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‘Ghost’-busting operation turns light on shadowy gunsmiths

Published:Friday | January 28, 2022 | 12:12 AMAndre Williams/Staff Reporter
The risk of having an expensive firearm stolen by rogue gunmen discourages chemists from fulfilling some repair requests.
The risk of having an expensive firearm stolen by rogue gunmen discourages chemists from fulfilling some repair requests.

Law enforcers who have traditionally focused on hunting the triggermen behind Jamaica’s gangland violence are now targeting critical support cronies who repair and modify guns. The recent capture of an alleged armourer, dubbed ‘a ghost’, and...

Law enforcers who have traditionally focused on hunting the triggermen behind Jamaica’s gangland violence are now targeting critical support cronies who repair and modify guns.

The recent capture of an alleged armourer, dubbed ‘a ghost’, and seizure of nine illegal guns in Kingston have been hailed as a significant success in a war of attrition against crime that saw more than 1,400 Jamaicans killed last year.

Unlicensed gunsmiths, or ‘chemists’, as they are called in the underworld, often specialise in metalwork or have exceptional weapon-handling knowledge, obtained over time or through professional training.

Chemists are influential power brokers in the gang and turf wars plying foot soldiers and marksmen with the tools of war.

But the lines of loyalty are often blurred, or erased, with repairmen sometimes working across gang lines with fidelity to one thing: money.

Many operate in the dark but also blend criminal operations within formal businesses such as metalwork and machine shops, persons involved in, or who have intimate on-the-ground knowledge, have said.

“A community will have one a we and we a fix things for man weh a knock it on one another. So we can’t make one side know that machine deh yah fix weh a fire pon dem,” a metalworker who doubles as a gunsmith for gangsters told The Gleaner on condition of anonymity.

But despite their crucial role and a ready market for their skills, some illegal gunsmiths turn away offers for fear of death by gangsters unwilling to accept that some defects are unresolvable.

The risk of having an expensive firearm stolen by rogue gunmen discourages chemists from fulfilling some repair requests.

“When a man leave him machine with you, you have to guard it with yuh life. If anything happen to it, how it a go pay for ? … (Auto)matic depends – $200,000 to $300,000, or rifle $400,000, $500,000, all $600,000. It’s a very risky thing,” a gunsmith said.

“More time, you have to tell a man you can’t fix the problem – make him go on,” the metalworker said.

Deputy Commissioner of Police Fitz Bailey, who heads the crime and security portfolio, praised the January 14 multiagency operation that targeted Jarrett Lane, off Mountain View Avenue, nabbing an elusive player in the illegal gun industry.

The Counter-Terrorism and Organised Crime Branch, Special Operations, and other formations arrested 54-year-old Vassell ‘Ginny Rass’ Mowatt, who investigators say provided armourer support right across the island and operated in the shadows for years.

“When we talk about the armourer, someone who repairs firearm, I know that it was a blow to the underworld in terms of identifying people to provide that level of support,” Bailey told journalists during a press conference at the NCB South Towers in New Kingston on Thursday.

Bailey said a lot of intelligence led the police to identify Mowatt. Nine firearms were seized.

“The public is not aware of the significant impact that that has had on the criminal underworld – taking those firearms off the road and arresting that person who operates as a ghost for years,” Bailey said.

Gunsmiths are also hired to put the police off their trail, with metalwork operations hired to erase serial numbers from illegal firearms.

Versatility in gun modification is also a key skill.

“If chemist get one like it now, him can pull it up and him build another like it (home-made) … . It nah go look exactly the same, but it can do damage … ,” a Corporate Area resident said of a gunsmith.

“One time, some man bring a Browning weh bun up inna fire come and him get it back, build two board handle, and set it.”

Recently, defendant Dwayne Salmon, currently on trial with 32 other alleged members of the One Don Gang, was described by the prosecutor as a chemist who was the gang’s firearm specialist and dealer who secured guns for purchase and also modified weapons.

Last December, Kingston Central resident James Smith, 55, described by law enforcers as a self-taught gunsmith, was charged with the murder of six-year-old T-Mora McCallum after reportedly confessing to the crime.

Smith, who is of a Text Lane address, has also been charged with illegal possession of a firearm and ammunition.

Reports are that about 4 p.m. on December 6, Smith was repairing an illegal firearm when a round was discharged, hitting T-Mora, who later died at hospital.

The firearm, which investigators believe belongs to a gang operating in the area, was never found.

In the Jarrett Lane operation, a quantity of ammunition, among other military paraphernalia, was also seized.

According to the police, the Jarrett Lane and this week’s Stadium East operations, which netted a total of 19 firearms, are part of a counter-gang strategy targeting critical support systems of criminal organisations.