Mexican authorities on the U.S.-Mexico border found bullets hidden in the back of car seats. Photo by INTERPOL

Organized Crime Operations Across Latin America, U.S. and France Seize Hundreds of Weapons

An INTERPOL-coordinated operation targeting illegal firearms has led to 560 arrests across Latin America, with hundreds of guns and other weapons seized.

Codenamed Trigger V, the week-long (22 – 28 February) operation was undertaken in eight countries and involved officers from the police, customs, immigration and military, as well as ballistics laboratories.

Drugs, stolen vehicles and $162,000 in cash were also seized during the 42,000 checks carried out at hotspots throughout the region, including air, sea and land border points.

Led by INTERPOL’s Firearms Programme, Operation Trigger V was coordinated via the Organization’s Regional Bureau in El Salvador and its General Secretariat headquarters in Lyon, France. The participating countries were Belize, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and Panama.

The operation led to key arrests, including the target of an INTERPOL Blue Notice seeking further information on the individual known as ‘Zeus o Mono’, suspected of heading a transnational arms trafficking ring responsible for supplying weapons to the National Liberation Army in Colombia. The suspect was intercepted travelling illegally from Guatemala to Honduras, and has since been deported to Colombia to face charges.

Other notable arrests included a Honduran citizen subject to an INTERPOL Red Notice for numerous firearms and drugs offences; 47 individuals in El Salvador, 18 of whom were linked to organized crime gangs such as the Barrio18 and MS13; and suspected members of Colombian organized crime groups including Galeria and Los Shibly.

After seven days of coordinated action, 857 firearms were seized, in addition to more than 38,000 bullets, 20 grenades and various police and military uniforms.

Highlighting the trans-continental nature of firearms trafficking, a vehicle check in Costa Rica uncovered two AK47 assault rifles, one of which had been recorded in INTERPOL’s Illicit Arms Records and tracing Management System (iARMS) database by a country in the Middle East.

Authorities in Mexico published Purple Notices warning of two methods for smuggling firearms and ammunition across the US-Mexico border. The first consisted of placing bullets in the hidden compartment of car seats, the second involved dismantling firearms in order to ship them via express courier services.

In Panama, the operation generated an anonymous tip, which led police to an isolated storage house packed with ammunition, firearms and gallons of chemical and explosive materials.

The operation notably led to a significant increase in the use of the iARMS database with more than 125,000 records added by participating countries, including 58,000 by Mexico alone.

Funded by the European Union, iARMS currently contains more than 1.3 million records. Police worldwide can query the iARMS database to check if seized firearms have been reported as lost or stolen by other countries. During Trigger V, 14 hits were generated on weapons previously recorded in the database.

In a separate operation, seven suspects were arrested in France on 26 February as a result of joint action between U.S. and French law enforcement targeting a criminal group suspected of importing firearms into France. An associate was also arrested on American soil earlier in the month.

60 handguns, 20 rifles and nine sticks of dynamites were seized as a result of raids throughout France. A Europol mobile office was deployed, allowing for the real-time exchange of information between all involved parties.

The inquiry was sparked in June 2018 after evidence was found during an unrelated house search which led to the identification of this organized crime group importing firearms into France. The firearms were bought legally in the United States by an associate, before being shipped illegally to France, broken down in parts spread across dozens of packages.

It is believed that this organized crime group trafficked over 450 weapons into France for the year 2018 alone.

Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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