Guns on the streets

 It was just four weeks ago when two masked men allegedly sprang from the bushes and opened fire on an unarmed group of seven men in West Bay. The shootings left 20-year-old Marcus Leon Ebanks dead and two others injured including a 14-year-old boy who had to be evacuated to a Miami hospital in critical condition.

Just three days earlier, Omar Barton Samuels died from a gunshot wound to his leg. A year earlier, Samuels had faced court charges for possession of an AK-47, ammunition and drug possession although the police did not proceed with the fire arm case.

The surge in gun violence has rattled the community to the core, jamming talk shows with panicked calls and letters and emails to news organisations.

But while the police continue to make arrests and confiscate guns associated with these crimes, the shootings do not seem to be slowing down.

Just last weekend, a man was shot in his right hand and arm. Three men were arrested in connection with the shooting. Like many of the shootings, the suspects are frequently young, late teens or early 20s, following a trend across the Caribbean of young people involved in gun and drug-related crimes according to a report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.

In last weekend’s shooting, the suspects were 17, 21 and 22.

There is no doubt that smugglers are using Jamaican canoes, fishing vessels and shipping containers to get illegal guns into the islands says current and former law enforcement officers.

Over the last two years, the police have confiscated 9 mm guns, an AK 47 and there has been evidence of at least one M16 says Drug Task Force chief Kurt Walton.

The influx of high powered guns goes hand-in-hand with smugglers using the Cayman Islands as a transit point to ship large quantities of drugs into the US says Walton.

“Along with the ganja being brought in on Jamaican canoes, these guys are putting two to three guns on board these boats,” says Walton. “I think we owe it to the public to put an emphasis on that.”

Guns are also being brought in on fishing vessels from Honduras and smuggled in among the tons of cargo brought into the ports says former Drug Task Officer Shaun Ebanks.

Each year, some 28,000 shipping containers full of goods come into the port. Guns can be hidden in many places and ways; car tires, door panels and appliances are just a few examples says Ebanks.

Organized criminals are using guns as part of its payment system to local people for making sure large drugs shipments transit through the Cayman Islands safely and on to the US, explains Ebanks.

It is well-known that guns are readily available for purchase in the US, especially at weekend gun shows where there are limited or no background checks says Ebanks. Even during the largest US recession in decades, gun sales are soaring and that is not accounting for illegal purchases. Organised criminals are buying guns in the US and smuggling them back into the Caymans says Ebanks.

This same trend has played out in other drug transhipment countries such as Mexico and Jamaica. Drugs are being smuggled through Mexico into the US. And in return, guns are purchased in the US and brought back into Mexico says Ebanks.

“The firearms on the street now are not old beat up firearms,” says Ebanks. “These are in good condition; these are high capacity guns out of the States with brand names.”

In the last two and half years, 12,000 people have been killed in Mexico in drug-related deaths with no sign of the violence abating.

The same thing has happened in Jamaica. Drugs are being smuggled from Jamaica into the US and guns are coming back the other way says Ebanks.

Last November, Custom officers seized a cache of five handguns, magazines for a MAC-10 submachine gun, AK 47 and a large quantity of ammunition. The guns and ammunition were packed in a refrigerator and smuggled into the country as part of a shipping container of goods. When Michael Timothy Ebanks, 21, plead guilty to the firearms charge, his defence attorney said the young man feared repercussions from others.

“Five firearms clearly shows these were not for one individual, but for smuggling guns,” says the former Drug Task Force chief.

To combat drug and gun trafficking, faster better boats have been brought in and more marine officers have been hired says Walton. In the last six months, four Jamaican boats have been seized he added.

“This is the year of the Jamaican canoe. But this is just one route. We are an importing country. There are so many different routes these smugglers are using,” says Walton.

A report by UN Office on Drugs and Crime noted the increase in gun ownership is an outgrowth of the drug trade across the Caribbean and Latin American region.  “Crime such as organised crime, drug and firearms trafficking are generally impervious to prevention initiatives; their control requires an efficient criminal justice system,” stated the report.

The report also stated that weapons trafficking through the region is driven by large consumer demand for drugs in the US and Europe. The trafficking issues throughout the Caribbean cross national boundaries and require a coordinated and international response.

Another trend noted in the UN report was the disproportionate number of young people among the victims and perpetrators of gun-related violence in the Caribbean.

It is unclear just how many illegal guns have been smuggled into the Cayman Islands. But the police service reported 26 firearms were seized in 2008.