Gunning for Profit

Opportunists make a fortune supplying guerrillas and terrorists from South Florida gun shops

Most gun laws, like the three-day waiting period to buy handguns, are enacted by Congress, but the states are left to add further restrictions. In Florida, where gun control has never been a high-profile political issue, gun laws are among the nation's most lenient. The state's only tough stance on guns is to forbid them from being carried openly, Wild West style. Most recently, a measure proposed by State Sen. Debbie Wasserman (D-Weston) to require background checks on all firearms sold at gun shows died a quiet death in committee earlier this year in the Republican-controlled Legislature. Anti-gun groups have persuaded lawmakers in South Carolina and Virginia to bar anyone from buying more than one gun a month in an effort to prevent the stockpiling of weapons, but Florida has no limit on the number of guns anyone can buy.

Before shipping weapons overseas, gun owners must get approval from the federal government. But the law does not require foreigners who buy guns in the United States to declare whether they intend to send them to other countries. That means gunrunners like Vega can buy large numbers of guns without anyone asking questions about the purpose of the hoard of weapons. The federal form every gun buyer must fill out asks if the guns are intended for a third party, which would make it a crime, but no one checks on whether the purchaser is lying.

It's not the government's business to ask why a gun is being purchased, says Ted Novin, spokesman for the National Rifle Association, one of the most aggressive and well-endowed lobbying groups of any kind in the country. "The answer to reducing crime is not to increase the number of gun laws but to increase the enforcement of the laws," contends Novin, repeating the NRA's mantra. "There are over 20,000 gun laws on the books. There's really no need to create more."

Colby Katz
Gunshows, like a recent one (above) in Fort Lauderdale, have been frequented by weapons smugglers. Pistols and revolvers (left) in the ATF's evidence locker are exhibits in the trials of gunrunners busted in Miami.
Colby Katz
Gunshows, like a recent one (above) in Fort Lauderdale, have been frequented by weapons smugglers. Pistols and revolvers (left) in the ATF's evidence locker are exhibits in the trials of gunrunners busted in Miami.

There's no way to keep track of how many guns are shipped from Florida through the black market. However, a study conducted earlier this year by Columbia University found that Florida was a main supplier of guns smuggled illegally into New York City, an area with the nation's toughest gun laws. Howard Andrews, an associate clinical professor, says Florida gun dealers are some of the main suppliers for what he calls the "iron pipeline," an underground market where guns easily pass from Southern states with lax gun laws to those with tougher weapons restrictions. It's easy enough to fill a U-Haul full of weapons and send them up I-95.

With Florida's weak gun laws, there's little chance federal agents will know if a gunrunner is stockpiling weapons.

Federal law has long protected gun dealers, so much so that ATF agents are forbidden from inspecting gun shops more than once a year. Dealers inspected once know they have a year until the next visit. Instead, agents have tried to infiltrate the underground gun markets. Most ATF agents have addresses, pagers, and home towns devised for alter egos in the gun trade. "There's an old saying," Higgins says, "that you don't find swans in the gutter, and that's where we're spending most of our time."

Keith Andre Glaude fell into the gunrunning business simply because he was down on his luck. A drummer in a New York City jazz band, Glaude had been borrowing money from an old friend in his native Trinidad and Tobago for years. He ran into the guy while playing the drums in the island's Carnival parade back in 2001, and Clive Lancelot Small said it was time to cash in the old debt of $2,500. Without the money to pay him, Glaude, a bulky man of 48 with a gray beard that fills his face, agreed to pick up a few guns for Small in -- where else? -- South Florida.

The guns were destined for a Muslim extremist group, Small claimed, although the group later denied any connection to him. The radical faction was responsible for holding Trinidad and Tobago's prime minister and members of parliament hostage for five days in 1990. Harold Robertson, the consulate general in the Trinidad and Tobago government office in Miami, says the group is widely feared in his homeland. "This is a group responsible for the deaths of many people, including a relative of mine," Robertson said. "So what I would say about them would be inflamed and colored by that fact." Glaude was a member of the group until he left the island in the late 1980s, but he has claimed to know nothing about the destination of the guns. The pressure to pay off his debt was too strong for him to ask questions.

Glaude's contact back in the states was a man who went by "Pena" and was actually an undercover ATF agent named Steve McKean. They met in May 2001 in the parking lot of a Hooters restaurant in Fort Lauderdale. McKean brought a fellow agent along for the meeting, and Glaude noticed a handgun strapped to the new guy's leg. Glaude got nervous, suspecting correctly that they were undercover cops. He called Small in Trinidad, and Small did some research on the mysterious Pena. Small began by writing a letter to a friend serving time in a federal prison in Elkton, Ohio, who was supposedly a friend of Pena's. The friend was actually a government informant who had long been working with U.S. authorities to break down terrorist rings in Trinidad and Tobago. Naturally, the man told Small not to worry about Pena.

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