An ammunition heist from an Air Force base in Uruguay points to corruption in the country’s security forces, and further indicates that the generally peaceful country serves as a prominent source of weapons for South America criminal groups.
Investigations by Uruguayan authorities found that roughly 18,000 pieces of ammunition stolen from the Santa Bernardina Air Base ended up in the hands of criminal groups in Brazil; including Rio de Janeiro’s notorious Red Command (Comando Vermelho), reported El Pais.
The munitions theft -- believed to have occurred sometime between November 2014 and February 2015 -- was made public on June 21 by Congressional delegate Jaime Trobo.
According to investigations, the stolen ammunition weighed between 650 and 750 kilograms, and was removed from the base through its main gate using a truck. During the months the robbery is believed to have taken place, security cameras, motion sensors, and electric fences guarding the base’s weapons depot were not functioning.
Around 20 soldiers are under investigation. Mid-ranking soldiers and officers are also expected be implicated as investigations progress, reported El Pais. It is also possible more ammo was stolen than initially believed.
In 2007, the Uruguayan Air Force experienced a similar weapons theft, which resulted in four soldiers, three civilians, and one prison inmate being charged for stealing and organizing the weapons’ sales to Brazilian criminal groups.
InSight Crime Analysis
The theft of such a large amount of ammunition from an active Air Force base could not have occurred without complicity on the part of corrupt soldiers and officers.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Arms Trafficking
While such instances of corruption are less common among Uruguay’s security forces, they are not without precedent. In 2012, around 20 police officers came under investigation for removing over 200 firearms from police stockpiles and selling them to Brazilian criminal groups. More recently, in April, three policemen and a businessman were arrested on suspicions they were trafficking guns to Brazil’s Red Command.
According to a 2009 report by the Small Arms Survey, while having the highest per capita civilian gun ownership in South America (one firearm for every three people), Uruguay has a relatively small collection of modern small arms (61,000). However, much of this inventory was found to be useless, owing to reductions in military personnel. The report also documented a surplus of around 80,000 outdated rifles, sub-machine guns, and light machine guns, which serve no function in Uruguay’s national strategy and whose status was unknown.
The existence of such surplus weapons stocks may prove too tempting an opportunity for some corrupt military officials. Neighboring Brazil offers a prime market, where evidence suggests groups like the Red Command have been seeking to obtain ever more powerful weapons. In 2013, 40 percent of weapons seized in Rio de Janeiro were listed as “category A” -- including rifles, machine guns, and submachine guns -- representing a 33 percent increase since 2009.