How the black market gun trade fuels Haiti’s conflict

Haitian policemen stand guard on a street corner amid gang violence in Port-au-Prince on April 8, 2024. | Clarens Siffroy/AFP via Getty Images

By Matt Berg, Eric Bazail-Eimil, & Miles Herszenhorn, Politico, June 7, 2024

The U.S. is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a foreign intervention in Haiti — to battle gangs largely armed with U.S. guns acquired on the black market. Now, lawmakers want the Biden administration to help Congress finally curb the illicit gun trade that has fueled conflicts in Latin America and beyond for decades.

Firearms made by American companies comprise the bulk of Haitian gangs’ growing arsenal of handguns and rifles, helping them wreak havoc on Port-Au-Prince following the president’s assassination three years ago. U.S.-backed Kenyan forces, wielding U.S. weapons, are expected to land in Haiti in the coming weeks to combat them.

The Haiti conflict, some progressives say, underscores why Washington needs to take more decisive action to disrupt the illegal weapons trafficking.

“We’re having to fund the U.S. guns to go fight the U.S. guns that have filled the void in governance there,” said Rep. GREG CASAR (D-Texas), who is weighing his support for the Kenyan-led mission. “But we can’t forget how we got here and recognize that … we’ve got to start tackling the flow of guns from the United States to Latin America.”

Casar and 20 other Democrats sent a letter to Attorney General MERRICK GARLAND on Wednesday, expressing concern about the dynamic in Haiti and urging him to help lawmakers understand how Congress can address the illegal arms issue.

“There is a direct line from illegal guns trafficked from the U.S. to the violence we’re seeing in Haiti,” Sen. CHRIS MURPHY (D-Conn.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and longtime gun control advocate, told NatSec Daily.

He applauded the Biden administration’s efforts to combat gun traffickers. But to establish “long-term stability in Haiti, we need to acknowledge the role illegal guns from the U.S. continue to play,” Murphy added.

Asked for comment, the State Department pointed to progress the U.S. has made with Caribbean partners over the past year to curb the gun trade, seizing about 340 firearms, 26,500 rounds of ammunition and over 400 magazines.

It’s a thorny problem that hasn’t been solved for decades: Guns flow through the “iron river” into the hands of drug cartels and abusive security forces in Latin America. American gunmakers have come under fire for fueling the illicit trade, but companies maintain that they only sell legally to Americans who pass background checks.

“Legal gun sales are tightly controlled in most of the region, but the bad guys have easy access to U.S. weapons,” BENJAMIN GEDAN, former South America director on the National Security Council now at the Wilson Center, told NatSec Daily. Kenyan forces “will find their opponents are armed to the teeth with weapons from the U.S.”

In the letter, the lawmakers asked Garland for a briefing by June 20, which would help them better understand what legislative actions Congress can take to block Haitian gangs, Mexican cartels, and criminal organizations from arming themselves with American guns.

It’s a rhetorical push that comes as Democrats have largely fallen in line to support the mission to assist Haiti, while Republicans, left-leaning advocates and many people in the Haitian community say the plan is doomed to fail.

Thousands of U.S.-backed forces — from Kenya, as well as seven other countries — are expected to soon arrive in Haiti, but there aren’t yet any Kenyan forces on the ground in Haiti “in any real terms,” said a DOD official, granted anonymity to speak candidly. The official provided no timeline on when the forces might land.


Posted June 9, 2024