A series of recent raids and reports highlights the thriving arms trade throughout Latin America, which serves to both profit illicit groups and to facilitate criminal violence in the region.

During a recent conference on armed violence in Central America, Ana Yancy Espinoza, academic director of the Costa Rican organization Fundación Arias, presented the results of an investigation on regional arms trafficking.

According to a press release from the Foundation for Global Democracy and Development (Fundación Global Democracia y Desarrollo – FUNGLODE), which helped host the conference, Espinoza highlighted how arms trafficking in Central America contributes to the “destabilization of countries and entire regions.” 

Espinoza said that this is a result of the arms trade responding to “the law of supply and demand,” which brings together various criminal groups into relationships with one another that can exacerbate criminal violence.   

In particular, a report by Prensa Libre found the 9mm pistol has been the weapon most commonly confiscated by Guatemala’s National Police (Policía Nacional Civil – PNC), especially from gang members. Prensa Libre notes this is partly due to the ease with which the 9mm is dismantled into five separate parts, which can then be used interchangeably with other gun components of the same make and caliber.

For instance, in an attempt to obscure forensic ballistics evidence, criminals will often exchange barrels after a gun has been used to commit a crime. The ability to break the 9mm down into its component parts also makes it easier to conceal, in turn helping facilitate its smuggling across borders.

In addition to the 9mm, the .38-caliber revolver is also popular in Guatemala, having the advantage for criminals of not discharging bullet casings that can be used as evidence when it is fired.

However, low prices have been perhaps the most important factor in making the 9mm and .38-caliber revolver Guatemala’s two most-trafficked firearms.

According to Prensa Libre, a new 9mm purchased in the legal market may cost between $930 and $2,400, depending on the brand. On the black market, however, a used 9mm only costs between $130 and $200, selling for even cheaper if the weapon was used in a crime. A box of 50 bullets reportedly costs around $20.

Similarly, legally buying a .38-caliber revolver costs between $530 and $670, but the weapon can be purchased more cheaply on Guatemala’s black market.

Overall, Guatemala’s Directorate for Arms and Munitions Control (Dirección de Control de Armas y Municiones – DIGECAM) reports having a stockpile of 55,000 weapons of various calibers that have been seized in recent years, reported Prensa Libre. In 2016, the PNC has reportedly confiscated over 3,500 firearms.

SEE ALSO: Guatemala News and Profiles 

Elsewhere in the region, the Dominican Republic has seen a series of recent seizures of illicit arms shipments. On September 16, customs officials in Puerto de Haina seized a cache of weapons in two shipping containers, including 18 pistols, a double-barreled rifle with a telescopic lens, and 55 cartridge boxes, reported EFE.

The haul added to other recent weapons seizures that saw customs officials confiscate a shipment of assault weapons, including an AR-15, an M4, and an M16 — each accompanied by a large amount of ammunition — as well as a 12-gauge shotgun. Dominican officials reported the weapons had been sent from various cities in the United States.

Further south, Costa Rica’s Fundación Arias also found the Triple Frontier (where the borders of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay meet) has the highest number of illegal arms shipments in South America. This has made the arms trade one of the most lucrative activities for organized crime in the area alongside drug trafficking and contraband, according to Misiones Cuatro.

Paraguay is one of the main sources of weapons for the region, with Paraguay’s Ministry of the Interior estimating there are 700,000 unregistered weapons in the country. For instance, Fundación Arias estimated 30,000 weapons crossed from Ciudad del Este, Paraguay into Foz de Iguazú, Brazil during 2014 — the majority destined for Brazilian criminal organizations like the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC) and Red Command (Comando Vermelho – CV). Trafficked weapons include 9mm pistols, 12-gauge shotguns, revolvers, automatic weapons like AK-47s and M16s, and even anti-aircraft guns stolen from the Paraguayan military or sold off by corrupt officials.

Arms smugglers also take advantage of poor radar coverage along Paraguay’s southern border to land gun-laden aircraft on clandestine airstrips in remote areas of northeast Argentina. Weapons are also trafficked into Argentina overland, as well as by boat on the Iguazú and Paraná rivers.  

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Paraguay 

In the effort to combat regional arms trafficking networks, Colombia — which has perhaps the broadest array of illicit armed groups in the hemisphere — has scored one of the biggest recent successes.

A recent security operation by Colombian authorities against a transnational arms ring in Villavicencio, located southeast of Bogotá, resulted in the arrest of 40 individuals, reported El Espectador. Among those detained was Alejandro Camacho Cortés, alias “El Señor,” whom authorities described as the best-known arms trafficker in Colombia due to his contacts with various organizations.

Cortés’ network allegedly trafficked weapons to rebel groups like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) and National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN), as well as to remnants of the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación – EPL) and the criminal organization the Urabeños.  

The arms ring reportedly smuggled in weapons from the United States, Mexico, and Panama, hiding them in Bogotá safe houses before selling them on the black market. During raids, Colombian officials seized two sniper rifles, five machine guns, 30 rifles, 50 handguns, 50,000 bullet cartridges and fragmentation grenades, as well as assorted weapons parts and $16,700 in cash.

Members of Colombian security forces are also suspected of helping the network obtain weapons from government stockpiles. Four noncommissioned army officers were among those detained.

InSight Crime Analysis

Latin America is a region awash in illicit weapons, despite certain countries in the region having relatively strict gun control legislation. Demand for weapons, whether for criminal purposes or solely for self-defense, has created zones like the Triple Frontier area that are veritable weapons “supermarkets.” Indeed, previous undercover camera footage shot by journalists has shown how easy it is to purchase a gun along the Argentina-Brazil border.

The high concentration of firearms in Latin America is correlated with high rates of gun violence, particularly in Central America’s Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. In Honduras, firearms are used in more than 80 percent of all homicides, a dynamic fueled by ease of access to inexpensive weapons on the black market. And a recent El Faro investigation suggests El Salvador’s gangs are increasingly seeking military-grade weaponry, such as M16s and AK-47s, to combat state security forces.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Arms Trafficking

Many weapons in the region, especially in Mexico and Central America, can be traced to the United States. Indeed, the US government has repeatedly come under criticism for its failure to stem large flows of weapons out of the country. In August, Mexico’s Foreign Minister Claudia Massieu issued a damning indictment of US domestic gun policy, claiming Mexican authorities have traced 70 percent of all weapons seized in the country to the United States. (According to US government statistics, about 70 percent of the firearms seized by Mexican authorities that were submitted for tracing turned out to be from the United States — an important statistical distinction.)

However, not all weapons in the region are sourced from North America. Many corrupt military and police officials, as well as private security firms, are involved in the arms trade, sometimes stealing weapons from government stockpiles or importing legal firearms to sell to criminal groups for personal profit. Indications of such conduct have been reported throughout the region, from the Dominican Republic south to Uruguay.