Small Arms Trafficking in the Americas

The Bush administration may think that it has struck a blow in favor of the Second Amendment by attempting to sabotage the recent UN Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms. But U.S. obstinacy has consequences in all the Americas, most notably Colombia and the surrounding region.

They may be called small arms, but they’re big business. In Latin America, the problem of small arms trafficking extends from Mexico, where guns smuggled from the United States fetch prices three to five times higher on the black market than their original cost, to Colombia, currently embroiled in a long running civil conflict, to Brazil, which has one of the highest gun homicide rates in the world.

Guns bought legally and smuggled across borders however, are only part of a larger problem. Since the end of the cold war, weapons left over from superpower aid to insurgents still circulate, and are found in the hands of guerrilla groups, street criminals, as well as civilians. These weapons add fuel to many of today’s civil conflicts.

Colombia and the Andean region provide a window to examine the larger global arms problem. As a well-financed guerrilla struggle takes place in Colombia, it is fought using modern small arms and light weapons, from assault rifles and grenade launchers, to shoulder fired rockets–not simply rusty relics of the cold war. A news report from last year chronicled Colombian guerrillas and the Russian Mafia’s exchange of cocaine for weapons in a deal allegedly brokered by ex-Peruvian spy chief Vladimiro Montesinos. Former Argentine President Carlos Menem has been accused of shipping arms not only to Croatia in violation of a UN embargo, but also to Ecuador during that country’s 1995 border dispute with Peru while Argentina was serving as mediator. Not only are post-cold war weapons readily available, but new, off-the-shelf small arms are also being added to the arsenals of guerrilla groups with the help of high-level brokers.

The ready availability of these weapons to the well-financed guerrillas and paramilitaries in Colombia means that large quantities of weapons abandoned, lost, sold, or stolen are used in street crime and are easily available on the black market. The surrounding areas are also affected as weapons and drugs flow from Colombia into Central America, where guerrillas venture to obtain more weapons on the black market, often using drugs as payment.

At the UN conference, the United States opposed any language in the program of action that prevented the sale of arms to non-state actors. John R. Bolton, U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security affairs, flatly said that the United States could not be part of an agreement that “would preclude assistance to an oppressed non-state group defending itself from a genocidal government.” While the United States wants to keep the option open to aid insurgents battling oppressive regimes around the world, this policy can adversely affect legitimate governments battling insurgencies.

The United States must also acknowledge its role in global arms trafficking. The United States is the largest producer of small arms in the world, with more than half of the world’s producers based in the United States. Many arms traffickers buy relatively inexpensive firearms in the United States and resell them on the black market abroad because the penalties are relatively light compared with the penalties for smuggling drugs–and the profit margin is high. Arms brokers bypass regulatory norms and facilitate weapons transfers from states to non-state actors and buyers who could not otherwise obtain them.

The United States chooses to ignore the extent of this dynamic and sees any effort to address the matter as potential infringement on the rights of U.S. citizens to own firearms. At the UN conference, Bolton assured that “the United States will not join consensus on a final document that contains measures contrary to our constitutional right to keep and bear arms.”

In the Americas, the consequences of ambivalence could be substantial. When peace comes to Colombia, thousands if not millions of small arms and light weapons–many of U.S. origin–will need to be decommissioned before they filter throughout the region and overseas.

In pandering to the gun lobby, the Bush administration showed what little regard it has for strengthening international efforts to deal with trafficking in small arms. President Bush promised to elevate the status of the Americas in his foreign policy. If he intends to follow through on this promise, his administration must realize that the problem of illicit trafficking in small arms is more complex and serious than the attention it gave to it at the UN conference, and acknowledge the implications for the Americas.