In March, a Mexican drug cartel kidnapped four Americans and tragically killed two of the hostages just miles over the border from Brownsville, Texas. One firearm used in the murders had followed the same route as its victims, crossing the border into Mexico.
It’s not an unusual path for firearms to travel. In fact, the strip of land that runs from San Diego to Corpus Christi is known colloquially as “the iron river” for the sheer frequency with which American-made weapons are smuggled across. As much as 90 percent of guns recovered on Mexican soil originate in the United States, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).
But the United States has a second conduit for illegal firearms trafficking that receives a fraction of the attention even as it fuels violence every bit as destabilizing: the Miami River and Florida’s maritime ports. Nestled along the banks of the river are nearly a dozen freight lots which send ships carrying “break bulk” cargo—assorted non-containerized goods—to ports in the Bahamas, Haiti, Trinidad and Tobago, and other Caribbean island nations.
Food and household goods shipped as break bulk provide a lifeline to families living on the margins. But in the absence of X-ray scans and security personnel installed at bigger commercial ports like Miami Seaport, there are few tools to detect AR-15s, AK-47s, and handguns all routinely smuggled inside cars, microwaves, and other seemingly innocuous cargo. Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) staff tasked with investigating arms trafficking have to rely on occasional unannounced searches. From better-monitored seaports, leisure craft like yachts set sail with little to no screening—sometimes loaded down with guns.
It’s no coincidence that three Caribbean island nations—Jamaica, St. Lucia, and Turks and Caicos—last year racked up the highest murder rates in Latin America and the Caribbean, the most violent region in the world. If reliable data existed for Haiti, it would likely top the list. These small countries, which have no munitions or arms factories of their own, are awash in American-made guns and bullets—and the problem is getting worse, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, with an increasing number of high-powered weapons entering the mix.
The tide of violence using American-made weapons is causing tensions with U.S. partners in the region, who together account for a dozen votes in the Organization of American States and the United Nations. Not only that; Haiti’s American gun-fueled violence, which has reached levels approximating a civil war, is driving a regional refugee crisis reaching American shores. The booming illegal arms trade, in which handguns purchased in the United States are sold for up to twentyfold markups abroad, also enriches U.S. organized crime groups that traffic deadly drugs and put communities in South Florida and beyond at risk.
For both humanitarian and geopolitical reasons, illegal arms trafficking in Florida demands a serious response—fast.
Stopping the Flow
The good news is that there is bipartisan momentum behind anti-gun-smuggling efforts. The bad news is that it is has not gone nearly far enough. In January, the United States and the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), an intergovernmental organization, launched a new intelligence unit to jointly investigate gun crimes in the region. In March, Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Tim Kaine (D-VA) introduced legislation that would bulk up security assistance to the region’s overwhelmed security forces.
These worthy initiatives raise the question: why spend money chasing down illegally trafficked guns abroad rather than stopping them on home turf? From 2015 to 2019, the U.S. State Department spent $38 million equipping Central American states to investigate crimes including those involving trafficked firearms. Meanwhile, ATF—the federal agency responsible for proactive intelligence-gathering on gun trafficking activity—employed just 770 investigative staff to inspect 53,000 retail gun dealers and 13,000 firearms manufacturers in 2019.
If transnational arms trafficking looks anything like illegal gun sales within the United States, beefing up ATF’s inspections team would pay dividends. According to the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, 5 percent of dealers supply 90 percent of domestic crime guns. Often, these “bad apples” are in repeated violation of federal firearms licensee standards on background checks, sales records, and up-to-date inventories.
Recordings that show the same buyers purchasing dozens of weapons week after week can tip federal investigators off to the possibility of arms trafficking. But in 2019, 83 percent of firearms dealers received no inspection at all. And ATF—which gathers data on suspicious multiple sale transactions—has no institutionalized mechanism for sharing this data with HSI.
Reducing illegal firearms flows to the Caribbean will require, first, increased investigative capacity. For the time being, the investigative staff of ATF and Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), tasked with pursuing transnational organized crime, is stretched thin. Neither agency’s spending decisions reflect sufficient emphasis on proactive intelligence gathering and disruption of illegal arms trafficking networks: for fiscal year 2023, DHS earmarked nearly twice the funding for enforcement and removal operations as it did for investigations. Within the investigations budget, “intelligence” funds for teams like the one that patrols the Miami River accounts for just 5 percent. ATF spends just a third of its law enforcement budget on proactive disruption and discovery of illegal arms trafficking, destining the majority of its resources to investigate “criminal use and possession” and “combatting criminal organizations”—missions that duplicate, to some extent, the work of local police.
Greater investigative capacity is only one part of the fix. The other is ensuring investigators can access sufficient evidence and that prosecutors take gun trafficking cases. The Safer Communities Act, passed in July 2022 with bipartisan support, gives prosecutors the authority to prosecute interstate firearms trafficking as a stand-alone crime and increases penalties for straw purchasers, or individuals who purchase guns legally on behalf of illegal smuggling rings.
But that doesn’t make investigating or prosecuting transnational firearms trafficking simple. Tighter regulation of freight forwarders—companies that pick up cargo from private addresses and unload them as break bulk—and rules mandating increased transparency would give HSI investigators paper trails to help them dismantle smuggling rings.
Prosecutors may be disincentivized to take on gun smuggling crimes until they come with the same tough sentencing guidelines characteristic of many drug crimes. The U.S. Sentencing Commission, required by the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act to stiffen sentences for straw purchasers, should amend federal sentencing guidelines to increase sentences’ starting range across the board. Then, additional U.S. attorneys might follow the path of the Eastern District of New York, which landed the first firearms trafficking convictions under the new law in early 2023.
Violent criminal organizations destabilizing the Caribbean and making inroads in American communities will not be defeated by a crackdown on arms trafficking, alone. But without damming the United States’ other iron river at the source, they will most likely continue to grow unchecked.