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WorldOne Handgun, 9 Murders: How American Firearms Cause Carnage Abroad

02:30  26 august  2019
02:30  26 august  2019 Source:   nytimes.com

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Guns like Briana reside at the epicenter of the crisis. Worldwide, 32 percent of homicides are committed with firearms , according to the Igarapé Institute, a research group. And most of those guns come from the United States, amassed by exploiting loose American gun laws that facilitate the carnage .

Firearms play such a central role in Jamaican murders that authorities keep a list of the nation’s 30 deadliest guns , based on ballistic matches. Authorities traced the serial number back to the handgun ’s original owner. But that did not explain how the weapon wound up in Jamaica decades

One Handgun, 9 Murders: How American Firearms Cause Carnage Abroad
One Handgun, 9 Murders: How American Firearms Cause Carnage Abroad
One Handgun, 9 Murders: How American Firearms Cause Carnage Abroad
One Handgun, 9 Murders: How American Firearms Cause Carnage Abroad
One Handgun, 9 Murders: How American Firearms Cause Carnage Abroad
One Handgun, 9 Murders: How American Firearms Cause Carnage Abroad
One Handgun, 9 Murders: How American Firearms Cause Carnage Abroad
One Handgun, 9 Murders: How American Firearms Cause Carnage Abroad
One Handgun, 9 Murders: How American Firearms Cause Carnage Abroad
One Handgun, 9 Murders: How American Firearms Cause Carnage Abroad
One Handgun, 9 Murders: How American Firearms Cause Carnage Abroad
One Handgun, 9 Murders: How American Firearms Cause Carnage Abroad

CLARENDON, Jamaica — She came to Jamaica from the United States about four years ago, sneaking in illegally, stowed away to avoid detection. Within a few short years, she became one of the nation’s most-wanted assassins.

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Guns like Briana reside at the epicenter of the crisis. Worldwide, 32 percent of homicides are committed with firearms , according to the Igarapé Institute, a research group. And most of those guns come from the United States, amassed by exploiting loose American gun laws that facilitate the carnage .

She preyed on the parish of Clarendon, carrying out nine confirmed kills, including a double homicide outside a bar, the killing of a father at a wake and the murder of a single mother of three. Her violence was indiscriminate: She shot and nearly killed a 14-year-old girl getting ready for church.

With few clues to identify her, the police named her Briana. They knew only her country of origin — the United States — where she had been virtually untraceable since 1991. She was a phantom, the eighth-most-wanted killer on an island with no shortage of murder, suffering one of the highest homicide rates in the world. And she was only one of thousands.

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Briana, serial number 245PN70462, was a 9-millimeter Browning handgun.

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An outbreak of violence is afflicting Jamaica, born of small-time gangs, warring criminals and neighborhood feuds that go back generations — hand-me-down hatred fueled by pride. This year, the government called a state of emergency to stop the bloodshed in national hot spots, sending the military into the streets.

Guns like Briana reside at the epicenter of the crisis. Worldwide, 32 percent of homicides are committed with firearms, according to the Igarapé Institute, a research group. In Jamaica, the figure is higher than 80 percent. And most of those guns come from the United States, amassed by exploiting loose American gun laws that facilitate the carnage.

While the gun control debate has flared in the United States for decades — most recently after the mass shootings this month in El Paso and Dayton — American firearms are pouring into neighboring countries and igniting record violence, in part because of federal and state restrictions that make it difficult, or sometimes nearly impossible, to track the weapons and interrupt smuggling networks.

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One Handgun , 9 Murders : How American Firearms Cause Carnage Abroad . Hundreds of thousands of guns sold in the United States vanish because of loose American gun laws. Many reappear in Jamaica, turning its streets into battlefields.

Hundreds of thousands of guns sold in the U.S. vanish because of loose American gun laws. Many reappear in Jamaica, turning its streets into battlefields. One Handgun , 9 Murders : How American Firearms Cause Carnage Abroad .

In the United States, the dispute over guns focuses almost exclusively on the policies, consequences and constitutional rights of American citizens, often framed by the assertion “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” — that the reckless acts of a few should not dictate access for all.

But here in Jamaica, there is no such debate. Law enforcement officials, politicians and even gangsters on the street agree: It’s the abundance of guns, typically from the United States, that makes the country so deadly. And while the argument over gun control plays on a continual loop in the United States, Jamaicans say they are dying because of it — at a rate that is nine times the global average.

“Many people in the U.S. see gun control as a purely domestic issue,” said Anthony Clayton, the lead author of Jamaica’s 2014 National Security Policy. But America’s “long-suffering neighbors, whose citizens are being murdered by U.S. weapons, have a very different perspective.”

Firearms play such a central role in Jamaican murders that the authorities keep a list of the nation’s 30 deadliest guns, based on ballistic matches. To keep track of them, they are given names, like Ghost or Ambrogio.

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One Handgun , 9 Murders : How American Firearms Cause Carnage Abroad . Hundreds of thousands of guns sold in the United States vanish because of loose American gun laws. Many reappear in Jamaica, turning its streets into battlefields.

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Some, like Briana, are so poorly documented that the United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has nothing more than a piece of paper with the name and details of the original buyer, according to confidential documents reviewed by The New York Times.

Purchased in 1991 by a farmer in Greenville, N.C., the Browning vanished from the public record for nearly 24 years — until it suddenly started wreaking havoc in Jamaica. For three years, its ballistic fingerprint connected it to shootings, mystifying law enforcement. Finally, after a firefight with the police, it was recovered last year and its bloody run came to an end.

The authorities traced the serial number back to the handgun’s original owner. But that did not explain how the weapon wound up in Jamaica decades later. Or how the authorities could prevent the next Briana from arriving.

The mystery is no accident. By law, licensed gun merchants in the United States are not required to do much more than record retail sales, and usually don’t have to report them to the authorities. After that, if a gun is stolen, lost or handed to someone else, paperwork is only sometimes required.

Only a few American states mandate the registration of some or all firearms. Several other states explicitly prohibit it. And there is no national, comprehensive registry of gun ownership. The federal government is forbidden to create one.

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Drawing on court documents, case files, dozens of interviews and confidential data from law enforcement officials in both countries, The Times traced a single gun — Briana — to nine different homicides in Clarendon, a largely rural area of Jamaica where violence has spiked in recent years.

It is just one of the hundreds of thousands of guns that leak out of the United States and overwhelm countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. More than 100,000 people are killed every yearacross the region — most of them by firearms.

“I still love him and miss him all the time,” said Clovis Cooke Sr., weeping over the murder of his son, Clovis Jr., who was gunned down in 2017 with the Browning the authorities call Briana.

“He took care of me,” Mr. Cooke said of his son. “Every week he would come by and bring food and groceries and pay the bills.”

Jamaica brims with losses like his. American weapons are routinely funneled into the country aboard ships, flooding cities like Kingston, the capital, where high-grade assault rifles are wielded by warring gangs.

Jamaica’s own gun laws are relatively strict, with fewer than 45,000 legal firearms in a country of almost three million.

But it is awash in illegal weapons. The Jamaican authorities, who estimate that 200 guns are smuggled into the country from the United States every month, routinely ask American officials to examine some of the weapons they seize in raids, during traffic stops or at the ports.

Of the nearly 1,500 weapons the A.T.F. checked from 2016 through 2018, 71 percent came from the United States.

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The figures are similar in Mexico, which has been lobbying the United States for more than a decade to stop the illegal guns flowing south. By some estimates, more than 200,000 guns are trafficked into Mexico each year, many to feed the vast criminal networks fighting over the multibillion-dollar drug trade to the United States.

But here in Jamaica, the killings are rarely driven by such enormous profits. The drug trade has fallen from its heyday, organized crime has been fractured and most of the historic kingpins have been killed or imprisoned.

Instead, the guns in Jamaica are often used in petty feuds, neighborhood beefs and turf wars that go back decades, to when political parties authored the majority of the country’s violence.

Because guns are so plentiful, small insults and old vendettas that might otherwise leave few casualties grow much more dangerous — not just for the combatants, but also for anyone who happens to be in the way.

“A lot of violence is the result of people settling their disputes, and with all the guns in the country, it is easy to settle things that way,” said Orlando Patterson, a Jamaican-born sociology professor at Harvard University. “That is where it’s at right now. The early factors, the politics, international drugs, they are gone.”

Even some of the gang members agree they are often fighting over small stakes — and sometimes no financial stakes at all.

“I mean, with or without the guns, we will still fight,” said one gang leader in Kingston, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of arrest. “But the guns make it deadlier. There would be a big difference without as many guns.”

From North Carolina Into Thin Air

Johnnie Ray Dunn walked into a North Carolina gun store in the fall of 1991 and purchased an American icon: a 9-millimeter Browning.

With its all-steel frame, the gun was built to weather abuse, with a reputation for accuracy and functionality.

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Mr. Dunn, a farmer, handed over his details and went home with a gun that, if maintained, would last a lifetime.

That’s where Briana’s paper trail began — and ended.

President Ronald Reagan had signed a bill that prohibited the creation of any sweeping national gun registry five years earlier, a pivotal piece of legislation in the history of American gun law.

The National Rifle Association lobbied heavily for the bill, which many saw as a way of expanding gun sales by ensuring easy access to firearms. Underpinning the effort was a warning that still resonates with many of the law’s supporters today: that a national registry would enable the United States government to keep track of gun owners and crack down on their right to bear arms.

“It will be used to take away our guns,” said John Donohue III, a professor at Stanford Law School, explaining one of the main talking points against a national registry.

The law effectively ruled out a federal system of tracking all firearms. So when Mr. Dunn’s gun suddenly showed up in Jamaica, linked to a series of homicides from 2015 through early 2018, no one could figure out how it got there.

The A.T.F. was unable to trace the gun beyond its initial purchase, and Mr. Dunn would not have been required to report if it had been sold, swapped, lost or stolen. The weapon disappeared into what some experts call the black hole of American gun laws.

Mr. Dunn died in 2011, according to a local newspaper obituary, and is not considered a suspect in the gun’s path to Jamaica. The Times attempted to reach his family, without success.

Guns like his regularly torment Jamaican officials. Most firearms used in crimes are orphans of a system that seems geared to forget them. Purchased legally, they eventually fall into the vast ocean of what the A.T.F. estimates to be more than 300 million guns circulating in the United States, their chain of ownership often irrevocably broken.

“This is the stereotypical crime gun,” said Joseph Blocher, a professor at Duke University School of Law. “They almost all originate with a legal sale and are then passed on, stolen or otherwise vanish before reappearing in a crime.”

Because Jamaican officials cannot tell how handguns like the 9-millimeter Browning entered their country — even with the assistance of American law enforcement — they struggle to shut down the smuggling rings that fuel the nation’s violence.

All they know is that, more than 20 years after being sold in North Carolina, the handgun became one of the most lethal in Jamaica, the tool of a one-eyed gangster named Hawk Eye.

Samuda Daley got the nickname as a boy. He saw poorly out of one eye, and after an unsuccessful surgery left it covered in a milky film, his alias was born.

Mr. Daley was a product of violence, shaped by its near constant presence in his life. As a child, a relative said, his mother was stabbed to death by his uncle.

By ninth grade, he had dropped out of school to start working at a sugar factory, telling his family he didn’t want to rely on anyone. He joined the Gaza gang, a clique of young men who had grown up together in a knotted cluster of streets in Clarendon.

They began by hanging out, not fighting, his family said. But in the crucible of poverty and desperation, where small conflicts can turn deadly, they ran afoul of a similar group, the King Street gang. The rivalry grew quickly.

On Sept. 19, 2015, almost exactly 24 years after Mr. Dunn purchased the gun, the first sign that it had made its way to Jamaica appeared: A man named Okeeve Martin was killed with an unknown 9-millimeter Browning.

There was no money or territory at stake, residents say. The motive seemed to be revenge — the girlfriend of the Gaza gang’s leader had been shot by mistake in an earlier episode.

She survived, but the rumor mill led to Mr. Martin, and retribution came swiftly.

The gun lay dormant for a year before claiming the life of a 17-year-old, Shane Sewell, on Sept. 6, 2016. He was walking home, having left a bar after a night with friends. He ended up in a ditch, riddled with bullets, some from the mysterious Browning.

Officials believe he was killed in a dispute over a different firearm. In Jamaica, guns are often rented out by their owners, as a hardware store might rent out valuable tools. The borrower, looking to commit a robbery or even kill someone, pays a fee to use the weapon. Afterward, the gun is returned. Given a gun’s income potential, when one is lost or stolen, the consequences can be deadly.

In the summer of 2017, the Browning struck again. Kurt Mitchell, a fisherman believed to be a member of the King Street gang, was gunned down at a party — a reprisal for an earlier homicide against the Gaza gang, the authorities believe.

His death, in turn, generated still more deaths, in the tragic rhythm that violence often takes in Jamaica.

Much of the fighting today stems from political conflicts that stretch back long before the shooters were born. In past decades, armed groups loyal to one of the two major parties — the Jamaica Labour Party and the People’s National Party — battled one another for dominance.

The patronage networks eventually transitioned to crime, stripped of their political focus. Local leaders, known as Dons, grew incredibly powerful, as deep connections to the United States, Canada and Britain enabled their criminal enterprises to become transnational.

But that, too, changed as the government cracked down on the Dons and targeted the drug trade in Jamaica. By 2010, the Dons were all but a thing of the past, with the last major player, Christopher Coke, known locally as Dudus, arrested and extradited to the United States after battles that resulted in the deaths of at least 73 people.

“2010 was a watershed moment,” said Damian Hutchinson, the executive director of the Peace Management Initiative, which works to stop violence in Jamaica’s most dangerous neighborhoods. “The Don culture started to change. The political enforcers were now undermined by younger, less conscientious individuals with less purpose to the violence.”

The splintered factions began fighting one another, leading to more — and more random — violence. Wars broke out between once-aligned blocks and the gangs multiplied, to more than 250 nationwide today.

Those armed factions, fighting a small-scale war, have lifted homicides to new peaks.

The 9-millimeter Browning became a terrifying facet of this landscape, with evidence tying it to more than eight homicide scenes.

As officials tried to stitch together the clues, the gun was repeatedly being used as an enforcement tool of the Gaza gang, often by Mr. Daley, the killer known as Hawk Eye.

He was quiet, never bragging about his exploits, residents and family members said. He didn’t need to. His ruthlessness was well known, and neighbors afforded him a grudging respect.

Mr. Daley had become embroiled in a personal feud with another gangster, Christopher Lynch, and some of the shootings that plagued Clarendon in 2017 came from their hatred for each other, officials say.

They had once been close friends, almost like family, relatives said, but that former intimacy now burned with an equally intense hostility. Mr. Daley tried to kill him on a Sunday in 2017, when he spotted him walking home from a soccer game.

He fired at Mr. Lynch, who took off running through the woods and escaped, officials say. But a stray bullet struck a 14-year-old girl in the stomach as she prepared for church. Luckily, the girl survived.

Months later, Mr. Lynch’s father was at a wake, a late-night affair with drinks and music, a celebration of life common in parts of Jamaica. At around 10:30 p.m., investigators now believe, Mr. Daley stormed the wake and began shooting. The elder Lynch died. Three others were injured.

Once again, the bullet fragments connected the shootings to the 9 millimeter.

From Idaho to Montego Bay

Not all guns vanish without a trace and suddenly reappear, decades later. Some are bought openly and sent overseas right away.

From late 2016 through early 2017, a 74-year-old man from Idaho purchased three military-style rifles and a Glock .45 pistol in Meridian, Idaho, a town of about 100,000 people surrounded by more than two dozen gun stores.

Six months later, all four guns were recovered by the Jamaican authorities in a raid in the Montego Bay area, where criminal violence has overwhelmed the parish of St. James.

The area is a notable exception to Jamaica’s vendetta violence. A multimillion-dollar scamming industry has flourished there, inciting so many homicides that the government sent in the military.

The scammers — who swindle American citizens into sending money or divulging their bank account information — are well financed and capable of building armories to battle their competitors.

The weapons, like other illicit arms in Jamaica, arrive in containers aboard the hundreds of ships that come to the island each month. Often, they slip through in small batches, broken down into parts and hidden in freezers or car engines to evade inspectors.

Of course, not all illegal guns in Latin America and the Caribbean come from the United States. In some countries, including those with weapons left over from civil wars, fewer than half of the illicit weapons trace back to American soil.

But firearms trafficking from the United States is such a big problem that the A.T.F. says it is dedicated to fighting it. Commercial traffic between the United States and Jamaica has become more closely surveilled in recent years, so smugglers have started bringing in the guns through Haiti, too, often in exchange for marijuana or even meat.

Criminal networks, like those in the scamming industry, also turn to straw buyers in the United States — people who purchase the guns legally and send them to Jamaica, either complicit, misled or uninterested in how they are used.

The Idaho man may have been a victim of the scammers himself. Officials say the swindlers appear to have pressured him into buying the weapons, promising to return his pilfered savings.

It was the Glock .45 that caught the attention of American and Jamaican authorities. Only three months after the Idaho man purchased it, the gun was already in Jamaica — and had killed Jeffrey Cato, a 39-year-old mentally ill man, on March 17, 2017.

Mr. Cato, a beloved figure in the community of Flankers, had no obvious enemies. He seemed to float in his own space, neighbors said, harmless and uninvolved.

On the day of his death, Mr. Cato was getting food for one of his children. The police never identified a motive, but believe he may have witnessed a murder.

“He had no gang connections whatsoever,” said one detective, speaking anonymously because the investigation was still open. “In my eight years working, there’s only a few cases that still stick with me. This is one of them.”

Last July, the gun was used again, to kill Nicholas Kerr, a quiet 41-year-old who lived in the basement of his mother’s home. He was shot at a corner store, buying a soda.

“We’ve always had enemies here,” said Mr. Kerr’s mother, withholding her name for fear of retribution. “But Nicholas?” she added. “He was peaceful.”

‘Every Day They Kill People’

Joviane Hall was D.J.-ing at a local bar near Clarendon at 11:30 p.m. on Oct. 6, 2017, when gunmen burst in without warning.

After robbing the bar and its patrons, they opened fire, hitting Mr. Hall, who died on the way to the hospital. Officials recognized the culprit, a weapon they had come to loathe: the Browning.

The murder was the beginning of a spree. Two days later, another shooting occurred at the Three Sisters Bar. At around 10:50 p.m., two friends, Clovis Cooke and Otis Gordon, were standing outside, drinking, when a car pulled up.

The shooter fired 21 shots and sped off. Investigators found yet another set of 9-millimeter fragments.

Every murder committed, every life taken, left a wound that never healed. Ten minutes from the Three Sisters Bar, which is now dormant and overgrown with dense foliage, Mr. Cooke’s parents live in their simple, vinyl-sided home off the side of the highway.

His father, recovering from cataract surgery, plodded around in the dark, searching for overdue bills in the drift of papers on the small dining table.

He wept at the mention of his son, 33, who used to pay the bills and help out around the house. Married at 15, his parents grew up raising him. But time had inverted their roles, and now, without him, they were nearly destitute.

“I think about him everyday,” he said. “Every day they kill people,” he said, “and every day we grieve about it.”

The same void haunted the home where Jody Ann Harvey was killed less than two months after Mr. Cooke, in what some believe was a case of mistaken identity.

Gunmen charged into her one-room shack, kicking open the door and firing on Ms. Harvey and her daughter as they slept in the small bed they shared. Ms. Harvey covered the girl with her body, taking six 9-millimeter rounds in the hail of gunfire. Her daughter survived.

Last spring, the home still sat abandoned in a thicket of trees, its wooden stairwell rotting, its blue and green paint blistered. Ashley Wilson, Ms. Harvey’s sister, had come by — to visit, to fill the single room with memories. To mourn.

“I just miss her, I guess,” she said, swinging the rickety door open. “I go inside, into her room, where it happened. It brings back a lot of memories. I’ll look at pictures of her, listen to music we liked, talk to her daughter. This is how it goes.”

The deadly run of the Browning ended, in some ways, the way it began.

Joy Commock, the girlfriend of the Gaza gang’s leader — the person who had been shot by mistake and survived, starting the cycle of revenge that first set the handgun loose on Jamaica — was killed on Jan. 21, 2018.

The casings matched the earlier crimes: The gun killed Ms. Commock as well, officials say.

She was home alone with her daughter when she heard a noise, the police say. It was just after midnight and the smell of smoke filled the air.

She raced outside and found a fire burning in her front yard. She knelt to extinguish the flames, and was shot multiple times by an assailant hiding in the shadows.

Her daughter, one of three, hid inside. When the girl emerged, her mother was dead, lying face down in the yard.

“She was the sole breadwinner,” said Ms. Commock’s sister, Lotoya Evans. “They were her life.”

“They expect you to forget about it, but when you lose somebody, you don’t just get up and act normal,” she added, holding her own daughter tight.

By early 2018, the authorities were still no closer to finding the gun. They knew its caliber, and even the conflict the gun was caught in. But while Mr. Daley, the enforcer known as Hawk Eye, was still alive, no witnesses dared to testify.

At around 11 p.m. on April 28, an off-duty policeman was having a drink at a local bar in Clarendon when two men showed up to rob it. One of them was Mr. Daley, who flashed the Browning at patrons and demanded money. The officer drew on the two men and announced himself, officials say.

Mr. Daley turned and fired, but the policeman had the drop on both men, killing Mr. Daley on the spot.

And like that, the gun was off the streets.

Witnesses came forward to link Mr. Daley to other shootings, officials say, and the police later asked the A.T.F. to run a trace on his weapon.

It led all the way to North Carolina, to a time before Mr. Daley was even born.

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