ATF: Orlando ‘epicenter' for gun-running

Orlando top 3 in state for gun smuggling

By Erik von Ancken - Anchor/Reporter

Across the state of Florida, Orlando was in the top three for most guns recovered last year that were tied to crimes, with more than 1,500.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives points to Florida's open highways with access to ports. Those interstates include I-10, even I-75 and the big one, I-95.

In fact, I-95 is so notorious for gun trafficking, it's called the "Iron Pipeline." Guns from Florida and Georgia head north to be sold for big bucks in states with stricter gun laws.

Jacksonville was No. 1, because when you add in Jacksonville's port, ATF says it makes the city a perfect place for international gun trafficking rings, bringing the criminal element to town -- along with the weapons.

News 6 was given access to video and pictures detailing a 2011 closed case involving busted gun smugglers who used Jacksonville's highways and then hoped to use Jaxport and the cargo ship El Faro to send their illegal stash to drug dealers in Puerto Rico. The guns never actually made it onto the ship, thanks to a Border Patrol K-9.

Surveillance video shows a semitruck pulling vehicles through the gates of JaxPort. One of those vehicles on the back of that semi is a green minivan.

At first, there are no obvious signs of a crime, but the K-9 alerted agents to look further.

"This is a, 'Holy cow, that's a lot of firearms!'" said ATF Senior Special Agent Brian MacCarthy, who worked this case as it broke in 2011.

MacCarthy said he counted 64 guns: pistols, semi-automatic rifles, and high-capacity magazines -- all wrapped in plastic and hidden deep inside the green minivan. Agents carefully removed the bagged firearms from behind paneling of the vehicle.

"It's my largest case to date in Jacksonville," MacCarthy said.

He said there were 52 Glock pistols hidden in the tailgate alone. Other guns were shoved in the side panels, hidden by a stereo system.

"These things are going to sell for three times what they sell for in the United States," MacCarthy said.

He said to buy used, the cost is about $450 per firearm at a gun show. However, the street value in Puerto Rico was $1,500-1,800 per gun.

So this bust by ATF was worth more than $100,000 -- confiscated at JaxPort before they could get to the weapon traffickers in Puerto Rico.

The next thing MacCarthy needed to do was find the bad guys behind the smuggling operation.

The following four months involved undercover stings at the port in Puerto Rico, along with stings at Orlando International Airport.

ATF's investigation led agents to a tangled web of criminals working out of Orlando and Live Oak.

Agents made their arrests and, in the process, were able to confiscate even more illegal guns.

Investigators also uncovered the origin of most of the guns confiscated at JaxPort. Agents tell News 6 nearly all of those guns were once legitimate law enforcement firearms -- all turned-in properly -- only to later be obtained by dirty gun dealers and then sold on the black market for big bucks.

Although the case happened in 2011, agents haven't been allowed to talk about it until now -- after the successful prosecution of two suspects, whose appeals expired. A federal judge sentenced one to two years in prison and the other to a three-year prison term. Both have since been released.

MacCarthy said when guns are trafficked through a city, it puts that city at a higher risk for crime.

"Absolutely," he responded. "We know bad folks, criminals, convicted felons, illegal aliens -- people who want to utilize firearms -- if they can get their hands on firearms, they will do so."

ATF Assistant Special Agent in Charge Trevor Velinor -- the same agent who traced the guns used in the Pulse nightclub mass shooting in June -- tells the I-TEAM that Jacksonville's interstates do increase the area's risk.

Out of the 19,000 crime guns in Florida in 2015, just over 1,500 of them were recovered in Orlando. More than 1,900 were recovered from Tampa and a little over 2,000 from the Jacksonville area.

"There are a lot of people coming to Florida to acquire guns," MacCarthy said.

He adds, the reason is simple.
"They're relatively cheap," he said.

In the wrong hands, those guns can be dangerous and profitable. Recently, four New York City police officers were killed in the line of duty, with guns that arrived via that "Iron Pipeline."

The ATF special agent in charge for all of Florida, Daryl McCrary, took News 6's Erik von Ancken inside the vault where many of Florida's illegal guns end up-- a secret, secure,storage locker. The guns in there are just the active cases-- taken from the hands of suspected criminals either awaiting trial or awaiting sentencing. McCrary said all of the guns were either purchased illegally or stolen, like the 121 weapons that were snatched from businesses and homes in Flagler and Volusia counties during Hurricane Matthew.

McCrary said the most common gun on the streets of Central Florida is the 9 mm semi-automatic handgun.

"Is this disturbing to you?" asked von Ancken.

"I've been at this a long time. As much as they're disturbed, they should be happy the weapons are here. The fact is -- if they're here those bad guys are in jail and those weapons are off the street," said McCrary.

 

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