Guns: The Small Arms Trade in the Americas

March 6, 2008

Gun violence has plagued Latin America since the early days of the colonial era. In June, archaeologists excavating an old Inca cemetery near Lima found a skull marred by a pair of small, round holes—­evidence of the oldest gunshot victim in the Americas yet discovered. The musket, in this case likely fired during the final battle for the Incan empire in 1536, was brought over by the Spaniards, and in a sense, the invasion of gun technology continues: In the last three decades, thousands upon thousands of small arms have inundated the region. According to the World Health Organization, between 73,000 and 90,000 people in Latin America and the Caribbean are shot to death each year, as Rachel Stohl and David Tuttle note in this issue’s opening piece. In a seeming paradox, gun violence in many countries in the region has actually increased since the cessation of formal warfare.

The violence is made possible by the many foreign-made small arms that arrive in Latin America and the Caribbean through a variety of channels, including commercial sales, both legal and illegal, governmental and private. Many of the guns now circulating all over the region arrived in Central America during the 1980s; a 2003 RAND study on arms trafficking in Colombia, for example, found that a great deal of the weapons flowing into the country were of Cold War vintage. Having outlived their original purpose, they now make possible Colombia’s 17,000 average yearly gun-related deaths.

Today, while the United States, still the principal source for many of the guns in Latin America, has made gestures toward regional arms control, its policies on the issue remain fundamentally contradictory. Bill Weinberg highlights a particularly egregious example of this: the southward flow of small arms—everything from handguns to assault rifles to grenade launchers—across the militarized U.S.-Mexico border. These weapons have made it possible for the drug gangs to take on nothing less than the Mexican army, deployed in some areas since early 2007. Meanwhile, the proposed Mérida Initiative, a U.S. military aid package to Mexico now being mulled in the U.S. Congress, seems likely only to worsen an already bad situation, given the extent to which the cartels are thought to have penetrated the Mexican security forces.

But not all the guns on Latin America’s streets originated­ outside the region. One of the most prolific examples of illicit Latin American arms trafficking is that of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. As Roger Burbach writes, Pinochet personally enriched himself and his family in the lucrative international arms trade (not just small arms, but big arms, including cluster bombs and missiles). By 1998, when he was arrested for crimes against humanity in London, Pinochet “stood at the pinnacle of an international arms empire.”

Domestic production is also a particularly important factor in Brazil—the western hemisphere’s second most important arms producer,­ after the United States—where most of the guns confiscated by police turn out to be Brazilian. As Peter Lucas notes, urban Brazil has for years rivaled the world’s worst war zones, with an average 40,000 people killed by gunfire each year, mostly in battles between rival drug gangs or between the gangs and security forces. In the late 1990s, a disarmament campaign emerged led by university students. It centered on producing original research on small arms, research that then provided the basis for an activism that recruited both citizens and the state, culminating in the passage of the federal Disarmament Statute, which instituted a number of control measures. Although in 2005 voters in a national referendum rejected an outright ban on all gun sales to civilians, the campaign’s efforts nonetheless offer useful lessons, even as the struggle for Brazilian disarmament continues.

Former NACLA editor Michael Klare wrote more than a decade ago that the diffusion of small arms “is one of the most distinctive features of contemporary Latin American society, and—along with the spread of narcotics and the widespread increase in lawlessness and corruption—one of the most destructive.” With this issue, we aim to revisit this important issue, examining violence through the lens of the technology that makes it possible.


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