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  1. Homeland Security Investigations
  2. What We Investigate
  3. Weapons Trafficking

Weapons Trafficking

Weapons Trafficking

HSI special agents investigate individuals and criminal organizations that illegally finance, procure, broker, transport, and disseminate weapons internationally.

Criminal organizations and other dangerous groups need weapons to advance their illegal enterprises, assert fear and control over others, eliminate rivals and resist government operations to stop them.

In many cases, these organizations turn to U.S. suppliers and smugglers to help them get their hands on American made weapons and parts. The United States has strict laws that govern the export of weapons outside of the country, regardless of where the weapons are manufactured.

When criminals break those laws, HSI takes action. We use our authorities and expertise to identify and stop the illegal flow of weapons outside of the United States and investigate the people, businesses and networks that support it.

Our efforts have a global impact, ensuring that criminals cannot use U.S. weapons trafficked outside our country against members of our military, to harm innocent civilians, or fuel violence abroad.

Understanding Weapons Trafficking

Weapons trafficking is a unique crime. Criminals traffic weapons and their components out of — rather than into — the United States without the proper permissions and licenses. It is against the law for U.S. persons and companies to broker the sale of illegal weapons, regardless of where the weapons originated.

In many cases, the criminals seeking to obtain U.S. weapons use them to commit violent crimes against Americans abroad, innocent civilians and military members in war zones. Criminals engaged in weapons trafficking exploit vulnerabilities in trade and financial systems to smuggle weapons out of the country.

Weapons Trafficking’s Impact

Weapons trafficking fuels violence that affects public safety, national security and international relations.

Illegally trafficked U.S. weapons also fuel other crimes. Criminals use them to protect cartel activities, drug smuggling operations and smuggling routes. They also use these illicit weapons to destabilize countries and commit human rights violations, war crimes and acts of terrorism. Weapons that end up in our adversaries’ hands on the battlefield can also be used against the U.S. military and our allies.

HSI's Response

HSI special agents investigate people and criminal organizations that illegally finance, procure, broker, transport and distribute weapons internationally.

HSI’s strategy is to identify, disrupt and dismantle weapons trafficking networks. First, we identify individuals and entities involved at all levels of the supply chain, whether they are buyers, sellers or end users. Then, we use that intelligence to:

  • Stop weapons from leaving the United States.
  • Target the money criminals use to pay for weapons and their trafficking proceeds.
  • Seize illegal shipments and arrest traffickers at home and — with our foreign law enforcement partners’ help — abroad.

Finally, we broaden our investigations to dismantle entire weapons trafficking networks, working our way through the supply chain to stop those illegally buying, selling, transporting and using U.S. weapons.

The Evolving Weapons Trafficking Threat

Today, we see criminals increasingly using ghost guns — guns cobbled together from trafficked weapons components — to facilitate violent crimes. Ghost guns do not have serial numbers or other markings, making them difficult to trace.

Advances in 3D printing technology allow criminals to manufacture ghost guns on a larger scale — and make the weapons more difficult to trace. The internet has also made it easier for criminals to download instructions on building and assembling weapons, which they can keep to commit crimes or sell for profit. These criminals use the internet, particularly dark web marketplaces, to buy and sell guns they can traffic out of the United States.
As the threat continues to evolve, so does HSI, as we maintain our role as a global leader in weapons trafficking investigations.

How We Can Help Each Other

HSI’s Project Shield America is an industry outreach program that raises awareness of firearm export laws. We also use it to advise industry of red flags that may indicate criminal intent when foreign entities attempt to purchase weapons from U.S. manufacturers and sellers.

Contact your local HSI office to schedule a Project Shield America briefing or to report suspicious weapons trafficking activities.

Last Updated: 04/22/2024
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