Most criminals in the United States carry guns

Criminals in Brazil are fighting with weapons from the United States

Heavy machine guns sourced from the US allow criminal gangs and militias in Brazil to control the country's drug market, which is now the second largest cocaine market in the world. Last year, Brazil counted 60,000 drug deaths.

According to Brazilian researcher and drug expert Gabriel Feltran, 94 percent of all intentional killings in Brazil in 2018 were men. 72 percent of them were black and 71 percent of all victims died from firearms.

A little overlooked detail is the fact that most of the AK-47 and AR-15 rifles used by the criminal gangs in Brazil do not come from the two closest conflict zones. That is, they are not from Venezuela or from the FARC rebels of Colombia, but from the United States.

Profitable business

According to official data from the Brazilian government, 24 percent of the illegal weapons circulating within organized crime groups come from the United States. 100 percent of the rapid fire weapons such as the AR-15 and AK-47. Guns from Florida-based dealers such as Safety Harbor Firearms and Golden State Arms have been found in police seizures.

From all the information I have been able to gather from both the Brazilian government and open criminal records in the United States, this arms trade from North to South America is proceeding quite smoothly. It is also very profitable. A high-performance rifle like an AR-15, which Safety Harbor Firearms sells for $ 700 to $ 1,200 in the US, retails for $ 15,000 to $ 20,000 on the black market in Brazil.

DW columnist Anabel Hernández

"How is it possible that a single person can bring more than a thousand weapons from the United States to Brazil by air?" Asks the head of the Brazilian Federal Police in my presence. He means Frederik Barbieri, a Brazilian citizen who also has a US passport and lives in Florida. He made over three million dollars from the arms trade in Brazil.

The police chief's astonishment piqued my curiosity and I investigated the Barbieri case. I came across the available criminal record in the Southern District of Florida Federal Court. Barbieri gave himself the title "Lord of Arms". Between 2013 and 2018 he sold a wide range of heavy handguns to Brazil. Basically, the serial numbers were removed from the weapons and these were then hidden together with ammunition and accessories in hot water kettles, which were then exported to Brazil via a front company. They always arrived at Rio de Janeiro airport with Air Com International aircraft. Barbieri then sold the weapons to criminal gangs in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro through three middlemen. The proceeds were transferred to Florida via a straw man. Customs officials were also involved, as was a high-ranking Brazilian official whom Barbieri blackmailed so that the arms trade would not be exposed.

Export controls tab

In order to prevent drug trafficking and the import of weapons, the US government usually controls all imported goods very strictly. In contrast, it seems to be relatively indifferent to what is exported out of the country. Accordingly, it was not US authorities who became aware of Barbieri, but the Brazilian federal police who discovered one of Barbieri's arms deliveries at Rio de Janeiro airport in mid-2017. The shipment of 60 AK-47 and AR-15 assault rifles soon proved to be the tip of the iceberg. The Brazilian government asked the US for help with the following investigation.

"During the taped telephone calls, the accused stated that the firearms were being sold to individuals in the favelas. The sales were always paid for in cash in small denominations, since the weapons were bought with drug money," the indictment said. The money was deposited into accounts at Bank of America.

On March 1, 2018, Barbieri surrendered to U.S. justice. Of the nine charges against him, prosecutors ended up withdrawing seven. Barbieri was sentenced to twelve years in prison for "attempted arms exports" and "conspiracy against the United States".

"Fast and Furious"

The most shocking thing about this case is that the court documents before me show that the supplier who supplied Barbieri with weapons for over four years in the United States and from whom he bought at least 1,000 AK-47 and AR-15 rifles was an informant the US authorities was!

This is a reminder that between 2009 and 2011, the Obama administration allowed arms trafficking to Mexico through the Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) office during one of the worst times of the drug cartel war. The code name of the secret program was "Fast and Furious".

The US agency allowed licensed arms dealers to illegally market more than 2,000 weapons, which were then resold to Mexican drug cartels. This arms trade was monitored but not stopped by the US authorities for years. Allegedly they wanted to follow the routes of arms smuggling and find out how they are going. Nobody seemed interested in the fact that these weapons brought death and violence in Mexico. That only changed when US border guard Brian Terry was killed with one of these weapons in 2010. Suddenly "Fast and Furious" became an international scandal.

The journalist and author Anabel Hernández has been reporting on drug cartels and corruption in Mexico for many years. After massive death threats, she had to leave Mexico and has lived in Europe ever since. For her work, she received the DW Freedom of Speech Award 2019 at Deutsche Welle's Global Media Forum in Bonn.