Arms traffickers in Argentina bought US AR-15 rifle parts, assembled the firearms, and then transported the arsenal in a military-style truck. The intended buyers of the high-powered weapons were powerful prison gangs in neighboring Brazil and Paraguay, in a case that shows how easily arms move in the lawless Tri-Border region.
A report by an Argentine judge has revealed the existence of the arms trafficking network several months after authorities seized more than 600 firearms, including hundreds of AR-15 rifles, in 11 locations in the province of Buenos Aires and across the country.
Argentine Security Minister Patricia Bullrich said after the operation that the rifle parts had been purchased in Miami, and then sent via postal service to Argentina. Each package held sufficient parts for as many as five AR-15 rifles.
The semi-automatic weapons were then assembled, modified, and even tested prior to being packed for sale to crime groups in Brazil and Paraguay. The arms were transported to the neighboring countries in a silver Kia truck outfitted with army insignias that likely had been bought in a military auction.
The rifle parts cost about $1,500. The assembled firearms sold for as much as $12,000 in Paraguay and $20,000 in Brazil.
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The operation, labeled “Clandestine Arsenal” (Arsenal Clandestino) was carried out in November after government officials in the United States alerted Argentina of suspicious packages traveling from Miami to Buenos Aires.
After substituting the real rifle parts with fakes, authorities in Argentina tracked one of the packages to where the arms were being assembled.
A number of arrests have been made since, including of members of the postal service, accused of colluding with crime groups.
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The dismantling of the illegal arms network, which operated out of Argentina and sold weapons to criminal groups in neighboring Brazil and Paraguay, shows how the Tri-Border region thrives as a criminal hub.
When presenting the results of the operation, Minister Bullrich was quick to suggest that Brazil’s Red Command (Comando Vermelho - CV), a prison gang, was the main buyer of the arms. Even though authorities have yet to confirm this, what is clear is that both the Red Command and its gang rival, the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC) are strengthening and expanding in the region.
The PCC has been particularly visible in Paraguay, and to a lesser extent in Argentina, in recent years.
The trafficking network was clearly prepared to move a lot of weaponry, and one of the group's members was even an expert in modifying firearms, according to La Nación. AR-15 rifles can be altered in a way that allows them to shoot bursts of ammunition, similar to the military grade M4 rifle, which is the weapon of choice for Rio de Janeiro's mafias.
Authorities in Argentina were quick to celebrate the success of “Clandestine Arsenal,” the largest operation they have carried out against arms trafficking organizations in recent years. The operation is also the latest example of successful cooperation between authorities in Argentina and the United States, which increasingly seem to be sharing intelligence and strategies to combat organized crime groups.
Ironically, however, the United States' lax gun laws and Argentina's weak border and customs controls were what made illegal arms trade possible.