Pinochet may have reached the apex of corrupt government arms trafficking in Latin America, but he was by no means unique. At lower levels, civilians and military officials alike have often turned a quick peso by engaging in small-arms “diversion,” meaning the shifting of arms from legal to illegal markets. The phenomenon is frequent in the region—a “recurrent Latin American nightmare,” as the arms analyst Pablo Dreyfus recently called it. Two hot spots drive much of the small-arms diversion in Latin America: the Colombian conflict and the Brazilian street wars.
Some of the most colorful anecdotes about small-arms diversion—typically featuring a cast of characters that includes shady, cosmopolitan brokers; duped government officials; corrupt military and police officials; and conniving corporations—come out of the labyrinthine arms-smuggling networks that have arisen to meet the demand of Colombian paramilitaries and guerrillas. In the years leading up to the implementation of Plan Colombia, the multibillion-dollar U.S. military aid program to the Colombian state, the FARC guerrilla group, anticipating the enhanced capabilities that the U.S. aid would give its adversaries, began aggressively seeking fresh arms supplies (likely financed using profits from its cocaine export deal with the well-known Brazilian trafficker Luiz Fernando da Costa). As Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun recount in Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible (Wiley, 2007), the FARC got its guns by employing the transportation services of Victor Bout, the fugitive former Soviet military officer whom a U.S. counter-terrorism official once called “the most powerful player” in illegal international arms trafficking. Between December 1998 and April 1999, the authors say, a plane belonging to one of Bout’s front companies made at least four trips from Jordan to Peru, delivering legally purchased AK-47 rifles.
But, as the international press widely reported in 1999, 10,000 of the rifles didn’t end up in Peru; they were parachuted over FARC-controlled territory in eastern Colombia. The scandal eventually brought down Vladimiro Montesinos, head of Peruvian intelligence during the Alberto Fujimori administration, who had negotiated an ostensibly legal AK-47 deal with Jordan through the U.S.-based arms broker Sarkis Soghanalian. The deal, undertaken with the blessing of the CIA station in Amman, was for Peru to purchase 50,000 AK-47s (originally from East Germany). Montesinos, who had long cultivated a stern, anti-guerrilla persona, reportedly collected $8 million on the diverted rifles, directly from the FARC. In September 2006, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison for his role in the affair.
Arms demand from Colombia’s right-wing narco-paramilitaries has also diverted state guns. For example, in November 2001, the Nicaraguan government sold Panama 3,000 AK-47s and millions of ammunition rounds in a deal negotiated through an Israeli broker. Using a forged end-user certificate (a document used to certify that an arms buyer is the final recipient and is not planning on transferring them), the broker had told the Nicaraguans that the guns would go to the Panamanian police force; in fact, they were shipped on the Panamanian-registered freighter Otterloo to the port town of Turbó, Colombia, where they were received by the AUC. “We have fooled the authorities of four countries,” bragged an anonymous writer, identified only as a “member of the AUC high command,” in the Colombian daily El Tiempo. The paramilitary arms pipeline was part of an elaborate smuggling scheme involving Chiquita-owned banana vessels under AUC control, as Phillip Robertson, writing in the fall 2007 issue of Virginia Quarterly Review, reports. Reflecting the extent to which arms- and drug-trafficking mirror one another, the AUC often paid its overseas arms suppliers in cocaine, according to Robertson’s source.
But perhaps the most significant source of arms diversion to the Colombian paramilitaries is the United States. As Small Arms Survey 2006: Unfinished Business emphasizes, the paras are generally better armed than the guerrillas. Their “U.S.-made R-15 rifles and M60 machine guns, as well as Israeli Galil rifles,” are expensive, sophisticated weapons compared to those of the guerrillas, who often “settle for cheaper, and even home-made, weapons.” This, the authors say, “implies that paramilitary groups are both wealthier and better connected internationally and domestically than guerrilla groups.”
Indeed, the U.S. State Department’s 2003 human rights report on Colombia noted that elements of the Colombian military was “providing [the paramilitaries] with weapons and ammunition”—obviously with full U.S. knowledge. Today, U.S. arms continue to flow into Colombia, while reports of diversion to the country from elsewhere in Latin America, including Argentina, Ecuador, and Venezuela, have persisted since the Montesinos and Otterloo incidents.
Brazil, too, is a magnet for diverted weapons, from both government and private sources. Although most of the guns that Rio de Janeiro police confiscated between 1974 and 2004 were domestically manufactured handguns, the majority of the high-caliber guns and assault rifles they confiscated were foreign-made, according to “Tracking the Guns: International Diversion of Small Arms to illicit Markets in Rio de Janeiro,” a 2006 study produced by the International Peace Research Institute and Viva Rio/ISER. More than half of the foreign guns were from the United States (54.8%), followed by Argentina (15.6%), Italy (7.3%), Germany (4.4%), and Spain (4.1%)—despite the fact that all of these countries have signed on to one or more international agreements aimed at curbing diversion. Almost a third of the confiscated foreign guns were made by a single U.S. company, Smith & Wesson.
The study concludes that most of the foreign weapons arrived legally to Brazil or one of its neighbors and were then later diverted, mostly from Brazilian government stockpiles and private owners. Paraguay, as is well-known, was a major source of the military-grade weapons on Brazilian streets; until 2002, the report says, foreign tourists in Paraguay could buy guns and ammunition with just a photocopied ID. While the flow of U.S. guns into Brazil has been somewhat contained since the United States suspended arms sales to Paraguay in 1996, it hasn’t stopped, the report says, because the wave of U.S. arms into Paraguay before then was so voluminous that many of the guns are still circulating.
Still, the state remains a key source of the guns fuelling Brazil’s informal violence. In January, a Paraguayan colonel, major, and two officers, along with two civilians, one of them a pawnshop owner, were arrested in connection with more than 50,000 ammunition rounds that were found missing from a government arsenal. Paraguay’s military commander reportedly said the arrest had exposed the “systematic theft” of government munitions, likely sold to Brazilian drug gangs.
This was not without precedent. In 2003, authorities caught a Paraguayan lieutenant-colonel trying to steal a pair of machine guns. Very small potatoes compared to Pinochet’s racket, of course, but nonetheless telling: State monopolies on the means of violence in the region are anything but secure in the age of transnational flows and neoliberal markets.
Pablo Morales is NACLA’s editor.