The Growing Traffic in Arms

September 25, 2007

Two major policy issues, representing opposite ends of the technology spectrum, are fueling an ongoing political debate in Washington. At the upper end, President Clinton recently bowed to intense pressure from the U.S. arms industry to lift the 20 year- old ban on the transfer of sophisticated weapons to Latin America, paving the way for the sale of F-16 fighter aircraft to Chile and other countries in the region. Washington has always, of course, allowed the sale of other types of weapons. According to the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress, the United States sold or gave Latin American countries approximately $2.2 billion worth Michael T Klare is a professor of Peace and World Security Studies at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA, and the co- author of A Scourge of Guns: The Diffusion of Small Arms and Light Weapons in Latin America (Federation of American Scientists, 1996). From 1967 to 1975, he was a staff member of NACLA and a regular contributor to the Report on the Americas. VOL XXXI, No 2 SEPT/OCT 1997 of arms and military equipment between 1988 and 1995.1 Since the Carter Administration, however, U.S. leaders have followed a posture of self-restraint with respect to transfers of its most capable munitions. At the lower end of the technology spectrum, President Clinton is facing pressure from the governments of Mexico, Colombia, and Jamaica to curb the smuggling of small arms and ammunition from the United States to criminal and insurgent forces in their countries. Indeed, research by Latin American governments and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) has shown that a large proportion of the weapons seized from criminals and insurgents in Central and South America are purchased at commercial gun stores in the southern United States, where restrictions on gun sales are virtu- ally non-existent. These weapons are then smuggled to black-market dealers elsewhere in the hemisphere. 2 Thus, in the view of many Latin American governments, the United States bears some responsibility for the epi- 19REPORT ON U.S. POLICY demic of criminal and narcotics-related violence now gripping their countries. Both of these issues raise fundamental problems for U.S. foreign policy, each with significant short and long-term implications. Over the past two decades, the U.S. government's restraint on the question of arms sales has had two primary objectives. First, Washington has said that it seeks to promote social and economic development in the region by discouraging the use of scarce national resources for costly arms purchases. Second, U.S. policy has attempted to facilitate the tran- sition from military to civilian rule by limiting the power and influence of the armed forces. 3 Whether or not U.S. U.S. arms arms restraint has actually achieved these results, it is obvious that any manufactu decision to abandon the policy will desperate represent a backing away from those objectives at a time when many ana- up new cu lysts of the region believe that the threats to development and democracy in Latin An are greater than ever. Furthermore, because the purchase of advanced air- have been craft by any one country is likely to be aided by followed by the acquisition of similar aircraft in neighboring countries, the Pentagon decision to provide Chile with the F-16s is likely to ignite a high-tech officials se arms race in the region. 4 The sale and traffic of small arms to preserve also has serious implications for U.S. nation's mi Latin America policy as well as pos- sible domestic repercussions around industrial the question of gun control. U.S. efforts to coerce Latin American gov- i nfrastructl ernments (especially Mexico and Colombia) to adopt more aggressive strategies to stem the flow of illicit drugs into the United States are increasingly being met by demands that Washington do more to stem the illicit flow of small arms into Latin America. Therefore, if the United States expects more cooperation in the anti-drug arena, it will have to do more in the anti-gun arena. This leads to another problem facing U.S. policy makers: any effort to curb the illicit trade in guns will inevitably require the imposition of tougher restrictions on pri- vate gun sales here in the United States-a move that is certain to provoke fierce opposition from U.S. gun lobbies. With respect to U.S. aircraft sales, the critical decision currently facing the Administration is the result of a series of events that were set in motion several years ago, when a number of Latin American governments includ- ing Brazil, Chile and Peru expressed interest in the pur- chase of advanced combat planes to replace the aging fighters in their existing inventories. The brief border skirmish between Peru and Ecuador in 1994 added fur- ther impetus to this effort. Peru subsequently bought 18 MiG-29 fighters from Belarus-planes that may never be used because Russia, which inherited the Mikoyan aircraft factory, refuses to provide spare parts for the Belarus-supplied MiGs-while Ecuador acquired four Israeli-made Kfir fighters with U.S.-supplied engines. This, in turn, prompted Chile-whose armed forces are relatively affluent due to a constitutional provision that awards them 10% of the nation's cop- per revenues-to express an interest in the U.S.-made F-16 fighters. 5 rI tc st e l u er 0o er ki tI iti During the Cold War, when U.S. arms firms were busy making weapons for the U.S. military and for favored allies in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, the prospective sale of 10 to 20 jets to Latin America would have generated rela- tively little domestic interest. Since the end of the Cold War, however, domestic orders for new combat equipment have plummeted and many foreign governments have slashed their military spending as well. As a result, U.S. arms manu- facturers have been desperate to line up new customers abroad, even in such previously neglected markets as Latin America. These firms have been aided, moreover, by Pentagon officials seeking to preserve the re. nation's military-industrial infra- structure. Throughout 1996, Pentagon and industry officials lobbied the Clinton Administration to permit sales of the F-16 (made by Lockheed-Martin) or the F/A-18 (made by McDonnell-Douglas) to Chile. Members of Congress who had received industry PAC funds in the 1996 election were urged to put pressure on the White House. A total of 38 Senators and 78 Representatives, the collective recipients of $1 million in PAC funds from Lockheed, McDonnell-Douglas, and their major subcontractors, wrote to Clinton to express their support for the sale. Finally, in January of this year, the outgoing Secretaries of Defense and State, William Perry and Warren Christopher, wrote to Clinton expressing their support for limited sales of jet fighters to Latin America. 6 These pressures finally had their intended effect. Even before the President made his final decision to lift the ban, he allowed Lockheed-Martin to provide the NACIA REPORT ON THE AMERICASREPORT ON U.S. POLICY Chilean Air Force with technical information on the F- 16-a move that was widely interpreted as signalling a predisposition to approve their eventual export. "They've already crossed the Rubicon," an industry official was quoted as saying at the time. "[If] you put something on the table and [then] you take it back, you lose face." 7 Opponents of the high-tech sales spent a good deal of political capital trying to persuade Clinton to retain the ban on sophisticated arms exports to Latin America. In May, former President Jimmy Carter met with a number of senior Latin American policy mak- ers, including former Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, to plan a cam- If Wasi paign against excessive arms spend- ing in the region. Selling the F-16 to signific Chile Carter nnted would "o en un a Pandora's box," provoking further aircraft sales and a dangerous arms race. 8 Many arms-control and human rights groups are now campaigning against any further sales. The dispute over illicit arms traf- ficking has also been brewing for a number of years. Its origins can be traced to the Reagan and Bush Administrations, when Washington announced its "war on drugs" and demanded that Latin American gov- ernments either clamp down on narcotraffickers operating in their territory or face various penalties. These penalties are typically imposed tthrough the certification process whereby Washington determines whether U.S. aid recipients have done enough to justify continued U.S. assistance. But while agreeing to do more in com- bating drugs, these governments have called on Washington to support their efforts by clamping down on the illegal gun trade, which they claim has allowed narcotraffickers to acquire better weapons than those employed by their own armed forces. 9 The fact that Washington keeps stepping up the pres- sure on Latin America to do more in the war against drugs while doing little to curb the illicit arms trade at home has produced increasing rancor among Latin American officials. "When we talk about drugs, [North Americans] say [the problem] is the supply, and when we bring up arms they respond that it's the demand. In other words, we can never win," Mexico's Ambassador to the United States, Jesis Silva-Herzog, told reporters in April. 1 0 If Washington is to significantly reduce the trade in illicit arms, it must override the NRA and adopt tough new gun laws-something U.S. leaders have been very reluctant to do. This outlook has led a number of these governments to take the initiative in raising the arms issue, thus putting pressure on Washington to act more aggres- sively in this area. Colombia has long led efforts in the United Nations to address the problem of illicit arms, and in 1995 Argentina and Ecuador joined Japan and South Africa in calling for a UN study of possible mea- sures to control the international trade in small arms. In their proposed resolution, later adopted by the UN General Assembly, the four asserted that "arms obtained through the illicit hington is to arms trade are most likely to be used for violent purposes ... pos[ing] a dan- antly reduce ger to regional and international secu- rity, and certainly to the security and trade in illicit political stability of the countries arms, it must affected."" Efforts are also underway at the Organization of American ide the NRA States (OAS) to adopt new hemi- spheric controls on the gun trade. adopt tough Faced with these pressures, the Clinton Administration has finally new gun begun to take action. As part of the laws- Declaration of Alliance Against Drugs signed by Presidents Clinton something and Zedillo during Clinton's May 1997 state visit to Mexico, the White U.S. leaders House pledged to undertake a "com- ve been very prehensive combat the growing danger of illicit trade in reluctant to firearms." This endeavor is said to include a "dedicated effort to prose- do. cute traffickers caught attempting to smuggle firearms across the border," the adoption of new legislation "to make it illegal for brokers operating in the U.S. to act as middlemen for illegal arms transactions conducted overseas," and the imposition of "new rules to require gun purchasers to certify that they have been residents for at least 90 days in the state where they are trying to buy a gun." Clinton also promised to adopt the "model regulations" on arms exports now being developed by the OAS.' 2 It is still too early to determine whether President Clinton will follow up on these promises, and take the steps needed to put them into effect, especially if, as expected, he runs into strong opposition from pro-gun forces at home. Nevertheless, he can expect growing pressure from Latin America on this issue. He cannot reasonably expect more from the region on the drug issue if he is not willing to take more aggressive steps to halt the sale of illicit arms in the United States. The Growing Traffic in Arms 1. Richard F. Grimmett, Conventional Arms Transfers to Developing Nations, 1988-1995 (Washington: U.S. Library of Congress, Congressional Research Service, August 15, 1996), p. 48. This figure covers arms provided by the U.S. Government through the Foreign Military Sales program and various military aid channels; it excludes sales by private U.S. firms through the State Department's Direct Commercial Sales program. 2. For background, see Michael Klare and David Andersen, A Scourge of Guns: The Diffusion of Small Arms and Light Weapons in Latin America (Washington: Federation of American Scientists, 1996), esp. ch. 5. 3.On the evolution of U.S. arms export policies toward Latin America, see Michael T. Klare, American Arms Supermarket (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1984), esp. ch. 5. 4. For background on the current policy debate, see Thomas A. Cardamone, Jr., Initiatives for South American Conventional Arms Control (Washington: Council for a Livable World, April, 1997). 5. For background, Cardamone, Initiatives and Waller, "How Washington Works: Arms Deals," Time, April 14, 1997. 6. See Waller, "How Washington Works" for the details on these events. 7. Quoted in Christopher Marquis, "U.S. Looks Ready to Sell War Jets to Latin America," Miami Herald, June 6, 1997. 8. Quoted in Marquis, "U.S. Looks Ready." 9. See George Gedda, "Mexico Complains of Gun Smuggling," Associated Press, May 7, 1997; Howard LaFranchi, "Mexicans Too Have a Border Problem: Awash in U.S. Guns," Christian Science Monitor, April 11, 1997. 10. Quoted in LaFranchi, "Mexicans Too Have a Border Problem." 11. "General and Complete Disarmament: Small Arms," UN doc. A/C.1/50/L.7, November 2, 1995. 12. "Controlling Narcotics," White House Fact Sheet, Washington, D.C., May 6, 1997.

Tags: US foreign policy, arms sales, arms trafficking, Bill Clinton

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