GUN TRAFFICKINGStopping Illegal Gun Trafficking Through South Florida

By Will Freeman

Published 27 April 2023

American-made guns trafficked through Florida ports are destabilizing the Caribbean and Central America and fueling domestic crime. It’s time for the United States to get serious about stopping the flow.

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.