The Small Arms Trade in Latin America

March 6, 2008

Small arms and gun violence present the most dramatic threat to public safety in Latin America and the Caribbean. After decades of uncontrolled proliferation, at least 45 million to 80 million small arms and light weapons—that is, weapons operated by an individual or small group, including handguns, assault rifles, grenades, grenade launchers, and even man portable surface to air missiles—are circulating throughout the region.1 Gunshots kill between 73,000 and 90,000 people each year in Latin America, and guns are the leading cause of death among Latin Americans between the ages of 15 and 44, according to World Health Organization estimates.2

Small arms flooded Latin America during the Cold War, most significantly during the Central American civil wars of the 1980s. Although diverse motivations, channels, and suppliers have had a hand in their proliferation, the Cold War and its legacies bear most of the responsibility. Both the United States and the Soviet Union supplied their Latin American allies with mass quantities of weapons through proxy arms dealers. The Soviets and their Warsaw Pact allies sent weapons to Cuba, which then passed them to the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.3

In response, the United States often provided its Central American allies, like the counter-revolutionary Nicaraguan Contras, with Soviet weaponry, most notably the AK-47, in order to maintain official “deniability” of its involvement in the conflicts. The U.S. military allegedly maintained warehouses of Soviet-bloc weapons that were distributed throughout the region.4 The United States also used third countries, including Israel, to supply the Contras. In El Salvador, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front received AK-47s from the Honduran military, which had raided the CIA’s Nicaraguan supplies.5 Caches of Cold War–origin weapons are still being found in Latin America.

Today, most legal weapons in Latin America come from the United States, Europe, or the small but growing regional arms industry. Because the international small-arms trade lacks full transparency, and a significant portion of the trade is illicit, it is difficult to know the types and estimate the quantities of weapons that Latin American countries import. According to data provided by the Norwegian Initiative on Small Arms Transfers, in 2005 Latin America legally imported at least $175 million worth of small arms and light weapons, as well as ammunition and spare parts. The United States was the main supplier to the region, exporting almost $50 million worth of these weapons. Other major suppliers to Latin America that year included Belgium, the Czech Republic, Germany, Israel, Italy, Russia, South Africa, and Spain.

The same 2005 data reveals that the vast majority of the $29 million worth of U.S. small arms flowing to South America went to Colombia. Mexico imported $10 million worth, almost as much as all the small arms that Central America and the Caribbean imported combined.6

Venezuela, meanwhile, spent $10 million on small arms and other weapons and supplies from Belgium. Venezuela also made a controversial purchase of 100,000 AK-47s worth about $4 million from Russia that year, in a deal that included co-production rights.
Traditionally, Latin American countries have not produced enough weapons to meet their domestic military needs and have relied on imports to fill their arsenals. While almost every country in Latin America manufactures small arms to some extent, production capabilities vary greatly throughout the region.7 In 2005, Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, and Chile were the largest regional producers of small arms, and also the four largest regional exporters, transferring $15.5 million, $3.6 million, $3.2 million, and $657,000 worth of weapons, respectively, to other Latin American countries.8 Still, Latin American small-arms production is relatively small in scope. According to the Small Arms Survey, only about 4% of the small-arms-producing companies in the world are located in South America, on par with sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East.9 However, in August, 2007, Russia’s Izhevsk Manufacturing Plant announced it had finalized the deal to build two factories in Venezuela to produce AK-103 assault rifles and their 7.62 mm ammunition. Construction on the factories began at the end of 2007 and is scheduled to be completed by 2010. The U.S. and Colombian governments have complained that the Venezuelan military’s stockpiles of 7.62 mm FN FAL rifles, which the new AK-103s will replace, might be diverted to Colombian guerrillas.10

On top of these officially approved arms transfers, the illicit small arms trade in Latin America is thriving. The region is a smuggler’s paradise: A vast coastline, densely forested mountains, porous borders, clandestine airstrips, widespread government corruption, a lack governmental resources and political will to confront the trade, and entrenched and powerful narco-traffickers—all have contributed to the unregulated flow of weapons, drugs, and people. The triborder area of Paraguay, Brazil, and ­Argentina has become a particularly lucrative cross-­border smuggling region. Smuggled goods in this area, including weapons and narcotics, are valued between $2 billion and $3 billion annually.11 Hezbollah runs much of the area’s smuggling activities, using profits to support activities in the western hemisphere and the Middle East.12

But the region’s largest and most sophisticated black-market arms-trafficking network serves the ongoing armed conflict in Colombia, which has fueled an informal arms race between paramilitaries, guerrillas, and private citizens. Anecdotal evidence suggests that large quantities of small arms, bound for Colombian guerrillas and paramilitaries alike, arrive in Central America via sea routes and are then routed through Panama, which acts as the largest single transit hub for Colombia’s weapons. Researchers have identified 37 trafficking routes from Panama­ into Colombia, 26 from Ecuador, 21 from Venezuela, and 14 from Brazil, according to a RAND study.13

The U.S.-Mexican border is also a central route through which illicit small arms enter Latin America. A study released by the Mexican government suggests that as many as 2,000 guns are crossing the U.S.-Mexico border daily. As in Colombia, these guns are fueling an arms race, in this case between Mexican drug cartels, costing the lives of 4,000 people in 18 months.14 Weapons, including assault rifles like AK-47s, AR-15s, and M-16s, fetch up to three times their U.S. market value in Mexico, assuring a continued southward flow of weapons.

In addition to international smuggling, the diversion of domestic production and privately owned stocks contributes to illicit ownership in Latin America. Domestic production is most important in Brazil; about 80% of the illegal guns in Rio de Janeiro are made domestically, according to the Small Arms Survey, and police records indicate that between April 1999 and June 2005, 72% of illegal firearms seized by Brazilian police were domestically made.15 The majority of these firearms were legally produced and sold, and then diverted to illicit markets through sale, trade, or theft.

Craft production—crude, small-scale, handmade production of weapons—has been documented in Chile, Brazil, Colombia, Honduras, and El Salvador, and also fuels the illicit trade. In Chile, for example, craft production is economically insignificant but used to provide weapons for criminal groups. Homemade firearms, known as armas hechizas, are used by street gangs for local crime. Although not exported, the weapons are used regularly by groups that have difficulty acquiring weapons because of short supplies and strict legal restrictions on gun purchases.16 In parts of Central America, youth gangs assemble makeshift pistols out of bedsprings and metal tubing. In Santa Ana, El Salvador, informal workshops can produce imitations of .22- and .38-caliber pistols.17 More sophisticated and larger-scale craft production also takes place. Since the 1990s, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and Colombian drug cartels have been producing 9 mm submachine guns that mimic the U.S.-made Intratec 9, better known as the Saturday Night Special. Similar types of craft production have also begun to emerge in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, Brazil.18


Regardless of the source, small arms in Latin America have led to a variety of crises throughout the region. Ironically, gun violence in many countries actually increased after formal warfare ended. For example, in El Salvador, which experienced one of Latin America’s most brutal civil wars from 1980 to 1992, the percentage of homicides caused by firearms increased from 55% in 1990–95 to 75% in 1999.19 The Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) estimates that almost a quarter of the country’s annual GDP is spent addressing the growing violence. Yet weapons continue to stream into El Salvador and the rest of Central America, mostly from the United States. For example, between 1996 and 1999 the U.S. government delivered $376,000 in small arms to Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, and Panama, while in the same period more than $66 million in authorized private sales from the United States flowed to the same countries.20

Uncontrolled small arms are responsible for increased firearm homicides and increasing gang violence.21 In the favelas of Brazil, the murder rate for young men aged 15 to 24 is 113.8 per 100,000. In 2001, firearms caused 65% of deaths among young men aged 15 to 19.22 In Ecuador, more than 1,000 informal youth groups are involved with organized armed violence in the country. Shifting crime patterns and availability of guns in Jamaica left more than 200 children between the ages of 10 and 19 hospitalized from gunshot wounds in 2000 alone.23

Although the majority of conflicts in Latin America concluded soon after the end of the Cold War, some continue and others have reignited. Exacerbated by the ready availability of small arms on international, regional, and domestic markets, the 40-year civil war in Colombia continues to cost thousands of lives and displaces millions of people. In Haiti, a country precariously perched between war and peace, armed gangs are employed to use violence in an attempt to destroy the fragile peace process, as corrupt officials and drug traffickers exploit the instability caused by the continual violence.

Furthermore, these weapons threaten economic development. Gun violence burdens communities with higher health care costs, reducing productivity and discouraging investment. Compared to other types of violent trauma, gunshot wounds exact a higher cost in Latin America. A 2003 study by the Small Arms Survey in Rio de Janeiro, for example, found that the average medical cost of a single gunshot wound was $4,500, almost three times the cost of a stab wound.24 Gun violence exacts almost $90 million in health costs in Brazil and $40 million in Colombia, while productivity losses are estimated at $10 billion and $4 billion for the two countries, respectively.25

The United Nations Development Program has estimated the cost of violence in El Salvador at 11.5% of the country’s GDP. Moreover, a 1999 report by the Inter-American Development Bank estimates that violence costs Latin America $16.8 billion, or 14.2% of its GDP.26 The IADB also estimates that the per capita GDP in Latin America would be 25% higher if crime rates were more on par with the rest of the world. In other words, the proliferation and misuse of firearms undermines growth, threatens human welfare, negatively impacts business, threatens investment, and hinders ­development throughout the region.27

Small arms have become both the currency and commodity of the drug trade. A nebulous and mutually reinforcing relationship between firearms, narcotics, and gangs fuels the trade in both guns and drugs. Guerrilla movements, street gangs, and organized criminal syndicates perpetuate the demand for guns through competition, intimidation, and violence. Weapons are a hallmark of the drug trade at every stage, from cultivation to distribution. In Costa Rica, peasants have been armed with AK-47s to protect marijuana plantations, and dozens of armed gangs in Guatemala City have strong ties with international drug dealers.28


The consequences of small arms proliferation and misuse are multidimensional, and thus control efforts require various, multifaceted solutions. Because small arms have legitimate police, military, and civilian uses, simply banning them is both unpractical and unlikely. Therefore, policies and programs must be developed that address small-arms proliferation and misuse both from the top down and the bottom up, taking place at international, regional, national, and local levels, and implemented simultaneously and cooperatively. In general, small-arms policies should control the supply of weapons, eliminate potentially dangerous stockpiles, end misuse, and attempt to lessen demand.

Many steps have been undertaken at the United Nations, but Latin America has a mixed record of participating in them. The UN Firearms Protocol, intended to curb the illicit manufacturing and trade in small arms through more effective policing, has only eight of its 49 ratifications from Latin American countries. And Latin American countries have also minimally complied with the voluntary UN Programme of Action (PoA), a global agreement that outlines state responsibilities established at a 2001 UN conference called “The Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects.” In 2006, only two thirds of Latin American countries had established a national small-arms point of contact—the primary government functionary on small arms matters—which is the most basic step that states can take to adhere to the agreement. Most states in the region have some import laws and procedures on the books, yet very few have any controls over the activities of arms brokers, the shady middlemen who coordinate illicit arms deals, and even fewer conduct regular reviews of weapons stockpiles, which are attractive targets for theft and diversion.

But the region’s governments did show widespread support for a new UN initiative aimed at establishing an international arms-trade treaty that would institute standards for importing, exporting, and otherwise transferring conventional weapons, including small arms. A ­December 2006 UN General Assembly resolution that established a group of governmental experts (GGE) to assess the feasibility and parameters of such a treaty enjoyed the support of all Latin American and Caribbean states, passing by a vote of 153 ­to 1—with only the United States dissenting. Latin America has been instrumental in this process; the GGE began its work in February and is led by an Argentine ambassador, while Costa Rica, an original co-sponsor of the UN resolution, has long led the effort for a global code of conduct on arms transfers. In fact, the idea was first introduced as the Nobel Laureate’s Code of Conduct on Arms Transfers by former Costa Rican president ­Oscar Arias in 1997.

At the regional level, Latin America often uses criminal violence, urban violence, and drug trafficking as lenses through which to view small-arms proliferation. As such, the region has built many of its frameworks for small-arms control based on experiences dealing with these interconnected issues. Within the region, the most significant accomplishment has been the Inter-American Convention Against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Explosives, and Other Related Materials, or CIFTA by its Spanish acronym, also known as the OAS Convention. CIFTA and the subsequent model regulations that have been developed on implementation, as well as on substantive issues like marking and tracing, have inspired the subregions themselves to also address small-arms violence and proliferation.­

Central America has been especially active on small arms. The Central American Integration System (SICA) universally adopted a politically binding code of conduct on small arms, ammunition, and explosives transfers in December 2005. It prohibits signatories from transferring weapons to governments that commit human rights abuses or violate international humanitarian law.

In January 2003 the Andean Community (Bolivia, ­Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela) adopted Decision 552, approving a plan to crack down on illicit arms trafficking.29 The MERCOSUR states have also focused on small arms through explorations of urban violence, drug trafficking, and criminality. Although MERCOSUR adopted­ a Joint Firearms Registration Mechanism in 1998, it has not yet become operational. Still, a Firearms Working Group has worked to coordinate subregional implementation of CIFTA, as well as a cooperative tracing of weapons and harmonization of national laws.30

Individual countries within Latin America have also adopted national and unilateral small-arms policies. Brazil has been extremely active in addressing small-arms proliferation at the national level and has taken incremental steps to achieve great progress. The Brazilian government has also worked closely with nongovernmental ­organizations like Viva Rio, which works to prevent urban crime and conducts large-scale public demonstrations on small arms, including gun destructions.

Weapons collection programs prior to the public destructions have taken literally tons of weapons off the street. About 100,000 guns were publicly destroyed in June 2001, 10,000 in July 2002, and 5,000 in 2003.31 For Brazil, which has a firearm death rate more than twice the world average, and where more people have been killed by guns during the last 10 years than in any other country (including countries at war), the public destructions build confidence that the government is addressing the problem of gun violence, raise awareness about the problem, and places political pressure on the Brazilian congress to develop stronger national gun laws.32

In 2004, Brazil undertook a National Voluntary Firearms Handover campaign, which led to the recovery of nearly 250,000 weapons in six months, exceeding the program’s original target of 80,000. The initial success of the initiative prompted the Brazilian president to extend the program an additional six months. In all, the yearlong collection program removed 450,000 firearms from the hands of civilians.33 In October 2005, Brazil voted on a resolution that would ban civilian possession of guns and ammunition. Although the referendum failed, it was the first vote of its kind and served to raise awareness about small-arms issues throughout Latin America. In June 2007 Argentina launched its own gun buyback and amnesty program; in the first six months, the government destroyed 70,000 weapons and collected 50,000 rounds of ammunition.34

Other Latin American countries have implemented national destruction programs. The United States has worked for several years with the Nicaraguan government to destroy the country’s many shoulder-fired SAM-7 missiles received from the Soviet Union during the 1980s. These weapons are ideal for terrorists, who could use them to shoot down commercial aircraft. In 2005, Nicaragua destroyed 1,000 of them, though it is believed to have another 1,000 in its arsenal. The Nicaraguan government has said it intends to keep 400 for its national defense force.35

Although several treaties, international agreements, regional and subregional initiatives, and national policies on small arms exist, Latin American countries would benefit from additional assistance for implementing treaties and agreements and undertaking programmatic initiatives to disarm (through collecting and destroying weapons and improving stockpile management), demobilize armed groups, and reintegrate former combatants into society. Such assistance would bolster strategies and programs and allow Latin America to take meaningful steps to stop the small-arms scourge.

The United States is uniquely positioned to lead such efforts in Latin America, highlighting its complicated, often contradictory, arms relationship with the region. The country has long been the region’s chief arms exporter, providing millions of dollars’ worth of weapons, while at the same time providing substantial assistance on small-arms control. Since 2001, for example, the United States helped four Latin American countries destroy thousands of surplus small arms and shoulder-fired rockets, and to improve stockpile security. In El Salvador, the United States helped destroy 30,000 small arms in 2003, in Honduras, 13,680 small arms and 5,772 unstable aviation bombs were destroyed in 2006–07, in Nicaragua, 1,011 shoulder-fired rockets were destroyed in 2004–06, and in Suriname, 3 million .50-cal rounds, 20,000 WWII-­vintage rounds, and 20,000 small-arms munitions (including grenades) were destroyed in 2006–07.36

Similarly, the United States has used its own national­ laws to prevent diversion and encourage improved national­ stockpile security practices by Latin American countries. In the mid-1990s the United States applied its export control laws to suspend arms sales to Paraguay because of their likely diversion to Brazil. Brazilian police regularly seized U.S. guns from crime scenes, guns that had not been legally supplied to Brazil. The U.S. Bureau for Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (BATF), with the assistance of the State Department and the then Office of Defense Trade Controls, worked with the Brazilian police to trace the weapons’ origins. They discovered that the seized weapons had been legally transferred from the United States to Paraguay, but illegally diverted to Brazil. The United States requested that Paraguay enact tighter controls over its weapons imports, but Paraguay neglected to do so. In 1996, after several warnings, the United States suspended small-arms exports to Paraguay, lifting them only when arms policy improvements were implemented.37

Nonetheless, the United States has frequently been on the opposite side of its hemispheric neighbors by opposing international controls on the small-arms trade. As noted above, the United States was the lone dissenter on establishing a treaty to control the arms trade, has consistently stalled and weakened efforts to develop other international measures, and has been ineffective in stopping the cross-border trade with Mexico. U.S. arms policies, including loopholes in existing laws and opposition to creating strong international agreements, clash with U.S. programmatic initiatives and have allowed U.S. arms to flow to
Latin America with continued devastating consequences.

Millions of small arms and lights weapons continue to circulate throughout Latin America, leaving a path of destruction, crime, and conflict. Whether these weapons were provided to fight the Cold War or to fuel drug and gang wars, through legal or illicit channels, their presence is responsible, in part, for the crime and violence that has retarded development throughout Latin America. These weapons last longer than their intended purposes require, perpetuating cycles of violence and underdevelopment that affect the entire region. Latin America is progressively taking steps to break this cycle, but significant work remains. Levels of crime and violence are still unacceptably high in much of the region, especially among young people. If ­Latin America is to prosper in the coming generations, continued resources, efforts, and initiatives are needed to address the effects of gun proliferation and violence that threaten Latin America’s future.

Rachel Stohl and Doug Tuttle are Senior Analyst and Research Assistant, respectively, at the Center for Defense Information in
Washington, D.C. (

1. Small Arms Survey, Small Arms Survey 2004: Rights at Risk (Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 50; William Godnick, with Robert Muggah and Camilla Wasznik, “Stray Bullets: The Impact of Small Arms Misuse in Central America,” Small Arms Survey Occasional Paper no. 5, October 2002, p. 4.

2. Mark A. Cohen and Mauricio Rubio, “Solutions Paper: Violence and Crime in Latin America,” Copenhagen Consensus Centre and Inter-American Development Bank, June 2007, p. 5.

3. Rachel Stohl, Matt Schroeder, and Dan Smith, The Small Arms Trade: Beginners Guides (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2007), p. 9.

4. Ibid., p. 8.

5. Ibid., p. 9.

6. Norwegian Initiative on Small Arms Transfers (NISAT) database,

7. Small Arms Survey 2004, p. 16.


9. Small Arms Survey, Small Arms Survey 2002: Counting the Human Cost (Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 12.

10. Martin Seiff, “Defense Focus: Venezuela’s Kalashnikovs,” United Press International, August 15, 2007.

11. Pablo Gato and Robert Windrem, “Hezbollah Build a Western Base,” MSNBC, May 9, 2007,

12. Ibid.

13. Kim Cragin and Bruce Hoffman, Arms Trafficking in Colombia (RAND and National Defense Research Institute, 2003), p. 18.

14. Manuel Roig-Franzia, “U.S. Guns Behind Cartel Killings in Mexico,” The Washington Post, October 29, 2007.

15. Small Arms Survey, Small Arms Survey 2006: Unfinished Business (Oxford University Press), p. 84.

16. Small Arms Survey, Small Arms Survey 2003: Development Denied (Oxford University Press), pp. 28–29.

17. Godnick et al., “Stray Bullets,” p. 8.

18. Pablo Dreyfus, interview by Shelley de Botton, “Homemade Handguns: Weapons Seizures Point to Growing Trend in Brazil,” Comunidad Segura, September 28, 2006.

19. Godnick et al., “Stray Bullets,” p. 11.

20. Ibid.

21. Small Arms Survey, Small Arms Survey 2007: Guns in the City (Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 171.

22. Lydia Richardson and Adèle Kirsten, “Armed Violence and Poverty in Brazil: A Case Study of Rio de Janeiro and Assessment of Viva Rio for the Armed Violence and Poverty Initiative,” Centre for International Cooperation and Security, March 2005.

23. Michael Mogensen, “Corner and Area Gangs of Inner-city Jamaica” (Children of Organized Armed Violence, 2005), p. 11,

24. Small Arms Survey 2006, p. 204.

25. Ibid., pp. 202, 206.

26. Jens Erik Gould, “Latin American Crime Is Crimping Growth: Investment Slows Amid Insecurity,” International Herald Tribune, October 17, 2006.

27. Adolfo A. Franco, testimony at “Gangs and Crime in Latin America,” hearing convened by the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, Committee on International Relations, U.S. House of Representatives, April 20, 2005.

28. William Godnick, “Illicit Arms in Central America,” presentation to the British American Security Information Council, November 1998.

29. “Biting the Bullet,” in Reviewing Action on Small Arms, 2006: Assessing the First Five Years of the UN Programme of Action (2006), p. 97. Hereafter referred to as Redbook.

30. Ibid., p. 98.

31. Ibid., p. 99.

32. Viva Rio,

33. International Action Network on Small Arms, “Partners in Peace: NGO Contributions to the Implementation of the UN’s POA on Small Arms UN Biennial Meeting of States,” July 7–11, 2003.

34. Redbook, p. 99; International Action Network on Small Arms, “Message From the Director,” January 21, 2005.

35. Alejandro Marinelli, “Ya destruyeron 70.000 armas que estaban en manos de civiles,” Clarín (Managua), December 26, 2007,

36. Reuters, “U.S., Nicaragua Head for Conflict Over Old Missiles,” February 5, 2007.

37. U.S. Department of State, author interview, December 14, 2007.

38. U.S. Department of State, author interview, June 22, 2004.

Tags: arms trade, weapons, US military, smuggling, violence, drug trade

Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.