Conspiracy to Export “Ghost Guns” Sends Warning to Freight Forwarders and Third-Party Logistics Operators

By: Donald Pearce, Torres Trade Advisory, LLC
Date: 01/18/2022

In January 2022, a Providence, Rhode Island man was arrested by federal agents on suspicion of making false statements to law enforcement and conspiring to export hundreds of privately made firearms to the Dominican Republic. Federal, state, and local investigators allege that Robert Alcantara, 34, was behind a network that assembled “ghost guns” for export to the Dominican Republic. With Export Control Reform moving the jurisdiction of non-military firearms violations to the U.S. Department of Commerce, similar investigations are becoming more common in the export-enforcement realm.

The criminal complaint against Alcantara alleges that he and others conspired to purchase parts of rifles and pistols, which they assembled to produce firearms that do not require serial numbers or registration with the federal government if intended for personal use. The most common kits in these types of activities are “80% receivers,” which are unfinished firearms with the most complicated machining completed but which lack the final 20% of components that would place them under the authority of the Federal Firearms Regulations.

Firearms enthusiasts claim the “ghost guns,” referred to as such due to their lack of serial numbers, allow hobbyists to customize the firearms to suit their needs and desires. However, others allege that these kits allow the assembly and sale of weapons by persons not authorized under federal law who skirt gun restrictions to produce guns that are untraceable if used in a crime.

For more than two years, starting in September 2019, Alcantara and his associates purchased components to assemble over 100 “ghost guns” ranging from handguns to rifles. Alcantara machined the parts at his home, then tested the completed kits to ensure they functioned. The working firearms were then sold illegally. In November 2021, law enforcement officers discovered parts for 45 guns in his car. When interviewed, Alcantara denied that he sold or otherwise transferred ownership of the firearms he built. Alcantara further claimed that he never transported firearms to the Dominican Republic.

The criminal complaint against Alcantara includes photographs of 45 completed guns which, the investigators allege, were intended for sale to buyers. Alcantara was arrested by law enforcement agents in Providence, with the assistance of the Providence Police Department, and was presented to the Magistrate Judge by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Rhode Island. Officers from the Bureau of Industry & Security (BIS), Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), the New York City Police Department (NYPD), and the New York State Police (NYSP) conducted the investigation.

With recent changes stemming from export control reform, BIS Office of Export Enforcement agents have become more active in firearms smuggling-related cases due to the reassignment of most firearms chambered in .50 caliber or below to the Commerce Control List. Both ad-hoc joint cases and more formal task force operations have become more common post 9/11 and involve state and local law enforcement on a more regular basis. “The Office of Export Enforcement will continue to partner with other law enforcement agencies to combat the illegal smuggling of firearms, including ‘ghost guns’ that are hard to trace,” explains Special Agent in Charge Jonathan Carson, of the BIS New York Field Office. The case is assigned to the US Attorney’s Office in the Sothern District of New York, where Alcantara will be prosecuted.

Why is this important to freight forwarders and third-party logistics operators? Because the typical modus operandi in firearms smuggling cases include comingling the guns in household goods or personal automobile exports. This can lead to additional charges for the accused, stemming from falsification of Electronic Export Information or failure to declare goods, but for freight forwarders and third-party logistics operators, it can mean transporting illegal merchandise.

For that reason, it’s critical to always ensure proper identification of the exporter of record or principal parties in interest in case a shipment in their charge should turn out to contain undeclared goods such as these. Due diligence can be challenging in private transactions, but recording additional details about the persons presenting the goods for export, such as driver’s license and license plate information, telephone numbers, and email addresses, can aid export compliance officers and, in the worst-case scenario, law enforcement.