On 15 August 2020, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers took two Venezuelan nationals into custody at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in Florida. The two men were about to depart aboard a private jet loaded with a cache of firearms and ammunition. As a recent ARES report into the illicit online sales of arms in Venezuela shows, smuggling of firearms and components from the United States is a key source of black-market guns in Caracas.
Given current U.S.-Venezuela relations, the seizure of the aircraft and the alleged smugglers has garnered press attention. Venezuelan nationals Luis Alberto Patino, 36, and Gregori Mendez, 40, were arrested and have been charged with smuggling cash, firearms, and other goods out of the United States. The two men had filed a fake flight plan for their private Lear jet, registered in Venezuela, which indicated they were bound for St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Given the recent surge in Venezuelan smuggling operations aboard small, private aircraft this aroused suspicion. While taxiing to depart the aircraft was ordered to the customs hanger for inspection. Instead, it returned to the hangar it had departed from.
A CBP press release noted that “18 assault/bolt action rifles with optics, six shotguns, 58 semi-automatic pistols” were seized. Media reports stated that 63,000 rounds of ammunition of various calibres were also found aboard. From the single photograph currently available—which shows only part of this significant seizure of 82 firearms—we can identify some of the weapons the men were attempting to smuggle to Venezuela. Most prominently visible is a 12.7 × 99 mm Barrett M107A1 self-loading rifle. A number of AR-15 pattern self-loading rifles, likely chambered for 5.56 × 45 mm, are also readily apparent. At least one bolt-action rifle of unknown calibre can be seen, whilst the handguns appear to include some twenty Glock self-loading pistols of various models and calibres including what are likely to be 9 × 19 mm Glock models 17, 19 and 26. Several other brands of self-loading pistols including Smith & Wesson M&P series and Heckler & Koch VP9 series pistols, along with what is possibly an FN Herstsal FNP, also appear to have been seized. The low resolution of the photograph released by the CBP (Figure 1.1) precludes precise identification of most of the firearms present.
According to statements made by the suspects they had spent three months in Florida procuring the firearms from internet gun sales sites and local retail stores. Given the number of after-market finishes (e.g. Cerakote) seen on pistols in the released photograph, it certainly seems likely that some of the captured weapons were procured second hand from online gun auction sites. How non-resident Venezuelan nationals acquired these firearms is currently unclear. The demand for firearms on the Venezuelan black and grey markets is believed to drive illicit activity in foreign countries, especially the United States. Even if a weapon is de facto legal in Venezuela once it arrives there, the process of illicit export and import remains illegal.
An affidavit supporting the charges made against the Venezuelans noted that “CBP officers observed that the aircraft was fully loaded, from the cockpit back to the lavatory, with cases and boxes of weapons, ammunition and household goods”. This cargo amounted to some fifty boxes. Also aboard was 20,312 USD in undeclared cash and 2,618.53 USD in endorsed checks. It is unclear if the pilots of the seized aircraft had any regional affiliations to criminal or non-state actors, but the cargo would undoubtedly have had a significant street value in inflation-wracked Venezuela.
Read more about the illicit arms trade in Venezuela in ARES Research Report 10, Black & Grey The illicit online trade of small arms in Venezuela.
CBP (U.S. Customs and Border Protection). 2020. ‘CBP and Interagency Partners Intercept Outbound Aircraft Loaded with Weapons and Cash’. Press release: 18 August. <https://www.cbp.gov/newsroom/local-media-release/cbp-and-interagency-partners-intercept-outbound-aircraft-loaded-weapons>.
Goodman, Joshua. 2020. ‘US intercepts Venezuela-bound aircraft loaded with firearms’. AP. Digital edition: 18 August. <https://apnews.com/8ba2ffa3555963bb7509384e1d134f67>.
Mulraney, Frances. 2020. ‘US Customs seizes Venezuela-bound private jet in Florida loaded with 82 firearms including a sniper rifle and 63,000 rounds of ammunition – and charges the two pilots with smuggling’. Daily Mail. Digital edition: <https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8641817/US-intercepts-Venezuela-bound-aircraft-Florida-loaded-firearms-two-pilots-arrested.html?fbclid=IwAR00snbIQnX9aQzD0wp9EoFP3J2Ky_L-ymanCAXwn46ErpgFdWk5zxrq_pg>.
Pérez, Pedro, Jonathan Ferguson & N.R. Jenzen-Jones. 2020. Black & Grey: The illicit online trade of small arms in Venezuela. Research Report No. 10. Perth: Armament Research Services (ARES). <http://armamentresearch.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/ARES-Research-Report-10-Black-Grey.pdf>.
Remember, all arms and munitions are dangerous. Treat all firearms as if they are loaded, and all munitions as if they are live, until you have personally confirmed otherwise. If you do not have specialist knowledge, never assume that arms or munitions are safe to handle until they have been inspected by a subject matter specialist. You should not approach, handle, move, operate, or modify arms and munitions unless explicitly trained to do so. If you encounter any unexploded ordnance (UXO) or explosive remnants of war (ERW), always remember the ‘ARMS’ acronym:
AVOID the area
RECORD all relevant information
MARK the area from a safe distance to warn others
SEEK assistance from the relevant authorities