Thursday, May 31, 2018

Forum on the Arms Trade: A Worrisome Conundrum: Latin American Defense and Security Forces and Weapons Trafficking

"A Worrisome Conundrum: Latin American Defense and Security Forces and Weapons Trafficking"
W. Alejandro Sanchez
18 May 2018
Forum on the Arms Trade
Originally published: 

This is one of six essays in the May 2018 report "Addressing Non-State Actors: Multiple Approaches" (see full report). Each essay is the independent work of its author. 

Latin America continues to face internal and transnational security threats that include drug cartels, transnational gangs, insurgent movements, as well as street crime. Naturally, preventing criminals and terrorists from obtaining weapons is an objective for any government. This goal becomes even more complicated when the weapons in question are obtained from the very institutions that are tasked with combating criminal and violent organizations.

Tragically, in recent years there have been a number of incidents in which weapons were taken from military bases and police stations across Latin America; this suggests a lack of adequate security measures in such facilities at best, or collusion between corrupt defense personnel and criminal enterprises at worst. When it comes to preventing violent non-state actors in Latin America from obtaining weapons to commit crimes, step one should be, unsurprisingly, that they do not come from military and police depots.

Recent Cases from Regional Armed Forces

There are a number of recent cases of the theft of weapons from military depots across Latin America. For example, in early January 2016, two rifles were robbed from the Uruguayan Army's battalion “Florida”.[i] One soldier was accused of helping criminals sneak into the facilities to steal the weapons. Unfortunately, these crimes have occurred before in the small South American state: in 2011 the Uruguayan daily El Observador reported that throughout the 2009-2011 period, as many as 19 weapons (15 FAL rifles, two submachine gun, and two Browning 9mm guns) were stolen from the Uruguayan air force and navy. Uruguayan sailors were found to have traded their weapons for recreational drugs.[ii]

Similar thefts have also occurred in Peru: in early April 2017 as many as 130 grenades were stolen from the Peruvian Air Force’s Punta Lobos base.[iii] A year earlier, 18 Galil rifles were reported missing from the arsenal of the 115th ordnance battalion in Loreto region (in the Peruvian Amazon).[iv] The hypothesis was that the weapons were delivered to FARC insurgents in Colombia or Brazilian criminals - the theft likely took place sometime in late 2015 but the weapons were only reported missing in January 2016.[v]

As for Bolivia, a group of Brazilian criminals, in cahoots with a Bolivian citizen, stole equipment from a Bolivian naval base in 2015.[vi] The weapons taken included 11 rifles, five guns as well as ammunition.

One particularly troubling incident occurred in Colombia in 2015, as some 400 weapons (109 rifles, 87 pistols, among others, according to the Colombian media) were stolen from the artillery battalion “San Mateo de Pereira.”[vii]  One sergeant and one soldier were reportedly charged for the theft.

Finally, in August 2017 there was a violent incident in Venezuela when a group of individuals (who apparently were anti-government, former military personnel) attempted to steal weapons from the Venezuelan Army’s Paramacay base, where the 41st armored brigade is headquartered.[viii] A firefight that reportedly lasted three hours between the military and the thieves, ensued, with several of the latter killed. It is unclear if any weapons were stolen.

Recent Cases from Regional Police Forces

As for weapons taken from police bases, there have been similar incidents, particularly in Mexico. For example, in October 2016, unidentified individuals entered a police station in Nezahualcóyotl, State of Mexico, overpowering the police officers. According to the local media, the criminals left with three handguns, one carbine and one shotgun.[ix] That same month, 20 long-range and 10 short-range weapons disappeared from a different police station in Morelos region.[x]

Meanwhile, in late October 2017, 28 guns disappeared from a police base in Iquique, Chile.[xi] The media reports on the incident stressed that the weaponry was not part of the local police’s own depot, but rather that they were delivered there for safekeeping. The origin of the weapons aside, such a crime is very problematic.

Other recent thefts have been reported across police stations in Colombia, Costa Rica and Peru.[xii]

Successful Recoveries

It is worth noting that there have been several successes when it comes to stopping these crimes and retrieving the lost weapons. Case in point, Uruguayan authorities foiled an attempt to rob an army base in Chuy in early July 2017 – according to Uruguay’s El Pais, one of the criminals was a former soldier.[xiii]

Additionally, many lost weapons have been retrieved. For example, in 2015, several individuals were detained in Brazil, and security forces retrieved the 11 AK-47 rifles that had been stolen from the aforementioned Bolivian naval base.[xiv] That same year the Chilean police (Policía de Investigaciones de Chile) recovered one Ingram Mac-10 machine pistol and one FN/FAMAE Norinco pistol, which had been stolen from a military base in Arica.[xv] Also in 2015, the Colombian army reported that it had retrieved some 12 weapons out of the 400 that were stolen from a military base in Pereira.[xvi]

An Issue that Hinders An In-depth Analysis

Before we continue with our analysis, one disclaimer is necessary: The author has not been able to find reliable governmental statistics that detail how many weapons are missing from military and police depots. There have been sporadic reports that have tried to keep track of the data. For instance, a March 2015 article in the Argentine daily La Nacion explains that a preliminary report by the Comisión Provincial por la Memoria (provincial commission for remembrance) stated that, at that time, in  Buenos Aires region alone, some 900 weapons were believed to be missing from local police stations, although that was a conservative estimate.[xvii]  Similarly, a 2015 report in Peru’s daily La Republica explains how, at the time, 86 members of the country’s police and military were charged with stealing weapons from their respective units and police bases.[xviii] Colombia’s renowned Semana has also reported on this problem.[xix]

Similarly, research centers such as FLACSO and the Small Arms Survey have drafted occasional case studies about weapons trafficking in different Latin American states (Ecuador and Honduras, respectively).[xx]

Nevertheless this problem requires constant monitoring not only by governmental offices, but also by non-governmental organizations in order to ensure transparency.[xxi]


The objective of this essay is not to imply that Latin American criminals are exclusively obtaining weapons from military or police depots; in reality that number is probably minuscule when compared to other sources – many U.S. media reports consistently point out that most of the weapons Mexican cartels utilize come from the United States.[xxii] Nevertheless, this analysis has demonstrated that this is a recurring issue in the region, with missing weaponry that includes pistols, rifles, and grenades. It is a problem that should be addressed.

In many cases, weapons were taken from military bases or police stations because corrupt police or military personnel willfully cooperated with criminal organizations, begging the question: what convinces a Latin American police or military officer to provide criminals with weapons that will be most likely utilized against security forces?

When it comes to discussing the best practices to combat weapons trafficking, some suggestions are self-evident. Case in point, having a database with the model and serial numbers of missing weapons is necessary, so that when a gun is retrieved from criminal organizations, the authorities can track where said weapon came from. A problem with this proposal is that, as aforementioned, many weapons are smuggled across border lines so that crime syndicate “X” in country “Y” uses a weapon that was taken from country “Z” – as was probably the case for the Galil rifles stolen in Peru. This is a particular problem for Ecuador, which serves as a corridor for weapons smuggled from Peru to Colombia (known as “ant-type smuggling” or tráfico hormiga).[xxiii] Ideally, cooperation initiatives between regional police and armed forces should include greater sharing of information regarding the weapons that are seized from criminals.

There are already several agreements in place to promote record sharing between regional governments, such as the Inter-American Convention Against the Illicit Manufacturing and Trafficking in Firearms, Ammunition, Explosives and Other Related Material (CIFTA) [xxiv] Additionally there are a number of bilateral agreements among hemispheric governments to combat crimes related to weapons trafficking – for example the governments of Ecuador and the United States signed an agreement to improve cooperation to combat crimes such as drug and weapons trafficking in late April 2018.[xxv]

Furthermore, there is something particularly disappointing about finding out that the individuals tasked with protecting a country and its citizens from criminals and insurgents are precisely those providing the latter with weapons to attack the former. Is there a “best practice” that can be suggested for those specific crimes? Harsher prison sentences for those found guilty is an obvious option. In fact, several military and police personnel have been prosecuted (fairly or unfairly depends on how one interprets the evidence) for some of the aforementioned incidents: as a result of the missing Galil rifles, four army officers were given six-month prison sentences.[xxvi] Similarly, in Chile, four ex police officers have been prosecuted for the missing guns in Iquique.[xxvii]

Another suggestion would simply be, as naive as it may sound, stronger indoctrination courses in military and police academies, so that new recruits do not forget the pledge they are making to protect their country and fellow citizens, and how helping criminals obtain weapons is the polar opposite of said oath. A Latin American military officer interviewed by the author argued in favor of this proposal, arguing that “you can put five more guards, four more security cameras and three more locks at weapons arsenals, but such incidents will continue to occur… you have to train soldiers better, educate them better, pay them better.”[xxviii] On the other hand, another Latin American army officer explained to the author, that such incidents should prompt armed forces to “take security measures of the weapons depots to the extreme.”[xxix] There is certainly no one-stop-solution to address the issue of weaponry theft.

As a final point, it is important to highlight that the theft of weaponry from military bases is not a problem solely relegated to Latin America. In the U.S. “more than $1 million in weapons parts and sensitive military equipment was stolen out of Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and sold in a vast black market,” according to an August 2017 report by the Associated Press.[xxx] Another theft occurred in the U.S. Army’s facilities in Stuttgart, Germany, in 2016.[xxxi] Without a doubt, “rotten apples” exist in defense and security forces across the world.

Final Thoughts

Weapons trafficking is a major crime across the world, as it adds the proverbial wood to the destructive fire that is crime and terrorism. Latin America is no exception to this problem as it is not difficult to find at least one incident within the last decade of wicked  personnel who have helped criminals obtain weapons from military or police arsenals. To the credit of regional defense forces, several weapons have been successfully retrieved, but the lack of open-source data that shows how many weapons are missing from depots makes it difficult to figure out what quantities we are talking about.

In any organization, including those tasked with security and defense, it is inevitable that there will be bad personnel that will seek to profit by committing criminal acts, which apparently include providing weapons to criminal entities. But while avoiding such incidents may be a utopia, it is important for Latin American police and military forces to constantly come up with new preemptive strategies not only to prevent robberies from happening – like better salaries and stricter security protocols– but, when they do occur, to be able to quickly track them, particularly across borders. Weapons trafficking is a complex and very profitable crime, and Latin American security and defense forces should be combating it, not be involved in it.

Wilder Alejandro Sanchez is a researcher who focuses on geopolitical, military, and cyber security issues.
The views presented in this essay are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the author is associated.


[i]Militar sospechoso de robo de armas en Uruguay,” Ecos – Latinoamerica, Actualidad, January 30, 2016.

[ii]Militares procesados por robo y tráfico de armas,” El Observador (Uruguay), April 11, 2011

[iii]Roban 130 granadas de una base de la Fuerza Aérea del Perú,” Perú21, April 6, 2017.

[iv]Loreto: Roban 18 fusiles de guerra de base militar en Iquitos,” Perú21, January 5, 2016.

[v]Ministro inspecciona base militar tras robo de 18 fusiles,” RPP Noticias (Peru), January 4, 2016.

[vi] Alonaca, Jesus, “Un imputado por el robo de armas en base militar,” El Deber (Bolivia), December 11, 2015.

[vii]Capturan a dos militares por robo de armamento en batallón de Pereira,” El Espectador, Judicial, February 2, 2015; “Ejército recupera 12 armas que fueron robadas del batallón San Mateo de Pereira,” El Espectador, Nacional, July 9, 2015.

[viii]De base militar de Carabobo habrían robado más de 100 fusiles y lanzagranadas,” RCN Noticias, August 7, 2017; “Dos muertos dejó enfrentamiento en la 41 Brigada Blindada del Ejército en Carabobo,” La Patilla, August 6, 2017.

[ix]Comando irrumpe en cuartel y roba armas de la Policía Estatal en Neza,” Proceso (Mexico), October 18, 2016.

[x] Pedro Tonantzin, “’Madrugan’ a policias, les roban 30 armas en cuartel de Morelos,” Excelsior (Mexico). October 5, 2017.

[xi]Desaparecieron 28 armas que custodiaba Carabineros en la Primera Comisaría de Iquique,”, October 30, 2017.

[xii]Un policía estaría detrás de robo de armas en Estación de Carabineros,” Noticias RCN (Colombia), December 23, 2014; “Policía sin pistas sobre responsables de robo de armas en Jicaral,” La Nacion (Costa Rica), Crimenes, May 5, 2017; “Policía incautó más de mil armas y municiones en megaoperativo,” El Comercio (Peru). April 27, 2017.

[xiii]Detuvieron a delincuentes que planeaban asaltar cuartel en Rocha,” Radio Montecarlo, July 7, 2017.

[xiv]Operativo en Brasil recupera 11 fusiles AK47 robados de un puesto militar boliviano,” La Razon (Bolivia), December 17, 2015.

[xv]PDI recupera armas robadas al Ejército en Arica,” Ministerio del Interior y Seguridad Publica (Chile). August 28, 2015.

[xvi]Ejército recupera 12 armas que fueron robadas del batallón San Mateo de Pereira,” El Espectador, Nacional, July 9, 2015.

[xvii] Jesus Cornejo, “Los policías bonaerenses pierden un arma cada 48 horas,” La Nacion (Argentina), March 9, 2015.

[xviii]86 militares y policías enjuiciados y condenados por robo de armas y granadas,” La Republica (Peru), September 29, 2015.

[xix]Escándalo: mil armas perdidas en guarniciones militares,” Semana,  June 13, 2015.

[xx] Carlos Valdivieso, “Armas de fuego en Ecuador, ”FLACSO (Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales), Perfil Criminológico, No.17, July 2015; “Measuring Illicit Arms Flows: Honduras,” Small Arms Survey, Research Notes, No. 62, November 2016.

[xxi] This would also serve to understand better not only how many weapons are lost or stolen, but how many are also found. The author has relied on open-source news articles and reports for this analysis. Sources consulted by the author explained that a person can request ministries and specific government agencies for information regarding the incidents discussed in this analysis, but it would take time for these petitions to be processed.

[xxii] Analyzing weapon sales and weapons trafficking in Mexico is complicated due to its proximity to the United States. For example, see: German Lopez, “Where do Mexican drug cartels get their guns? The US,” VOX, January 14, 2016. Also see: Bill Chappell, “In Mexico, Tens Of Thousands Of Illegal Guns Come From The U.S.,” NPR, International, January 12, 2016. And see: John-Lindsay Poland, “How U.S. Guns Sold to Mexico End Up With Security Forces Accused of Crime and Human Rights Abuses,” The Intercept, April 16, 2018.

[xxiii]El tráfico de armas permea la frontera norte de Ecuador,” El Comercio (Ecuador), February 19, 2018; Autoridades ecuatorianas identifican rutas para el tráfico de armas hacia Colombia, Centroamérica y México,” Andes, June 5, 2015.

[xxiv] The Inter-American Convention Against the Illicit Manufacturing and Trafficking in Firearms, Ammunition, Explosives and Other Related Material (CIFTA), 1997,

[xxv]Ecuador y EEUU firman convenio de cooperación en lucha contra crimen y drogas.” EFE/El Espectador, April 16, 2018.

[xxvi]Iquitos: Dictan 6 meses de prisión preventiva para implicados en robo de fusiles | VIDEO,” La Republica (Peru), January 22, 2016.

[xxvii]Ex carabinero procesado por extravío de armas en Iquique dijo que se matará ‘para que ese fiscal se pudra en la cárcel,’",  November 30, 2017; “Nueva polémica en Carabineros: acusan ‘montaje’ del Labocar Temuco por el Caso Armas en Iquique,”, February 1, 2018.

[xxviii] Telephone conversation between the author and a Latin American military officer, March 2018, off-the-record.

[xxix] Telephone conversation between the author and a Latin American military officer, March 2018, off-the-record.

[xxx] Kristin M. Hall. “'Easy Money' Made Selling Army Weapons Stolen by US Soldiers,” Associated Press, August 31, 2017.

[xxxi] John Vandiver, “Army offering $25K reward in search for weapons stolen from Stuttgart arms room,” Stars and Stripes, January 30, 2018.

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