The arrests of Syrian Monzer al-Kassar in Spain in 2007 and Russian Viktor Bout in Thailand in 2008 shed light on how easy it is to smuggle weapons into Latin America.
In order to detain Bout, the “Merchant of Death,” and al-Kassar, the “Prince of Marbella,” the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration accused both men of attempting to sell portable Russian surface-to-air missile launchers to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. The planned route for both operations was similar: The weapons would leave Romania or Bulgaria to enter Nicaragua and from there, were to be parachuted over Colombian territory.
There are more than 80 million illegal weapons in Latin America, according to a 2008 report from the Center for Defense Information in Washington. Even the most inept criminals have access to a firearm.
The homicide rate in Latin America — 140,000 per year, according to the World Bank — is more than double the worldwide average. Several countries have alarming homicide rates for every 100,000 inhabitants: Brazil, 28; Colombia, 65; El Salvador, 45; Guatemala, 50; Venezuela, 35. Violence also deals a blow to the economy. The cost of this scourge is estimated at 14.2 percent of the region’s gross domestic product, according to a 2006 World Bank report on crime and violence.
Illegal arms trafficking is also increasingly associated with drug trafficking. The Peruvian Army confirmed that the remnants of Shining Path guerrillas, who are now dedicated to the production and sale of cocaine, had missile launchers, machine guns and rifles of Russian origin in their possesion. During the span of a year, Shining Path’s rearmament cost 50 Peruvian Soldiers their lives.
Some of the main smuggling points in the region are the border between the Andean countries and Brazil; Iquitos, Peru; the Gulf of Urabá, between Colombia and Panama; and the Tri-Border area of Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina.
Supply and demand
While weapons are not scarce in the region, ammunition is. Russian AK-103 rifles acquired by Venezuela are usually the most sought after in the region, especially by the FARC, which still has at least 5,000 of these weapons.
The exchange of drugs for weapons that started in the mid-1990s between the Colombian drug cartels and the Russian mafia is also flourishing. Just like cocaine leaves Colombia, Peru and Bolivia through Venezuela, Ecuador and Brazil toward Europe, the arms travel the same route in the opposite direction.
Two prosecutors in Ciudad del Este, Paraguay, Adelaida Vázquez and Carolina Gabea, witness this type of trafficking almost daily along the Tri-Border area. Both share the same complaint: lack of resources and the enemy at home. “We have a group of special agents, but they are too few to face so much crime,” explained Vázquez. “It is dangerous to be a lawabiding person and work here, but … if you stay clean, the drug traffickers usually leave you alone.”
Action Against Illegal Weapons Trafficking
Paraguay and Brazil curb weapons smuggling:
Paraguay and Brazil have an agreement to combat weapons trafficking on their shared border. The accord, signed in November 2006 and ratified in October 2009 by Brazil’s Federal Senate, strengthens cooperation between law enforcement to combat firearms, munitions and explosives manufacturing and trafficking. It also calls for information exchange on weapons registration and ownership.
Pact to counter illicit small-arms trafficking
The Inter-American Convention Against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Ammunition, Explosives, and Other Related Materials, or CIFTA, is the first multilateral treaty designed to prevent, combat and eradicate illegal transnational trafficking in the Americas.
CIFTA was created by the Organization of American States in 1997 and has been ratified by 30 OAS member states. The treaty requires members to have more effective documentation for exporting and importing, and the generation of identification for the firearms with appropriate markings. It also requires increased exchange of information and law enforcement cooperation.
Colombia and its borders
Colombia created a river battalion to control arms and drug trafficking on its borders with Peru and Ecuador. The battalion, stationed in Puerto Leguízamo, southern Colombia, will have three marine infantry battalions and one river assault battalion. Among other units, it will have nine fast river-patrol boats, 29 river combat elements, armored units to transport troops, light river-patrol boats for support and tug boats. More than 2,400 uniformed personnel will be assigned to the batallion.
eTrace: Internet-based firearms tracing and analysis
Caribbean and Central American countries have implemented eTrace, a Web-based firearm trace request submission system that provides for the electronic exchange of crime gun data in a secure Web-based environment. It was launched in 2004 in the United States as part of a program to modernize law enforcement support tools.
Participating law enforcement agencies with access to the Internet can acquire 24 hours a day, seven days a week, real-time information, free of charge. In 2008, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives traced and processed more than 300,000 guns from 58 countries.
Global law enforcement smothers the FARC
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, has played a key role in arms trafficking in Latin America during the past decade. It acquires arms as payment for drugs from narcotrafficking. As of July 2009, Colombia’s government — through Interpol — sent 209 official requests to 27 countries to verify the origin of arms seized from the FARC during the past 10 years, according to national newspaper El Tiempo.
Major achievements by national and international law enforcement to disrupt the FARC’s arms purchases include:
June 23, 2001
Peru’s former secret police Chief Vladimiro Montesinos was arrested in Caracas, Venezuela. He was responsible for smuggling AKMS Kalashnikov assault rifles from Jordan to the FARC under the guise of an official Peruvian military purchase of 50,000 arms. In 1999, he delivered 10,000 AKMS rifles in crates parachuted to the FARC near Barrancomina, department of Guainía.\
April 21, 2001
One of Brazil’s major drug traffickers, Luiz Fernando da Costa, aka Fernandinho Beira-Mar, was captured in the Colombian jungle near the Brazilian border. Da Costa traded arms and ammunition transported from Paraguay to the FARC’s 16th Front around Barrancomina in exchange for drugs.\
June 7, 2007
Syrian arms dealer Monzer al-Kassar was arrested in Madrid. He offered to supply the FARC 15 Strela 2 surface-to-air missiles, as well as 7,700 Kalashnikov assault rifles. The weapons were allegedly to be shipped from Bulgaria and Romania aboard a vessel from Greece, and the deal sealed with a false Nicaraguan end-user certificate. Al-Kassar was convicted in November 2008 in a U.S. federal court.
March 6, 2008
Veteran Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout was arrested in Thailand. He was allegedly planning to sell 100 Russian Igla surface-to-air missiles to the FARC. The missiles were to have been shipped from Bulgaria to Nicaragua and then parachuted over Colombian rebelheld jungle territory from an aircraft bound for Guyana.
Aug. 19, 2009
Jamal Yousef, aka Talal Hassan Ghantou, a former Syrian military officer, was arrested in Honduras. He tried to sell to the FARC around18 surface-to-air missiles, 100 AR-15 assault rifles, 100 M16 assault rifles, 10 M60 machine guns, C-4 explosives, 2,500 hand grenades, and rocket-propelled grenades.
“Lords of war — Running the arms trafficking industry” por Jane’s Intelligence Review