US agents close in on Piarco gun case

A screenshot of a police video showing some of the weapons seized at a Piarco bond in April last year.
A screenshot of a police video showing some of the weapons seized at a Piarco bond in April last year.

US authorities have made major inroads in going after gun traffickers responsible for sending weapons of war into TT which often end up in the hands of criminal gangs fighting for turf, leaving a trail of dead bodies.

New information points to charges arising out of last year's discovery of 30 firearms, including 15 high-powered assault rifles, 13 pistols and nearly a 1,000 rounds of assorted ammunition, at a Piarco bond, that is the focus of a multi-pronged probe by the Department of Homeland Security, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), the US Attorney General's Office and local law enforcement.

The disclosure was made during an interview at the US Embassy on September 27 with ATF's assistant regional attaché Michael Graham and Special Agent for Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Randal Hill.

The discovery of the large cache of illegal weapons at the Piarco bond on April 22, 2021 is one of the largest shipments of illegal weapons through a legal port in recent times and there were two other significant busts later that month in Tacarigua and Couva, both suspected of being shipped from the US.

Local intelligence officers said at least three other shipments arrived at Piarco without detection and although they were tipped off about the April 22 incident, the local consignee was either alerted or spooked before he went to collect the barrels.

ATF assistant regional attache Michael Graham chats with Public Affairs Officer of the US Embassy Kirsten Michener at Briar House, St Clair on September 27. - Photo by Darren Bahaw

Graham, who was posted to TT in May, said the ATF is able to pinpoint the locations where the illegal guns are bought in the US and that agency works closely with the Homeland Security to find out where they were shipped to help build criminal cases against the offenders.

In reference to the weapon seizure at Piarco, Hill said his agency has been working with TT law enforcement "to uncover who is actually sending those weapons and receiving those weapons."

"One of things that Homeland Security does is to try not to necessarily put the onus back on TT law enforcement, but we try to assist and identify who is actually bringing in firearms. The reason why I think this is important is because of this, hypothetically speaking if we could wave a magic wand and stop all the firearms coming from the US, then that means the people who are bringing in the firearms will go somewhere else to get them, whether it be Venezuela, whether it be any other country."

He said the HSI is trying to help deter other likely offenders by helping "TT law enforcement arrest people in TT who are bringing in illegal firearms."

Recent amendments in the US have increased the jail time for people convicted of gun trafficking crimes where convicts can face up to 25 years in federal prison.

"I have been working in the TT area for about a year and half and I believe in developing relationships. We want to make cases, we want to identify people, individuals and or groups that are involved in the distribution of illegal firearms, but I also believe in making good relationships because good relationships will bring in those cases and help identify those individuals involved," Hill said.

Homeland Security Investigations agent Randal Hill

Asked how close his department had reached in identifying the illegal gun traffickers in the US in relation to the Piarco case, Hill said the agency has made "some inroads in identifying the individuals who are involved."

Graham said while he could not comment specifically on the Piarco bust, he said there were active investigations "where people are going to end up going to jail in the US."

"So it's not falling on deaf ears, the ATF and HSI are both heavily involved in firearm trafficking investigations and it is an issue domestically in the US as well as internationally. So it is not only firearms coming here, they are being trafficked throughout the US as well going into criminals hands."

Graham said as those investigations are completed and people are indicted by US grand juries, information will be shared with the people of TT.

Hill said there has been "some success and hopefully soon you would be able get more information though the embassy about what we have accomplished."

He said people in TT involved in illegal firearm trafficking can be extradited to the US to face trial which will serve as a deterrent for other like minded people.

"There are firearms all around the world, so if we stop firearms coming in from one place, then the bad guys gonna just get them from a different place. If you deter and make examples of individuals who harming these communities, I think it goes a long way."

Graham said the figures quoted by local police that about 70 per cent of illegal weapons comes from the US is accurate and said an agent from US Customs and Border Protection is working alongside local customs officers to improve security at the ports.

Told that the scanners donated by the US government at the Port of Port of Spain were inoperable, Hill suggested that hand-held devices could prove just as useful and that the other scanners can be up and running to help detect prohibited items from coming into TT.

Commenting on the development on Saturday, acting Commissioner of Police McDonald Jacob said he was aware that the gun find at Piarco had "reached a certain stage" but was reluctant to say if people were going to be arrested soon.

Acting CoP McDonald Jacob

"I don't want to say what percentage we have reached in bringing persons to justice but I know the ATF has reached a certain stage also. They may be a bit more advanced than us because some of the players are in the US and some of them have dual citizenship."

Jacob said weapons coming in from the US can now be traced and that information helps in identifying the identity of the traffickers and the people receiving them in TT.

"We are thankful and we continue working with the ATF. Recently, we did some additional training with the ATF in order to continue dealing with the identification of the firearms." He said the Special Evidence Recovery Unit at Cumuto also helps to analyse illegal firearms quickly to provide critical information to investigators.

He said data suggests that in the matter of just three months an illegal shipment of guns can leave a US port and end up in the hands of criminals in TT.

That information, he said, helps build our intelligence to undermine that whole organised criminal network this is existing.

Jacob said the partnership with US will help reduce the number of illegal firearms coming into TT but admitted more work was needed which is being addressed by the Ministry of National Security.


"US agents close in on Piarco gun case"

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