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.
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.
Briana, serial number 245PN70462, was a 9-mm Browning handgun.
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 U.S. 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, Ohio — U.S. 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.
In the United States, the dispute over guns focuses almost exclusively on the policies, consequences and constitutional rights of U.S. 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 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.
Some, like Briana, are so poorly documented that the U.S. 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, North Carolina, 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.
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 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 authorities. After that, if a gun is stolen, lost or handed to someone else, paperwork is only sometimes required.
Only a few U.S. 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.
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 year across the region — most of them by firearms.
Jamaica’s own gun laws are relatively strict, with fewer than 45,000 legal firearms in a country of almost 3 million.
But it is awash in illegal weapons. Jamaican authorities, who estimate that 200 guns are smuggled into the country from the United States every month, routinely ask U.S. 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 ATF checked from 2016 through 2018, 71 percent came from the United States.
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.