South America’s northern Andean region (Peru, Colombia, Venezuela & Ecuador) continues to be a flea-market for the trafficking of small arms. In an egregious non-sequitur, the lack of inter-state warfare in the hemisphere for the last several decades (since the 1982 Falklands War) has failed to stop the various South American militaries from upgrading their military power, particularly in recent years. In addition, small weaponry, such as rifles, pistols and grenades are becoming dangerously common in much of Andean South America, especially due to the proliferation of guerilla movements, and criminal organizations. Common street criminality is also on the rise in major cities like Lima, as criminals have access to light arms to carry out their illicit activities, prompting citizens to acquire guns to protect themselves and their families. The proliferation of small arms from the “grassroots” level to major arm purchases by a country’s security forces, is an important factor that needs to be taken into account to understand the current micro and macro geo-security landscape of Andean South America.
Inter- vs. Intra- state warfare
As aforementioned, an important aspect to mention about the contemporary security landscape of South America is that, aside from the Falklands conflict between Argentina and the United Kingdom in 1982, the region has not witnessed an inter-state warfare for decades. Even though tensions still exist, and often countries have been on the verge confrontation (like between Peru’s Juan Velasco Alvarado and Chile’s Augusto Pinochet in 1975, or the Caldas incident between Venezuela and Colombia in 1987), bellicose face-offs have been relatively rare. Peru and Ecuador had a number of non-declared borders wars in 1981 and 1995; however both were very localized and short-lived.
Nevertheless, today South America is in a new arms race: Venezuela is buying staggering amounts of weaponry from Russia and China, Peru is upgrading its air fleet and purchasing frigates from Italy (Lupo class), and Chile has acquired Leopard tanks and American F-16 fighter jets. Not to mention Brazil’s plans for a nuclear-powered submarine.
However it is the different levels of intra-state strife and crime that is the dominating security factor in Andean South America, due in large measure to the threats posed by the Colombian guerrilla body, the FARC, and Peru’s resurgent Shining Path. Other sources of internal instability, which are linked to the proliferation of small weapons, are drug cartels and multinational and local criminal gangs.
Light Weaponry Distributors and Buyers
A number of countries have become the exporters of light weaponry to South America, particularly the Andean nations. This is not meant to be a comprehensive list:
Moscow is regaining its international status in the Western Hemisphere as a major arms dealer. Concerning light weaponry, the sale that has made attracted the most coverage was Caracas’ decision to build, in Venezuelan territory, a Kalashnikov rifle factory, in addition to a plant to produce the AK-103’s ammo. The goal was to have the company operational by 2009-2010 and capable of producing up to 30,000 automatic rifles per year. It's unclear the current status of the plant due to a lack of information from the Venezuelan government. Chavez has also purchased 100,000 AK rifles and 5,000 Dragunov rifles from Russia. Colombian policymakers have, at times, expressed apprehension that some of these Kalashnikovs may unintentionally (or even intentionally), end up in the hands of the Colombian FARC rebels.
The Fusil Automatique Léger (Light Automatic Rifle – FAL) is the standard weapon used by a number of military forces, like for example Peru. The FAL is a 7.62mm NATO self-loading, selective fire rifle produced by the Belgian armaments manufacturer Fabrique Nationale de Herstal (FN). The Argentine Armed Forces officially adopted the FN FAL in 1955. The FALs were produced by the Argentine state-owned manufacturing industry FM (Fabricaciones Militares) at the Fabrica Militar de Armas Portatiles "Domingo Matheu" (FMAP "DM") in Fray Luis Beltrán, located north of Rosario.
Argentina’s possession of the Belgian FAL license becomes relevant today because of Venezuela’s purchases of different types of rifles, including the AK rifle factory, to be set up in the latter country. On December 14, 2005 the Associated Press ran a story by Fabiola Sanchez, which explained that Caracas was considering sending its 30,000 FAL rifles to Argentina for repair. According to the article, the plan would be to give the restored FALs to the Venezuelan army reserve, while the new AK assault rifles would be given to active troops.
London is not a major exporter of small arms to South America. According to the Annual Report on Strategic Export Control, published by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, the British government has sold limited quantities of light weapons to Andean nations. The 2006 report mentions that Peru purchased gun silencers; Ecuador obtained pistols as well as technology relating to the use of pistols; and Venezuela purchased heavy machine guns and components for general purpose machine guns. The report for the first quarter of 2007 mentions that Colombia acquired heavy machine guns and other equipment for a total value of one million pounds. In all cases, the official reports do not provide major specifications about the weaponry or components that were purchased.
American small arms in the northern Andes are a mix of both legal and illegal trade. It is relatively easy to find American-made pistols in a number of black markets in downtown Lima for example. The key, yet unclear, issue is the number of legally sold small arms to regional countries, particularly Colombia. Much has been written regarding the amount of economic and high-tech weaponry sold by Washington to Bogota, like the UH-60L Black Hawk helicopters; however it is unclear the level of trade regarding small arms, like assault rifles and pistols that may have been purchased for the Colombian army, some of which may have even found their way to right-wing, military supported, paramilitary groups.
It should be added that Colombia produces the Israeli Galil rifles. An example of home-built weaponry is Peru's MGP submachine gun.
Illegal Producers of Small Arms
Weaponry, like small arms, can also be obtained from illegal manufacturers that make copies of rifles and ammo, some of which are highly accurate in appearance and performance. This is a particularly profitable and booming business as criminals (not to mention terrorists) will want to acquire such weapons to carry out their attacks or other criminal activities, while citizens will purchase these guns for protection, leading to the proliferation of illegally-produced small arms. For example, in late November 2007, the Peruvian police arrested a family (a mother and her two sons) in their house in the district of Lince, Lima and accused them of illegally manufacturing guns and ammo. In the course of the raid, police officers came upon thousands of different magazines of ammo, including the infamous “dum dum” bullets. The commander of the VII police region, General Octavio Salazar Miranda, declared that “we do not know if [the guns and ammo] were going to go to the hands of terrorists, drug cartels or to the Colombian FARC guerrillas.”
What do Insurgents fight with?
Insurgent groups tend not to make public the type and quantities of weaponry they utilize; nevertheless, from a variety of sources, it is possible to gain some kind of insight on the current situation.
Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) – Peru
Shining Path does not appear to have a coordinated plan to increase their firepower from one particular source. Instead, they are likely to resort to robbing weapons, ammo and equipment from wounded or dead soldiers and police officers that they manage to ambush. Hence, their current arsenal consists of a variety of weapons, like FALs, AK-47s and a variety of revolvers and pistols.
Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) – Colombia
The FARC, because of the millions that the group receives from a variety of illicit activities (i.e. drug trafficking, money laundering and kidnapping for ransom), has the monetary resources to obtain weaponry and ammo as needed. For several years the Peruvian media has reported the use of Peruvian territory as a corridor for illegal weapons trafficking into Colombia. According to a September 26, 2002 article in the Peruvian magazine Caretas, traffickers transport weapons from Recife (Brazil) via air to the Peruvian jungle, namely Puerto Arica in the Putumayo, and from there the illegal goods are transported across the numerous rivers along the Peruvian-Colombian border to the FARC.
The FARC tactics of using drug money to purchase has become normal procedure. In the 1990s, it was revealed that Vladimiro Montesinos (intelligence service chief of former-Peruvian dictator Alberto Fujimori) had sold weaponry to the FARC. As far as facts are known, in 1998-1999 Montesinos sent individuals (disguised as Peruvian military officers) to Jordan, where they purchased around 60,000 AK-47 rifles. Of those rifles, 10,000 were sent via plane to the FARC in Colombia. The assault rifles were dropped off in parachutes over Barrancominas in Colombia, controlled by the FARC’s Frente 16 which was under the control of FARC commander Medina Caracas (AKA “El Negro Acacio”). The FARC gained the monetary resources to pay for this transaction by selling drugs to Brazilian drug traffickers, namely the Brazilian drug dealer Fernando Da Costa (AKA “Fernandinho”). Montesinos was paid millions for brokering the transaction. Deals like this exemplify the links between drugs and weapons trafficking.
The FARC also uses routes in Central America to obtain weaponry. A March 21, 2005 article in the Mexican daily El Universal mentions the existence of an arms cartel trafficking AK-47 rifles to Colombia from Nicaragua, via Honduras.
Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional (ELN) – / Colombia
In October 2006 , the Colombian armed forces carried out a number of military operations against ELN bases. Reports after the raids mention that a major operation was carried out in the town of Aguadas in the northeastern department of Caldas by the Colombian army’s Eighth Brigade. Among the weapons seized were AK-47 semi-automatic rifles, an M-60 automatic rifle, an M-79 grenade launcher, seven grenades and assorted munitions belonging to the ELN’S Carlos Alirio Buitrago front.
Attempts at stopping small arms proliferation
A significant event occurred in July 2007, during a celebration of International Gun Destruction Day, when almost 14,000 small arms were destroyed in Colombia. An article by the Inter Press Service quotes Ambassador Claudia Blum as saying that the weapons destroyed in the July celebration did not come from the armed forces. “There were 13,778 weapons destroyed, which included machine guns, handguns, rifles and mortars," she said. “Out of these, the vast majority -77 percent- were confiscated from criminal organizations and illegally armed groups throughout the national territory. The rest were legally owned weapons turned in by private citizens committed to security and nonviolent coexistence,” the ambassador concluded.
The report “Violencia, Crimen y Trafico Ilegal de Armas en Colombia,” published by the United Nations’ Oficina contra la Droga y el Delito explains that small arms found during raids on insurgent movements and criminal cartels had originated from a variety of sources, including: Belgium, France, Spain, Bulgaria, Germany, Hungary, China and North Korea. The report’s sources explain that none of these governments authorized the sales or validated that the ultimate destination of the weapons would be Colombian insurgent movements.
Meanwhile, reports in June 2007 show that the Ecuadorian government has taken steps to control the illegal possession of weapons, in order to boost the safety of its citizenry. Ecuador’s Interior Minister Gustavo Larrea has declared that, “illegally bearing arms is a crime carrying a sentence of up to five years in jail.” The crackdown on illegal weapons came after as many as six minors were killed in Guayaquil during the first half of the year as a result of gun fights. This prompted Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa to launch his “Ecuador Without Weapons” program.
The Incan Weapons Market
The case of Peru is a good example of how the trafficking of small arms can spread throughout different levels of a country’s government, security forces and civil society. For years there have been reports of trafficking mafias in that country’s military and police. This illicit practice is carried out by both retired and active duty officers. For example, the aforementioned Montesinos-FARC deal over AK rifles (known as “Operation Siberia”) had as main middle man a retired army lieutenant, Jose Aybar Cancho.
In April 2007, an article published on the webpage of the Colombian Air Force highlighted the link between weapons sales from Peru to the FARC. The article explained that in September 2006, Peruvian authorities detained a group of Peruvian weapons traffickers and a load of contraband which included: 25 thousand magazines and five surface-to-air rockets that belonged to the Peruvian armed forces. The article went on to explain that the individuals who were detained for allegedly belonging to this group included Peruvian lower rank army officers, who had easy access to military ammo warehouses.
Investigations were made public in May 2007 that showed that there was a group of arms traffickers that moved weaponry and ammo from Peru to Colombia, via Ecuador. A report pinpointed Luis Pijo Angulo, a retired Peruvian police lieutenant, as the head of the group. Regarding the multiple illegal arms dealers with ties to the country’s military and police forces, the vice-president of the Defense Committee of the Peruvian Congress, David Waisman (also a former defense minister), said “I very much doubt that the high leadership [of the military]does not know about this [the illegal arms trafficking]. I suspect everyone right now as we are talking about very large quantities [of weaponry and ammo].”
The proliferation of small arms in Peru is shown by its blooming black market which makes small arms readily available to citizens. Any individual that visits street markets like Tacora or Las Malvinas in Lima can purchase with ease a Glock for $390 (including two clips of ammo), or a Browning for $400. There is no set price for these weapons; they are sold at whatever the merchant decides. A June 5, 2005 article in La República quotes a Peruvian small arms merchant saying “aquí el precio lo ponemos según la cara de pavo” (“the price [on weapons] is based on the [prospective] buyer’s appearance). Other weaponry (new and used) that can also be easily purchased in such markets include the Brazilian Taurus or the Italian Beretta.
The Caracas Connection
In June 2007, during a visit by Hugo Chavez to Moscow, an agreement was reached between the Venezuelan leader and the Kremlin to construct two plants in Venezuela. The original objective was to have the two plants operational by the end of 2009 or beginning of 2010. However there have been issues regarding this, particularly when it comes to the Russians not moving forward with the construction unless the Venezuelans pay their fees first. One of the plants will produce the AK-103 rifle, while the other facility will produce 7.62mm caliber bullets. At the time it's unclear when and if the facilities will be fully operational, particularly as Caracas is not providing much information about it.
This becomes a security issue when combined with the 100,000 rifles the Chavez government has already purchased from Russia. Furthermore, Caracas has also purchased 5,000 Dragunov sniper rifles. An August 16, 2007 article in the International Herald Tribune explains that: “because sniper rifles are specialized infantry weapons and not typically issued to large numbers of [foot] soldiers, diplomats and military officers and analysts said, a purchase of several thousand Dragunovs would not seem to have a conventional military use for Venezuela's armed forces.” In addition, as stated before, Russia is building a Kalashnikov-rifle factory in Venezuela.
Combining the AK rifles, the Dragunovs, in addition to the weapons already in the arsenal of the country’s security forces, the question then becomes why does Venezuela need AK manufacturing facilities? A possible answer will be that Chavez is seeking to arm his entire nation in order to repel a possible attack from a foreign power (meaning the U.S.) In November 2005, the Associated Press reported that Chavez, during his weekly radio program “Alo Presidente,” had stated “we will do what we can to avoid (a war), but I've told the generals and admirals ... that we must have the rifles ready because, who knows, if a president later has to go prepared into the mountains ... we must be prepared.” Venezuela has about 130,000 troops in its military, in addition to a Chavez-created militia Territorial Guard and the Military Reserves, they are said to number more than 1 million, though only about 10,000 have received arms and training.
It would seem that Chavez is prepared to transform his nation into a military establishment. Unfortunately, his plans could backfire, giving way to growing criminal violence within the country, in part due to the easy availability of stolen weapons. Another fear is that the AK rifles will find their way into the hands of criminal organizations or rebel groups like the FARC or Shining Path.
What (and who) is killing people?
The strategies used in guerrilla warfare consist mostly of ambushes and hit-and-run attacks, which greatly diminish the relevancy of jet fighters or frigates, used for conventional warfare. Examples of attacks that have effectively utilized light weaponry include, for example, a November 2005 attack in Bogota – a hand grenade was thrown in a shop in the neighborhood of Fontibon, in Bogota’s northwest. The explosion killed 3 people, including two children.
In Brazil, a gun fight between rival gangs in June 2006, wounded six children by stray bullets, while eleven more were wounded due to shrapnel. The attack occurred in Rio de Janerio, in the Henrique Foreis school located in a shantytown. A September 9, 2006 Associated Press article by Harold Olmos explained that: “with their labyrinthine webs of narrow alleys, favelas offer easy hideouts to traffickers, and the slums' misery makes it easy to recruit young people into the narcotics trade. A study by the non-governmental group Viva Rio says the city has about 5,000 armed children soldiers in the battle for control of lucrative drug-dealing spots.”
Finally, the rise in criminal violence in Peru, particularly in major cities like Lima, has prompted civilians to purchase small arms in order to protect themselves and their homes, which could easily result in deadly accidents, aside from planned assaults.
A catastrophe could be in the making as Venezuela goes on with the scheduled plan of an AK factory, unless production was under vigorous control. This would almost certainly end up on the black market, or even legally, which could provoke more accidents if children come across ill-stored weapons in their homes.
The Grim Future
As South America becomes more involved in an arms race, there is no reason not to expect that an increase in violence will not follow. Inter-state warfare still remains unlikely; however intra-state warfare as well as widespread acts of ad hoc violence are every-day events in the region. Nations like Colombia and Ecuador have taken some steps to quell the spread of light arms to insurgent groups, as well as to criminal organizations and gangs, but much more needs to be done.
South America may not have witnessed an inter-state ware since the 1995 Peru – Ecuador border dispute; however, a day seldom passes without some new report of deaths or injuries as a result of small arms. The lack of conventional warfare does not mean that South America, the northern Andean region in particular, can be considered an entirely safe zone. Violence occurs using other types of weaponry, not necessarily tanks or fighter planes, but AK rifles, hand grenades and pistols. The future looks very grim for the northern Andean countries as small arms claims the lives of scores of their citizens on a weekly basis. The reality of the northern Andes is that the region is involved in a silent, never-ending cycle of internal violence, a human catastrophe going on before the world’s eyes.
W. Alejandro Sánchez