year 2,000.

Upwards of 80 per cent of the 46,000 murders involved the use of a gun, according to police data.

Herb Nelson, a Jamaican-born retired US law enforcement agent, believes Jamaica’s gun culture has its root in the political upheavals of the 1970s.

That period marked the escalation of tensions in the ideological battle between the country’s two main political parties, the left-leaning People’s National Party (PNP) and right wing Jamaica Labour Party (JLP).

According to Nelson, the US, through its Central Intelligence Agency, decided to help “get rid of” then Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley and “that’s when the pouring in of weapons began”.

“And then it became uncontrollable after that,” he said.

Paul Burke, a political firebrand at the time, told The Gleaner newspaper that “of course” there is truth to the assertion that amid the rising tensions, politicians aligned to both the PNP and the JLP distributed guns to their supporters for “protection and control”.

Burke, a former PNP general secretary, responded “yes, but I won’t discuss that” when asked if he was aware how the guns were delivered to supporters.

Like Nelson, he claimed that it is “widely documented” that the arming of political supporters began in the JLP enclave of West Kingston, but acknowledged that some within his party followed suit.

“To deny it would be to deny what many people know as fact that there were politicians, whatever their motives were, who came under pressure and may not have handed out a gun personally, but made sure that people had resources so that they could protect themselves,” The Sunday Gleaner quoted him as saying in June last year.

But when the ideological divide narrowed in the mid to late 1980, armed thugs no longer depended on politicians for survival, said respected academic Professor Anthony Clayton.

“Decades of corruption and politically-orchestrated violence established the problem, but it is now self-sustaining,” he reasoned.

Clayton, who is the Alcan Professor of Caribbean Sustainable Development at the University of the West Indies, is not convinced that Jamaica is winning the battle against firearms trafficking.

“There have been seizures, so we have had some successes,” he acknowledged. 

“But as long as there is strong demand for weapons and the criminal organisations involved in trafficking them remain largely intact, the weapons shipment will continue,” he warned.

A total of 4,798 illegal guns were seized across Jamaica between 2017 and the first half of this year, including 3,352 pistols and 342 rifles, according to the latest police data. This included multiple guns shipments that were intercepted at the ports in Kingston and St James.

One shipment that was intercepted at a warehouse in the capital Kingston on July 17, 2017 was found to contain seven rifles, eight pistols and approximately 3,011 assorted bullets.

A joint investigation by local and US law enforcement authorities resulted in the arrest of Jermaine Rhooms, a Jamaican residing in Florida.

The guns and ammunition were returned to the US where Rhooms pleaded guilty to firearm trafficking charges and was sentenced to four years and nine months in prison.

Chang, who is also Jamaica’s Deputy Prime Minister, conceded that firearm trafficking is “still a big problem” locally and across the Caribbean.

He noted that the Government has implemented a number of measures that are bearing fruits, but cautioned that “we are not yet there”.

Further, he said Jamaica is now putting measures in place that will allow for increased scanning of cargos coming into the island.

“And we are going to do a number of other things in terms of intelligence operations and monitoring of our ports. So we are strengthening the entire security operations and by the end of the year we should be at a point where we feel much more comfortable,” Chang said.

He acknowledged, too, that the challenged presented by the nearly 300 illegal points of entry across the island is compounded by concerns that the Caribbean Sea “is like a safe space for people involved in illicit activities”.

“People can come from anywhere. It’s an easy run from Haiti as well as South and Central America. We will always have a challenge with that.”

But he said the Government has fully equipped the Marine Air and Cyber-Command unit of the Jamaica military and expects to activate coastal radars by the end of the year.

“So, we expect to make a significant impact on the people smuggling goods,” the national security minister said.

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