Three recent seizures of military-grade weapons in Venezuela provide evidence that such arms are circulating and in demand precisely as Venezuela is suffering a violent political crisis.
The first seizure of military weapons and equipment occurred at the Arturo Michelena International Airport in Valencia, the capital city of Carabobo state on the Caribbean coast. Ender Palencia Ortiz, who is deputy minister of Prevention and Citizen Security as well a general in the country’s national guard (Guardia Nacional Bolivariana – GNB), reported that authorities seized 90 BT-150 radio antennas, 19 rifles, and six telephones labeled with military acronyms.
Palencia Ortiz added that the weapons arrived in Venezuela on February 3, and that they came from Miami, Florida. Although no arrests were reported, the deputy minister made assurances that investigators would “find those responsible for financing terrorist groups that intend to undermine the peace of the Venezuelan people.”
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The second seizure occurred February 4 when the GNB detained one of its own sergeants, along with his wife and two daughters, ages four and seven, in the western state of Barinas. While the family was detained, the GNB seized seven light-weight automatic rifles that the sergeant allegedly intended to sell.
Then on February 9, the GNB arrested two men at a checkpoint in Sucre state and seized four 7.62-caliber light-weight automatic rifles, 3,000 rounds, 24 magazines, 12 portable radios, and a cell phone.
Additionally, in an unusual operation during the same week, the police's scientific investigations unit dismantled a “laboratory” for military-grade ammunition in Carabobo state. Two men were arrested. The police report stated that the ammunition “was marketed and distributed to criminal gangs operating throughout the nation’s territory.”
These weapons captures come amid considerable political tension between the government of President Nicolás Maduro and its opposition. While Maduro has warned of imminent military intervention “orchestrated” by the United States, the opposition, led by National Assembly president Juan Guaidó, is actively seeking the military's support.
InSight Crime Analysis
The unchecked circulation of illegal weapons has become widespread in Venezuela in recent years. In 2012, the Presidential Commission for Arms and Ammunition Control and Disarmament estimated that there were between 1.2 and 1.5 million unregistered weapons in the hands of civilians nationwide. Some studies have found a relationship between Venezuela’s high homicide rate -- 81 per 100,000 inhabitants -- and the fact that 89 percent of homicides are committed with firearms.
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It is common for criminal gangs to possess grenades and weapons of war, often stolen from military barracks. Some Venezuelan security experts estimate that 85 percent of the bullets the gangs use come from the country’s state-owned firearms manufacturer. And this information comes from an unpublished report conducted in 2015 by the government itself.
But these weapons are not only in the hands of criminal groups. The governments of both late President Hugo Chávez and current President Nicolás Maduro have armed both the country’s “colectivos” -- civilian paramilitary groups -- and “milicias,” groups of uniformed civilians who are receiving military training.
Maduro appears to be preparing for an eventual conflict with the United States, ordering military exercises; sending 700 officers from the infamous Special Action Forces (Fuerzas de Acciones Especiales – FAES) to the border with Colombia; mobilizing the National Bolivarian Militia and relying on groups of armed civilians to keep him in power. And he has stated clearly that he will use his weapons against a supposed foreign invasion.
Disarming the civilian population has been an ongoing challenge for the Venezuelan government. Neither the country’s 2013 disarmament law nor the incentives promoted by the Maduro administration to strip criminal gangs of their arsenals have garnered results.
Media investigations have already established the existence of a large black market for weapons in Venezuela. What's more, security officials often are the source of such weapons, selling them even via social networking applications.
What is most concerning about the three recent seizures, which captured at least 30 rifles, is that this high-powered weaponry is clearly available at a time when Venezuela's long-simmering political tensions have reached a boiling point.