Firearms trafficking: An “invisible phenomenon” with infinite links to organized crime

September 29, 2020
firearms trafficking

Illicit activity can take countless forms, but some areas are more widely discussed than others. The recently published UNODC’s Global Study on Firearms Trafficking highlighted that while other forms of illicit trade—such as drug trafficking—remain global hot topics, the illegal trade in firearms has been largely left off the agenda. 

Illegal guns are often embedded within wider illegal activity. They are commonplace among international organized criminal groups. Ghada Waly, executive director of the UNODC, described firearms trafficking as “an enabler and multiplier of violence and crime in every part of the world.” With gun offenses increasing around the globe, this form of illicit trade poses a real and fatal risk to society.

However, the issue remains an “invisible phenomenon.” What are officials doing to ensure the societal threat is tackled in an effective way?

Extensive links between all forms of illicit trade

As well as the obvious—use in murders and armed robberies—illegal firearms are linked to an extensive list of unlawful activities. These include, but are not limited to, the facilitation of human trafficking, drug trafficking, environmental crime, maritime piracy, and terrorist activities. 

According to the UNODC study, the criminal conduct most frequently linked with firearms seizures was violent crime, particularly in Latin America and Africa. However, in Europe, the most common link to firearms trafficking was the illegal drug trade. Drugs emerged as the most common commodity intercepted in the same seizures as firearms, followed by counterfeit goods, cultural property, and natural resources.

This is not to say that firearms trafficking isn’t lucrative in its own right. While the trade is almost always a secondary source of income for criminals, it can be highly profitable—in some instances, guns are sold up to three times the original price. In addition, guns are durable and can be sold multiple times to different individuals; a BBC investigation linked a single firearm to 11 different gunmen in Birmingham (U.K.) and multiple murders over a six-year period. 

Guns are multidimensional: They are both a facilitator and source of profit for organized crime. Firearms, often used illegally, are present in most forms of violent crime, increasing the power of gangs and criminals. They are a threat to both volatile regions and more stable countries, as they can be trafficked to anywhere. A multinational solution is fundamental.

Using data to fight arms trafficking

Officials around the world have recognized that catching more perpetrators of firearms trafficking also means decreasing the dangerous and illegal activities that go alongside it. 

Interpol has played a significant part in the fight against firearm trafficking. It has helped to ensure communication between law enforcement agencies worldwide, while managing an international criminal database. 

In 2019 in Africa, a jointly coordinated investigation between Interpol and the UNODC targeted the networks behind firearms trafficking in Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, and beyond. The investigation involved 110 officers from police, customs, border, and prosecution services from all three countries. It saw law enforcement intercept illicit firearms and make connections with associated criminal activity. 

Collecting investigative crime intelligence ahead of the operation allowed investigators to target firearms trafficking hot spots such as land border points where all forms of transport were searched. 

In addition, as part of the Global Firearms Programme, an international data collection mechanism for seized and trafficked firearms was piloted to monitor illicit firearms trafficking flows. Consequently, in 2015, the first UNODC study on seized and trafficked firearms was published.

More broadly, the program aims to prevent the illicit supply and diversion of firearms into the hands of criminals. Its integrated approach has assisted more than 20 African, Asian, and Latin American states with tailored legislative advice, legal support, and training to further the investigation and prosecution of firearms trafficking and organized crime. 

By using resources and data, law enforcement is able to link a wide range of different potential crimes, criminals, and countries. These initiatives highlight the importance of collecting and analyzing data on lost and stolen firearms. Data helps to further develop understanding around firearms trafficking and the point of diversion of trafficked goods.

A growing international issue

The issue, however, spans beyond Africa, Asia, and America. No matter the extent of firearms regulations in place, illegal weapons continue to exist in all corners of the world. This is evident from a recent New York Times article on the increased presence of guns on U.K. streets, despite Britain having some of the most stringent gun laws in the world. 

Gun seizures by the National Crime Agency, Britain’s national policing body, have more than doubled, with firearm offenses increasing by 38 percent since 2015. The growing presence of weapons being trafficked, increasingly from the U.S., onto the streets of the U.K. has coincided with a sharp rise in serious violent crime, including murders and stabbings. “If suddenly guns became the weapon of choice as opposed to a knife … we’d be in a really difficult situation,” warned Matthew Perfect, who leads the National Crime Agency’s firearms unit. 

A major driver of gun violence is the presence of gangs and drug trafficking. While the problem is most prominent in the U.S., Central America, and the Caribbean, firearms exist everywhere. With many countries seeing an increase in gun-related crimes, countries need to work together and programs must continue to be driven by data, facts, and best practice.

What now?

Firearms trafficking is a complex issue with fatal consequences. There have been positive global steps, and national governments and authorities continue to adjust and strengthen their law enforcement and approach. Authorities and the international community have increased their efforts to collect evidence-based information on firearms trafficking. However, the UNODC’s study shone a light on illicit firearms flows, highlighting the need for even more data, law enforcement, and criminal justice responses to detect trafficking. 

More data gathering will be vital to ensure the full picture is provided and changing illicit trafficking flows are identified. Due to its interconnectedness with other crimes, understanding the source is fundamental in helping identify illicit trafficking routes and patterns. 

Adaptation and close monitoring of the ever-changing trends will help authorities understand the perpetrators, stop illicit flows, dismantle organized crime groups, and bring criminals to justice.


Written by STOP: ILLEGAL

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