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Fishing for guns - Old Harbour Bay boatmen rake in profits with drugs-for-arms trafficking to Haiti

Published:Tuesday | February 11, 2020 | 12:12 AM
Assault rifles like this AK-47 are among the weapons trafficked by Old Harbour Bay fishermen.

Smugglers continue to use Old Harbour Bay as a key trans-shipment node in the drugs-for-guns trade with Haiti, reaping huge profits for weapons of war and defying attempts by the security forces to plug one of scores of illegal ports.

Three knowledgeable sources who have been involved in the trade of contraband revealed during a Gleaner investigation that gun smugglers travel in boats equipped with powerful engines and laden with up to 3,000 pounds of ganja – and sometimes kilos of cocaine –bartering the drugs for auto-matic rifles and handguns with their Haitian counterparts.

Fisherfolk doubling as middlemen have built a seedy network of clients ranging from deep-pocketed businessmen to gang members from Kingston, St Catherine, and St James, who are the sponsors of the expeditions.

“A lot of big people and gang leaders are involved in the trade. They come to us because we have the Haitian connect and we know how to manage the waters,” stated one source, who asked not to be identified for fear of prosecution by the police and execution by cronies.

“Most of us do deep-sea fishing for a living, so we know the channel to take to avoid the Jamaican and American Coast Guards,” he continued.


Having conducted 12 successful expeditions, by his own admission, which have brought in more than 100 guns, the source gave details as to how the operation is undertaken from beginning to end.

“Them contact us (reference to the businessman or gang members) and tell us what they want to do, and we make the arrangements for them to bring the drugs to us for us to store till we are ready to take off,” he said.

“Normally, we charge 50 per cent, which we take in drugs, so we can get we own guns when we reach Haiti and take them back and sell to make our money,” he said, revealing that assault rifles like AK-47s can fetch upwards of $400,000, with 9mm Glock pistols or .45-calibre handguns commanding $250,000-$300,00.

According to the source, the sponsors are responsible for purchasing the fuel and sometimes supply a faster engine for the boat, which must be ready to get away to give them time to dump the cargo if they encounter the Coast Guard.

Boats carry at least 100 gallons of fuel in a secure container for a round trip that takes up to a day and a half, subject to variables such as weather or change of route to avoid interception by the Coast Guard.

“So we collect all the merchandise (drugs), and we watch the weather and the police them to make sure it’s clear to load the boat. When everything is done, we take off in the middle of the night and sometimes before daybreak.”

“When we reach Haiti, we anchor and stay pon the boat till the connection come to us. Thirty pounds of weed usually swaps for one rifle and 10 pounds for a handgun. A kilo of coke normally swap for three rifles,” he said.

The return trip, the source told The Gleaner, is fraught with the greatest danger – from the possibility of Haitians double-crossing them before leaving their territorial waters, to piracy on the high seas, to the fear of encountering US and Jamaican Coast Guard vessels.

“Whole heap of money involved, but mi done with this kind of life, so mi can talk about it. Mi si too much of my brethren dem a dead from the same guns. Also, the police dem a get high-tech now,” he said, referring to the ramping up of national security investment in maritime surveillance.

A number of residents with whom The Gleaner spoke also revealed that they were aware of an active trafficking network involving youth from Old Harbour Bay and Haiti, a problem with which the police are grappling. The residents said that the community was gripped by fear because the guns were being used to carry out robberies and murders in the greater Old Harbour area.

The Old Harbour police came under fire last Tuesday when St Catherine South West Member of Parliament Everald Warmington lambasted them for using the cover of a state of emergency to shut down wakes and entertainment events instead of collaring hardened ‘badmen’.

Citing police data, Warmington said that murders in Old Harbour and its environs had risen from 25 in 2018 to 35 last year while shootings also climbed from 26 to 33. Robberies also increased marginally.

When contacted by The Gleaner, Senior Superintendent Clive Blair, commander of the St Catherine South Police Division, acknowledged that law enforcers were aware of arms trafficking in Old Harbour Bay but offered no details on mitigation strategies.

“We are aware of the drugs-for-guns trade, and we are actively dealing with it. That’s all I can say at this time. We cannot divulge to the public our strategies,” Blair said.

However, National Security Minister Dr Horace Chang, in a recent interview with The Gleaner, said that the drugs-for-guns trade did not only affect Old Harbour Bay, but different spots along the entire south coast of Jamaica.

“These transnational crimes fall within the purview of the Coast Guard, who patrol the high seas, and the maritime fleet on the shoreline, and they have been reaping considerable success in interdicting drug boats,” said Chang, without providing data on gunrunning interceptions.

“We have spent millions modernising our maritime fleet, giving them vehicles, maritime patrol aircraft, and a better communication network. Part of their success was the seizure of some 4,000lb of cocaine in the Old Harbour Bay area last year,” the minister said.

According to the national security minister, the Coast Guard has been successful in stemming the flow of guns to the island from Haiti and other Central American countries by interdicting the drug boats.

“When the Coast Guard interdicts a drug boat, they are also interdicting guns, but you never get the guns because the smugglers dump them overboard,” Chang added.

Chang divulged last year that about 2,400 guns enter Jamaica’s shores illegally via 145 uncontrolled ports of entry every year. But of concern to the security forces is that annual gun seizures represent about a third of that number, which translates to a net deficit of around 1,600 arms.

Despite the imposition of states of emergency in almost half of Jamaica’s police divisions, gun seizures have fallen. The catch of illegal guns over the period January 1 to February 6 is at a four-year low. In 2020, there have been 61 such seizures, compared to 76 in 2019, 103 in 2018, and 107 in 2017.

The narrative is similar for the annual seizure of illegal guns over the past three years for the period January 1 to December 28. Gun finds have declined from 857 in 2017, to 718 in 2018, and a three-year low of 660 last year.

Ammunition seizures, however, climbed from 11,216 in 2018 to 14,264 in 2019. The latter figure, however, represents a more than 30 per cent decline from 21,756 rounds of ammo in 2017.