Due to an increase in gun trafficking in the last years, the U.S. Attorney´s Office for Puerto Rico set up an investigation team to fight illegal gun trafficking to Puerto Rico
The creation of a Weapons Unit also seeks to address daunting challenges regarding this illegal trafficking, such as cases of home-assembled weapons for illegal sale.
In an interview with El Nuevo Día, U.S. Attorney for Puerto Rico Rosa Emilia Rodríguez-Vélez said she assigned five prosecutors to investigate and process schemes devised by individuals and organizations to traffic illegal weapons to Puerto Rico.
Before this team was set up, investigations related to drug trafficking were in the hands of the Criminal Division that is also in charge of prosecuting other criminal cases in Puerto Rico.
Rodríguez anticipated that the initiative will join other strategies, in partnership with other agencies, to fine tune efforts to deal with the characteristics and dynamics of illegal weapons trafficking.
“Gun trafficking is a serious threat,” said Rodríguez and added that they are “going to fight those who send these guns and those who receive them in the underground market in Puerto Rico.”
Like other federal officials and former officials, Rodríguez and prosecutor Víctor Acevedo, who is in charge of the new unit, highlighted that complexities of guns trafficking are different from those in drug trafficking.
The first obstacle they see is that, currently, there is no way to estimate the amount of weapons illegally brought to Puerto Rico. However, they consider the amount is significant.
“I would say it is just as active as drug trafficking since it´s an instrument of the narco,” said Pedro Janer who worked for the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) for more than 20 years.
He said that, according to reports on drug trafficking, Colombian cocaine annually smuggled into the United States reaches 700,000 kilograms and added that out of the 140,000 kilograms shipped through the Caribbean corridor, 20 percent remains in Puerto Rico and the 80 percent continues to the U.S.
Regarding guns trafficking authorities seek to collect more information that will allow them to identify and estimate the flow of illicit guns toward the island.
Ari C. Shapira, Special Agent in Charge of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) Miami Field Division, which includes Puerto Rico, said that there are between 3,000 and 5,000 illegal guns in Puerto Rico.
For federal authorities, it is really clear that illegal guns are used for violent crimes like the murder in Isla Verde, on Epiphany Day, that was captured on video.
“We have seen that 95 percent of murders in Puerto Rico involved illegal guns,” stressed Jenifer Hernández director of the Violent Crimes Unit of the U.S. Attorney´s Office for Puerto Rico.
A debate held during the hearing of one of the many illegal weapons cases on the island –which gave way to the creation of the Weapons Unit- may serve as a sample of the scope of guns trafficking.
While looking toward the street, sitting at his bench, federal judge Jay García Gregory said: “Puerto Rico is suffering terrible violence that is related to gun trafficking.”
Erick Cotto was in front of him. Cotto pleaded guilty for participating –along with other two defendants- in a scheme to sell illegal weapons they brought from Florida in 2017. His defense attorney was trying to convince the judge to reduce the sentence.
However, the judge decided to sentence Cotto to 37 months in prison for being part of the illegal sale of 28 weapons.
An AK-63D, ST15, PAP M85, AKMS and AM-15 were among the guns Cotto sold.
The judge told Cotto that he had committed a serious offense by selling illegal weapons, whose use cannot be determined and expressed his fear for the possibility that guns ended up killing people.
Most illegal weapons in Puerto Rico come from Florida, according to the information of the guns seized by the island´s authorities. ATF data show that illegal guns also come from Texas and Georgia.
Based on the trace of seized guns, Shapira said that between 80 and 90 percent of the guns that come from Florida are from Orlando.
For Acevedo, there are no big cartels involved but “small groups” that buy them in Florida since they hold gun shows there and because guns can be purchased in secondary markets with few requirements.
According to intelligence on this issue, these groups use straw buyers, that is people who make a purchase on behalf of another person, using just an ID like a driving license.
Contrary to Puerto Rico, Florida does not require a license to buy a gun nor does the state require registration of guns.
“This is a typical operation, a leader can send up to five people to purchase several guns and then take them to him, and he pays them for that,” explained Shapira.
The delivery of guns
Gun smugglers use to conceal guns in boxes with other objects, such as computers, and send them through the U.S. Postal Service or private carriers, said Shapira.
Acevedo stressed that the vast majority of illegal guns in Puerto Rico arrive by mail and disassembled in the form of kits since this way it´s easier to hide them.
Some parts of a gun are plastic what makes it difficult to detect them.
Shapira said that these guns come in luggage on commercial flights since airlines allow them as long as they are well packaged.
Shapira added that some airlines allow to carry up to five weapons.
Since gun laws are stricter in Puerto Rico, once passengers have landed, they have to report that they are bringing guns to the Police, but it does not always happen.
Meanwhile, laws do not provide for airlines to report this to the authorities.
Rodríguez said they have been trying to address this issue for years and added that she had unsuccessfully brought the matter to several administrations.
“It is a problem for airlines since it´s an awkward situation with passengers. At least, we don´t see that most of the weapons come in suitcases.”
Janet added that have used maritime transport to bring guns from other countries in containers.
“Today, AK-47 rifles are no longer Russian, they are Chinese,” he said and explained that it is “humanly impossible to check each container, we would have containers delayed for months…I estimate that 3 out of 10 containers are checked.”
Once on the island
Although guns are not produced in Puerto Rico, some criminal operations could be considered as assembling activities.
“They are called narco gunsmith,” said Acevedo and noted that they assemble guns for sale.
Last October, a 19-year old man was indicted on guns assembling charges in San Juan.
According to the statement of an ATF agent who was in charge of the investigation, the man bought gun parts on the Internet and he assembled them for sale once they were delivered to his house. He also prepared burst triggers for them what is a federal offense.
Agents found enough evidence during the search on his workshop and he confessed to having sold assembled guns to people in public residences, in addition to paying off debts and exchanged them for drugs.
Those who receive guns usually store them to later sell them to buyers who have ordered them.
“Last year, a girl from Cleveland arrived in Puerto Rico with five guns, she had to contact someone in a hotel in Isla Verde, where we arrested her,” recalled Shapira.
They may also keep the weapons and then rent them to criminals for a short period of time.
Acevedo noted they don´t have information regarding exports from Puerto Rico but that they do sell illegal guns from the United States to other countries and to the Caribbean through the México border.
This February 1, the owner of an Orlando gun store was found guilty of trafficking 166 semi-automatic guns and 30,000 rounds of ammunition to Haiti.
The bullets dilemma
Another problem that authorities are facing is how to fight access to ammunition, because criminals need bullets for the guns.
When asked if there were ammunitition trafficking, Rodríguez answered “Yes.”
For Timothy Henwood, first assistant U.S. attorney for Puerto Rico, some people register guns on their names and then they don´t report changes so they still have the right to buy as much ammunition as they want for those guns they registered.
“You may see people buying a hundred rounds of ammunition and saying they will use them at the firing range, while the truth is that they sell them to criminal organizations,” Henwood said and noted: “They buy them legally but they sell them to criminals.”
A profitable business?
Authorities still don´t have estimates on the numbers that illegal gun trafficking may generate, contrary to drug trafficking where they do have the estimates that criminal organizations make.
However, due to the cases they have worked with, they know that the price has increased in the black market.
“A gun that costs $500 in Florida is sold in Puerto Rico for more than $1,000,” said Acevedo.
In the case of the 19-year old man, the AFT proved that the defendant made about $33,000 in less than a year.
And Cotto confessed he made transactions between $2,000 and $ 9,000 for each illegal rifle.
For Janer, with an experience of more than two decades at the DEA, drug dealers don´t hesitate to invest their profits in renewing their guns as a means of economic survival.
Janer stressed that drug trafficking and gun trafficking are related since drug dealers use guns to protect their empire.
“The more guns a gang has, the more they can protect their empire, as they become more powerful than other gangs and than the Police,” he said.
For Janer, “We have narco-guerrillas here because they are well-organized groups. They do intelligence collection, they invest a lot of money on sources, they monitor headquarters, they have information on shifts and on police officers and when they patrol the streets.
Janer said that sometimes officers on the island don´t know about the scope of these criminal moves.
“Maybe, a police officer who patrols the streets has not been trained to identify what is going on beyond his circuit and might not now that they are following or watching him,” he added. “This way, drug dealers know how long the Police may take to respond to a shooting and then we have these recent cases with shootings in broad daylight,” he said.
Given this situation, the U.S Attorney´s Office for Puerto Rico has implemented collaborative work with agencies such as the USPS Office of Inspector General that also investigates criminal activities.
They are already developing the “Firearms by mail” initiative.
“There will be more resources allocated to detect where guns come from and more resources in Orlando, for example, and more resources to detect who picks up the package in arrival,” said Acevedo.
The other initiative includes a broader collaboration between the U.S. Attorney´s office for the island, the ATF Miami Field Division –that includes Puerto Rico- and other offices of that agency in districts where gun trafficking to the island has been identified.
Particularly, they have started communications with the ATF Tampa division, which includes Orlando.
“We have improved communication,” said Shapira. “We were not in Orlando and they don´t have agents in Puerto Rico and we have three groups that made 50 arrests last year, in addition to other procedures,” he noted.
Meanwhile, Rodríguez said that they will continue searching for ways to stop the traffic of weapons from Florida, since she has no power to impose legal restrictions on gun purchase in that state. “Florida has become an Achilles heel a long time ago. When I started here we were trying to work on that problem and we see the results now,” she said.
Authorities also hope that to further consolidate the National Integrated Ballistics Information Network (NIBIN) would help on investigations in Puerto Rico.
The NIBIN uses intelligence information from ballistic imaging technology to solve crimes in the United States.
“Last year, we traced more than 3,000 guns, between October and today and we stablished relations between scenes, shoots and bullet casing in 35 cases…That is more that what was done in previous years when they sent casings to the U.S. and now, that can be done in Puerto Rico,” said Shapira.
With these and other initiatives on agenda, Rodríguez said she expects to speed up investigations and actions to reduce armed criminals on the island.
“We are only interested in the number of guns we remove from the streets. The initiative (to process gun related crimes in the federal sphere) has reduced the murder rate since 2011 when it reached more than 1,000 cases,” she said. “Now we have a new complement to other initiatives that we hope will have a significant impact,” she concluded.