Corruption within the ranks, a lack of supervision and tracking, and lackluster legislation are all to blame for weapons and ammunition from Latin American armies finding their way into the hands of criminal groups, a UN report has found.
The report, "Addressing the Linkages Between Illicit Arms, Organized Crime, and Armed Conflict," explors the relationships between military forces and criminal gangs around the world and how these led to a steady flow of weapons across international boundaries and into active conflict zones.
While the report looked at such relationships around the world, it gave several examples in Latin America, such as how the now-demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC) and Mexico's Zetas secured caches of weapons, as well as how El Salvador's arsenals have been systematically pillaged.
Here, InSight Crime provides three important takeaways from this report, written by the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR).
Weapons and Ammunition from Armies to Criminal Groups
One of the main ways Latin American gangs secure supplies of weaponry is from military contacts. According to the UNIDIR report, the mismanagement of military arsenals and corruption among army personnel mean that weapons and ammunition pass into criminal hands all too easily in a number of countries.
In El Salvador, for example, surplus weapons have regularly gone missing from military warehouses. UNIDIR found that while these arsenals were sometimes targeted for theft, soldiers also actively participated in these schemes. It found evidence that criminal gangs could pay $500 per person to receive shooting training from military contacts as well as get their hands on false weapon registration permits. The mismanagement of military arsenals and the corrupt dynamics of national security personnel mean that weapons and ammunition pass from the hands of the army to those of criminal organizations. Former President Mauricio Funes (2009-2014) and former Defense Minister José Atilio Benítez Parada were allegedly involved in such schemes, among other political positions, according to a 2020 investigation by OjoPúblico.
Similar examples can be observed in other countries. As InSight Crime recently reported, Paraguay’s Directorate of War Material (Dirección de Material Bélico - Dimabel) has a long history of seeing weapons and ammunition make their way to criminal gangs. Bullets stamped with the Dimabel name have been retrieved at the scene of numerous assassinations in the country. In September 2022, at least four unnamed military units were under investigation for allegedly selling off their weapons, according to Dimabel’s director-general, Aldo Daniel Ozuna.
The UNIDIR report states that while a country’s internal level of conflict can lead to such opportunities arising, official corruption means the sell-off of military weapons will continue over time. A lack of institutional action in tackling such trafficking in much of Latin America means links between armies and criminal gangs are set to continue, it found.
Legally Bought Weapons End Up In Criminal Hands
A lack of legislation in countries where the sale of weapons is poorly regulated is directly related to the spread of arms trafficking, the UNIDIR report found.
Mexico is a prime example of this. According to the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), 70 percent of weapons seized in Mexico between 2014 and 2018 came from the United States. The vast majority of these were related to networks that used private individuals, known as straw buyers, to legally purchase weapons.
Recently, however, the United States and Mexico have sought to tackle the connection between arms trafficking and criminal gangs. New legislation passed by the US government over the summer sought to crack down on “ghost guns,” a term referring to weapons that are acquired as parts and then completed by the buyer at home. Another such law aimed to reduce the ease of using straw buyers by increasing penalties for those engaging in this practice.
Brazil is another focal point. Under President Jair Bolsonaro, numerous restrictions on importing and buying weapons in the country were lifted. Over 2 million weapons have been legally sold in the country since 2018, or over 1,300 per day.
From Small Countries to Large
The UNIDIR report provided several examples of how the army stockpiles from smaller countries, such as El Salvador and Honduras, have provided convenient resupply options for criminal groups in Colombia and Mexico. Alternatively, arms traffickers in these countries act as middlemen to coordinate large-scale weapons sales.
In the case of El Salvador, the aforementioned arms trafficking scandal involving high-ranking government officials saw Salvadoran Army weapons sent to Mexican drug traffickers. Exposed in 2013, the scheme saw weapons that had been reported as destroyed by the government being illicitly sold to the Texis Cartel who then passed them on to the Zetas in Mexico. While most of the weapons were conventional firearms, a sting operation found a Salvadoran officer ready to sell rocket-propelled grenades and plastic explosives.
Colombia’s strongest criminal groups have similarly benefited. Both dissident factions of the now-demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC) and the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN) have received weapons from Colombian and Venezuelan army stores but also from the United States. In 2019, Interpol arrested a Honduran arms trafficker on suspicion of running a network where weapons bought in the United States were transported by courier companies from Central America to Colombia where they were delivered to the ELN.