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.
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-
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
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
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-
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
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
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

Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.