Homicides, Gun Trafficking, and Gangs: Prioritizing U.S. Security Assistance to the English-speaking Caribbean

It is imperative that the United States continues to assist its smaller neighbors with initiatives to reduce the violence [in the Anglophone Caribbean].


Image: Trinidadian Police officers conduct a stop and search exercise in Port of Spain on August 1, 2021. Source: Trinidad and Tobago Police Service (TTPS).

On April 29, 2022, United States Vice President Kamala Harris held a virtual meeting with fifteen Caribbean leaders to reiterate the U.S.’ commitment to the region.[1] Vice President Harris announced that the U.S. will convene annual meetings to continue high-level discussions and will “advance cooperation on economic recovery, the climate crisis, and security, among other areas of mutual concern.”[2] Many Caribbean officials welcomed the announcement that the United States will be expanding assistance through the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative (CBSI) with new funding “to combat firearms trafficking, enhanced maritime security, and support training for police and others.” The CBSI complements other long-standing security cooperation arrangements dating back to the 1980s, such as Tradewinds, military-led exercises with Caribbean nations spearheaded by the Department of Defense, and Operation Bahamas Turks and Caicos (OPBAT), which focuses principally on combating drug trafficking.

This reassurance of increased U.S. aid from the Biden administration, especially to the English-speaking Caribbean countries, comes at a time of perceived indifference towards the region. Additionally, hemispheric security issues closer to the United States border, such as Central American migration and instability in Haiti, have diverted resources to these competing crises. The proposed Western Hemisphere Security Strategy Act of 2022, as introduced by Senators Rubio and Menendez, frames U.S. security engagement within the context of countering the “harmful and malign influence” of China and Russia. This narrow geopolitical justification for cooperation does not reflect the interests or the security threats currently facing Caribbean citizens.  

The Anglophone Caribbean continues to suffer from high rates of violent crime, particularly murders committed with firearms. The situation is only getting worse in 2022 as economic and educational opportunities for many have disappeared due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Stemming the flow of the “iron river,” which reaches through Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean, is crucial to reducing bloodshed in the region. Therefore, it is imperative that the United States continues to assist its smaller neighbors with initiatives to reduce the violence currently being unleashed in the Caribbean, especially with efforts to combat drug and firearms trafficking.

Homicides, Gun Trafficking, and Gangs

According to the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) Regional Comparative Report: Survey of Individuals Deprived of Liberty: Caribbean (2016-2019), published in September 2020, “…the Caribbean region suffers from a higher than world average homicide rate—16 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants compared with six globally (UNODC, 2013). The homicide rates of the Caribbean islands are usually above those of countries in the Southern Cone but below those of their Central American neighbors (IDB, 2017a).” The Insight Crime homicide roundup for 2021 listed three Anglophone Caribbean countries, alongside Venezuela and Honduras, as the top five most violent countries in the Western Hemisphere:[3]

  1. Jamaica: 49.9 per 100,000 (with the highest homicide rate for the second year in a row)
  2. Venezuela: 40.9 per 100,000
  3. Honduras: 38.6 per 100,000
  4. Trinidad and Tobago: 32 per 100,000
  5. Belize: 29 per 100,000

According to the IDB report (2020), in 2015, 73 percent of homicides were committed with firearms in both Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, and 82 percent of homicides were committed with firearms in the Bahamas. According to data from the Crime and Problem Analysis Branch (CAPA) of the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service (TTPS), in 2021, of the 450 murders, 379 were committed with firearms (84 percent). The IDB’s Report also highlighted that there was “no clear relationship between the homicide rate and the rate of firearms in the hands of civilians” since, according to the Small Arms Survey (2017), in places like Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica, the rate of firearms owned by civilians was 3 per 100 inhabitants and 9 per 100 inhabitants, respectively.

The trafficking of illegal firearms and ammunition by transnational criminal organizations and the sale by local gangs results in easy access to weapons by criminal elements in Trinidad and Tobago. Speaking at a Ministry of National Security Media Conference on May 9, 2022, Acting Commissioner of Police McDonald Jacob stated for 2022, the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service has thus far recovered 242 firearms, of which 44 were high-powered weapons, around 1,500 rounds of 5.56 ammunition and 387 rounds of 7.62 ammunition which are typically used for high-powered weapons, and almost 2,000 rounds of 9mm ammunition. The Acting Commissioner explained that gangs are operating with both firearms and drugs since police have seized marijuana and cocaine with weapons, and, more recently, some gangs are exclusively involved in the trading of guns and ammunition due to the high demand for firearms.

Guns are flowing into Trinidad and Tobago from North America and South America, particularly from the United States and Venezuela. The Acting Commissioner of Police also stated, “as we identified, a lot of these weapons are coming from North America, from Georgia, from Baltimore. We’re working hand in hand with our agencies with the DEA. We’re also working with the ATF (U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives), the FBI, in order to deal with this and identify the persons who are actually sending down these firearms to Trinidad and Tobago.”[4] The Trinidad and Tobago Newsday reported on May 19, 2022, that a report by the Strategic Services Agency (SSA), Ministry of National Security “warned of the illegal import of guns from North America and South America, with intelligence suggesting complicity by some customs officials, brokers and port staff, plus a diversion of firearms by corrupt Venezuelan law enforcement officers and traffickers, with some Venezuelans living in TT brokering deals for TT traffickers.”[5]

Gun trafficking is not only problematic for Trinidad and Tobago but also the wider Caribbean region. Investigative journalist Ioan Grillo in his recent book Blood Gun Money: How America Arms Gangs and Cartels (2021), describes how easily legally purchased guns in the U.S. reaches the black market and into the hands of criminals in every U.S. state and 136 countries, including many in the Caribbean. According to Grillo, Florida “sits on the vast gun-smuggling corridor of the Caribbean Sea. The sea that was once the favorite haunt of pirates is now replete with gunmetal. Millions of tons of cargo float over the waves every day. This region counts for some of the most common foreign [gun] traces after Mexico. In 2018, the ATF successfully traced over 2,800 crime guns to the United States from five of the Caribbean and five of the Central American nations” (260-261, 2021).

Former ATF agent Steve Barbaroni explained to Grillo that smugglers acquire guns through straw purchasing, private-sale loopholes, and theft. Smugglers then send weapons through shipping companies in Florida that offer consumer freight. As Jermaine Cohen, former gunrunner and member of the notorious Jamaican Shower Posse gang, explained to Grillo in an interview, “Sending a firearm to Jamaica is one of the easiest things. It’s like sending rice or sending corned beef. You send it in microwave. It’s just how you design to send it…It don’t get random checked. The screening cannot pick it up” (261, 2021).

The Caribbean Basin Security Initiative (CBSI)

In April 2009, former President Obama launched the CBSI in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, during the Fifth Summit of the Americas. In May 2010, the United States, CARICOM members and the Dominican Republic officially launched the program. The thirteen CBSI partners include Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas, Barbados, Dominica, the Dominican Republic, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname, and Trinidad and Tobago. Through U.S. foreign assistance, the CBSI aims to partner with Caribbean nations to reduce illicit trafficking, improve public safety and security, and promote social justice.

The main federal agencies involved in the implementation of the CBSI include the State Department, the Department of Defense, and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The five areas which receive U.S. assistance include:

  • Maritime and aerial security cooperation
  • Law enforcement capacity building
  • Border/port security and firearms interdiction
  • Justice sector reform
  • Crime prevention and at-risk youth

According to a 2019 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on security assistance, between fiscal years 2010 to 2018, U.S. agencies allocated more than USD $560 million for CBSI, with annual allocations ranging between $56.6 million and $63.5 million since 2012.[6] As shown in Table 1 below, some countries have benefited more than others from CBSI funding, with the Dominican Republic and Jamaica receiving the most aid. Between FY2010 to FY2018, the Dominican Republic received almost 23 percent of CBSI funding, Jamaica received around 19 percent, the Eastern Caribbean (which comprises seven countries) received 24 percent, Trinidad and Tobago 4 percent, and around 21 percent of funding was allocated for regional activities.

Table 1

CBSI Funding Allocations

Thousands of USD$


Total Allocated FY 2010-2018

Eastern Caribbean (7 countries)



Dominican Republic












Trinidad & Tobago









Total CBSI Allocated Funds



Source: United States Government Accountability Office, Report to Congressional Requesters, February 2019.

Security Assistance under the Biden Administration

According to the Congressional Research Service (CRS) report U.S. Foreign Assistance to Latin America and the Caribbean: FY2022 Appropriations (February 2022), the Biden administration requested nearly $2.1 billion of foreign assistance for Latin America and the Caribbean for FY2022—the largest annual budget allocation for the region in more than a decade. The Biden Administration’s FY2022 budget request would reduce funding for Caribbean countries while significantly increasing assistance for Central America. According to the report, “The FY2022 Request includes $66 million for the CBSI, which would be a $3.8 million cut (5.4 percent) compared with the FY2021 estimate of $69.8 million. If fully funded, aid to Central America would increase by $298 million (53 percent) increase compared with the FY2021 estimate.” As shown in Table 2, CBSI funding for a total of thirteen countries is comparatively low when compared to funds allocated to other countries in the region like Haiti, Colombia, and Mexico. However, on April 27, 2022, the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative Authorization Act, which the House passed, would authorize $74.8 million for the CBSI for each fiscal year from FY2022 through FY2026.[7]  

Table 2

USAID FY2022 Budget Request


USD$ Millions

Inter-American Foundation


Central America












Source: Congressional Research Service Report, February 2022.

The Biden administration has already demonstrated its commitment to fighting crime, gang violence, and the trafficking of firearms from North America to the Caribbean. Chargé d’ Affaires Shante Moore, of the U.S. Embassy in Port of Spain at the launch of the “Gang Resistance and Community Empowerment (GRACE) Project” with the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service (TTPS) on May 11, 2022, stated:

“Criminal gangs in Trinidad and Tobago are responsible for a disproportionate number of criminal offences and gang activity is associated with high homicide rates, corruption, citizen insecurity, and increasingly, with transnational organized crime, such as firearms smuggling, and trafficking in persons. Sadly, recidivism rates for gang members are 22 percent higher than recidivism rates for the general population, at nearly 70 percent. Rather than focusing solely on addressing the symptoms of crime, like homicides and gang violence, we must do more to address the root causes. And this program aspires to do both.”[8]

The GRACE Project provides $1.5 million to address gang-related security challenges and technical assistance to improve the law enforcement capabilities of the TTPS. The 18-month program is funded by the CBSI through the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement (INL) and will be implemented by the Pan American Development Foundation (PADF).

Mr. Moore also informed that in addition to the United States Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), the United States Government has worked with the Government of Trinidad and Tobago to bring the ATF and the Department of Homeland Security investigations agency to Trinidad and Tobago to work in the areas of arms trafficking, trafficking in persons, and other areas of mutual interest because of the importance of weapons trafficking, not only in Trinidad and Tobago but throughout the Caribbean region.[9] Additionally, the opening of a USAID office in Port of Spain will also see new projects in the near future.

In Jamaica, on February 25, 2022, the U.S. Government, through USAID, launched a new joint initiative with the Ministry of National Security (MNS) to prevent youth crime and violence. The “Violence Prevention in Targeted Vulnerable Schools and Communities in Jamaica” project according to USAID is the “first of its kind between USAID and MNS, with USAID providing $4.2 million and the MNS applying $3 million of its own resources. As part of the overall strategy in crime reduction and community resilience, the activity will be implemented in four parishes, nine communities and 22 schools in Jamaica over the next two years.”[10]

Prioritizing U.S. Security Cooperation and Assistance to the Anglophone Caribbean

The United States Government has already made positive steps to assist the Caribbean with the security challenges currently plaguing the region. While the CBSI receives comparatively lower funding than other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, $74.8 million would represent an increase of $8.8 million for each fiscal year from 2022 to 2026 as compared to the FY2022 request of $66 million. Now more than ever, U.S.-Caribbean cooperation in the areas of maritime and aerial security, border and port security, and firearms interdiction is of paramount importance. Equally important are initiatives aimed at at-risk youth and violence prevention in communities where young people are most susceptible to joining gangs. The INL previously introduced successful social crime prevention strategies which were implemented by the PADF, like the Resistance and Prevention Program (RAPP). RAPP ran in Trinidad and Tobago from 2014 to 2019 and should be continued. Given its geographic location, Caribbean nations will always be caught between the flows of drugs from the south and guns from the north. As Grillo explained it, “At the heart of the iron river is the relationship between guns and drugs. The two fit together like a lock and key” (6, 2021). While the United States has spent decades fighting the war on drugs, more resources could be channeled to combat the illegal gun trade so that citizens can once again feel safe living in the Caribbean.

Dr. Samantha S.S. Chaitram is a Fellow with the Caribbean Policy Consortium (CPC) and a Research Manager, Trinidad and Tobago Police Service (TTPS). Dr. Chaitram is also a Fulbright scholar and author of American Foreign Policy in the English-speaking Caribbean: From the Eighteenth to the Twenty-first Century published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2020. Views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent those of the TTPS.


[1] Leaders who participated included the Prime Ministers of Antigua and Barbuda, The Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Dominica, Grenada, Haiti, Jamaica, St. Kitts & Nevis, Saint Vincent & The Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago; Presidents of Guyana, Suriname; and the Secretary General of CARICOM.

[2] https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2022/04/29/readout-of-vice-president-harriss-meeting-with-caribbean-leaders/ (accessed May 5, 2022)

[3] https://insightcrime.org/news/insight-crimes-2021-homicide-round-up/ (Accessed May 12, 2022)

[4] https://tt.loopnews.com/content/jacob-guns-coming-us (Accessed May 12, 2022)

[5] Trinidad and Tobago Newsday. “SSA: Younger, More Violent Gangsters” Thursday May 19, 2022, page 3.

[6] United States Government Accountability Office, Report to Congressional Requesters. February 2019. Security Assistance: U.S. Agencies Should Establish a Mechanism to Assess Caribbean Basin Security Initiative Progress.

[7] Source: Congressional Research Service. Caribbean Basin Security Initiative. May 4, 2022.

[8] https://tt.usembassy.gov/remarks-delivered-by-cda-shante-moore-at-launch-of-the-gang-reduction-and-community-empowerment-project/ (Accessed May 13, 2022)

[9] https://trinidadexpress-tto.newsmemory.com/?publink=13c23192d_1348484 (accessed May 12, 2022)

[10] https://www.usaid.gov/jamaica/press-releases/Feb_25_2022_USG_GoJ_Historic_Agreement (Accessed May 12, 2022)

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