JSC report: Big $ in illegal gun trade – profits range from US$1,000 – US$5,500 on black market

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Illegal guns seized by police in Princes Town in November 2023. FILE PHOTO/COURTESY TTPS –

THE current crime spate is being fuelled by a thriving, multimillion dollar firearms trade where unscrupulous individuals are raking in huge mark-ups on the deadly imports, with the average illegal gun being sold for over $17,000. So said a report on illegal firearms and gun violence by the Joint Select Committee (JSC) on National Security laid in the House of Representatives on Friday. The JSC is chaired by Port of Spain South MP Keith Scotland.

“The firearms industry is lucrative in TT, valuing anywhere from $56 million to $144 million with an average black market price of $17,429 per firearm.”

Most illegal firearms are pistols and handguns – 84 per cent – with rifles and shotguns just 14 per cent.

“Every long-arm rifle smuggled through the border has generated a gross profit of on average US$5,500,” the report said, “while the gross profit for handguns ranges from about US$1,000-$2,000 based on the demand.”

By comparison, the report said an illegal AK47 in northern Mexico (near the USA) sells for US$1,200-1,600 but in southern Mexico sells for US$2,000-4,000.

The report then listed the profits made by importing illegal guns to TT, with mark-ups typically ranging from three-fold to ten-fold.

An illicit AR15 semi-automatic rifle costs US$630 within the USA but sells on the TT black market for US$6,000, earning a gross profit of US$5,370.

An AK47 semi-automatic can be bought for US$700 in the USA but sells on the TT black market for US$6,500, a mark-up of US$5,800.

A pistol such as a Glock 19 costs US$580 in the USA but sells illegally in TT for US$2,625, a difference of US$2,045.

A revolver such as the Smith and Wesson 637 costs US$500 in the USA but sells on the TT black market for US$1,650, a profit of US$1,150.

The report then warned about “ghost guns,” which presented challenges for detection.

“Ghost guns are unfinished guns, available as a building kit, and are made of mostly hard-plastic parts. A ghost semi-automatic rifle kit can be purchased in the US without a background check, is cheaper than an original brand, does not bear serial numbers hence is untraceable.

“Ghost guns in the shape of AR 15, AK 47, or Glock 17 pistols can be built in one hour only. The butt has to then be bought separately.”

The report said a ghost gun typically sold in the USA for about US$380. It said 22 ghost guns were seized in Jamaica in January 2023.

“Ghost guns could make it more difficult to obtain a conviction in a court of law, as without a serial number, it is hard to prove that the gun was involved in the incident.”

The report said, “Based on SSA analysis in 2021, the statistical estimate of illegal firearms in circulation within TT for 2021 was 11,043. This represented a 17 per cent increase from the initial 2019 estimate of 9,389.”

Over 8,000 illegal guns used in crime

Illegal firearms were used in 8,472 fatal and non-fatal crimes in 2016-2020, according to the Strategic Services Agency (SSA), so harming citizens’ sense of safety. The report noted 28.5 murders per 100,000 of population in TT in 2020, behind Jamaica on 44.7.

“A reasonable estimate is that every year, 1,000 more illegal firearms are available for criminals in the streets and homes of Trinidad and Tobago,” the report said, “and that during the same time, the total efforts of law enforcement manage to only intercept 50 firearms (five per cent).”

In a five-year period (2019-2023), the police had seized 3,531 guns, the report said. These were 1,915 pistols, 673 revolvers, 347 rifles, 325 shotguns, 191 home-made shotguns, 68 sub machine guns, and 12 “other.”

TT has a security crisis, plus a border-control crisis and a gun-retrieval crisis, the report said, blaming the customs and police respectively.

“Traffickers moving arms by freight use different techniques for concealing their identity and illicit cargo, this includes adopting fictitious or intermediary addresses, fake paperwork like misidentifying the arms as objects of similar shape and density (metal tools, engine parts, etc) as well as undervaluing the goods.

“Certainly traffickers are also aided by corrupt personnel who facilitate activities. According to the SSA assessment, corrupt law-enforcement personnel have been uncovered at all law-enforcement organisations.”

The report listed 190 corrupt officials, including 109 in the police, 52 in the Prison Service, seven in the Immigration Division, seven in the regiment, five in the Coast Guard, and four in the Customs and Excise Division. Of these, six had been dismissed, with 184 deemed active personnel.

The report cited criminologist Darius Figuera, “While the simple method of bringing in guns is through personal cargo, professional smugglers have been dismantling the guns and hiding them in engine blocks, automobiles, appliances, coffee cans, and even cartons.”

The report quoted the SSA. “‘There are high-powered weapons, revolvers, and pistols coming through Venezuela via pirogues and fast boats.”

It said the Coast Guard intercepted none within the last two years.

The committee recommended a new border protection and security agency (BPSA) under the ministry to take over the customs’ role of border protection.

JSC: 123 illegal-entry ports in TT

The report said TT had 123 illegal ports of which 66 facilitate the entry/exit of illegal firearms.

It also said nine legal ports were flagged as key locations for the entry of contraband. Those were Alcoa Tembladora, Caridoc, King’s Wharf, Labidco Port Medway (Freeport), NP Carenage, Pier One (Chaguaramas), Pier Two (Chaguaramas) and Point Lisas Port, according to the SSA.

“Illegal entry or export of firearms and ammunition occurs at almost all the ports at any given time.

“The importation of arms and ammunition are facilitated by individuals/associates who reside in North America; namely Baltimore, Georgia, Miami, New York and Texas in the USA, Canada, some European countries and Brazil, Columbia and Venezuela.”

Customs had found illegal firearms at Shed Ten Port of Spain, Medway, and Plipdeco Warehouse.

“For the period January to August 2022, the customs scanned 3,998 containers out of 23,000.”

While no weapons have been found in imported used vehicles stored at the Spectrum, the report said, “Given that only cursory checks are conducted on vehicles, it is likely that concealed weapons, if present, would actually remain unfound by customs agents.”

The report showed foreign pictures of firearms stashed within cars.

“There exists a strong probability that arms and ammunition may arrive in smaller quantities, along with other illegal contraband such as narcotics, illegal migrants and livestock through entry points at villages along the northern and southern coastlines of Trinidad and the north-western coastline of Tobago, including: Icacos Point, La Brea area, Erin Point, Couva, Puerto Grande, Cangrejos Point, Palo Seco Bay, La Vache, Point Fortin, Chupra to Toco, Point Ligoure, and Buccoo to Crown Point.”