The recent seizure of 60 sophisticated military rifles originating from Miami in Río de Janeiro's international airport has exposed a massive arms trafficking network that may potentially be arming Brazil's violent gangs in their ongoing struggle for control over local neighborhoods and their recent attempts at regional expansion.
After an operation that took more than a year to plan, the Rio de Janeiro Civil Police seized 45 AK-47 rifles, 14 AR-10s, and one G3 rifle in Galeão International Airport that were hidden in two shipments of supposed pool heaters, O Globo reported.
According to Maurício Mendonça, a representative for the Agency against Robbery and Theft of Police Cargo, the shipment seized would be "the most modern arms available in today's war market." The rifles, which can be purchased for about $22,000 in the Brazilian black market, are so sophisticated that the police have announced they will file a request to use them.
Four individuals were captured during the operation: the owner of one of two companies that imported the arms and somebody close to him, neither of whose identities have been released; João Vitor Silva Rosa, who is suspected of reselling arms in Río's informal neighborhoods known as favelas; and Rosa's alleged accomplice, José Carlos dos Santos Lins.
Authorities believe that this network may have trafficked another 30 arms shipments into the country, amounting to nearly 1,800 rifles that, according to O Globo, are now potentially in the hands of Río's gangs.
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Brazil is the second largest producer of arms in the western hemisphere -- surpassed only by the United States -- and suffers from high levels of violence. However, the arms traditionally used in the country have been small, like revolvers and pistols, and domestically produced.
In fact, the increase in the number of long arms and rifles seized by the police -- more than 250 so far this year -- comes in the context of recent clashes between the country's most dangerous gangs following the breakdown of a longstanding alliance in 2016 that has unleashed violence in the city and around the country.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Arms Trafficking
Following a series of a gang clashes in early May, Rio de Janeiro police undertook an operation that resulted in the seizure of 32 assault rifles, four pistols, 12 grenades, and the capture of 45 alleged Red Command (Comando Vermelho) gang members.
The First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital - PCC) was identified as the perpetrator of the recent attacks on ATMs in Rio de Janeiro, which attracted attention because of the group's use of machine guns and explosives. Likewise, it is believed that the PCC was responsible for a military-type assault in Ciudad del Este, Paraguay last April.
Recent reports also suggest that Brazilian gangs may be acquiring long-range weapons in other countries located on arms trafficking routes like Bolivia as part of their regional expansion plans. This could indicate a sustained change in the type of weaponry used by gangs in their struggle for control of the drug trade and other criminal activities in the region.