FAS Public Interest Report
The Journal of the Federation of American Scientists
Autumn 2003
Volume 56, Number 3
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Front Page
The Real Terrorist Missile Threat and What Can Be Done About It
A Science-Based Workshop for Leaders of Environmental NGOs and GONGOs in China
Meeting Natural Gas Demand: Infrastructure is Important, Technology is Key
Curbing the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in Latin America
Hiroshima Survivors Visit the Federation
The Learning Federation: Progress Report

Curbing the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in Latin America

By Matthew Schroeder

Over the past year, fitful but intense coverage of the threat posed by shoulder-fired missiles to civilian aircraft has awakened the industrialized nations to a security threat that the rest of the world was already painfully aware of-- the global scourge of illicit small arms and light weapons. Numbering in the hundreds of millions, these weapons take the lives of an estimated 500,000 lives per year, stunt economic growth, and perpetuate the lawlessness upon which terrorists and other criminals thrive.

Nowhere are the ill-effects of this scourge more apparent than in Latin America. Weak export controls, porous borders and an overabundance of small arms and light weapons have transformed Central and parts of South America into a giant arms bazaar that fuels instability and criminality. The four-decade civil war in Colombia, for example, is sustained by the thousands of illicit weapons and millions of rounds of ammunition that seep into the country through its porous borders. The weapons are used by the guerrilla groups -- the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the National Liberation Army -- and the Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) to wage war on the government, protect coca operations, commit human rights abuses and engage in kidnapping and murder. Money generated via kidnapping and narco-trafficking conducted from rebel and AUC-controlled territories is then used to purchase (or is bartered for) more weapons and supplies which, in turn, sustain offensive operations against the government and deny it control over much of the countryside.

The Colombians undoubtedly suffer the most from this self-perpetuating cycle of violence and lawlessness. Nonetheless, its impact is felt throughout the Hemisphere, including the United States. Over the past decade, more than 50 American journalists, aid workers and civilian military contractors have been kidnapped and/or murdered by the guerrillas while working and traveling in Colombia and the neighboring states. Equally pernicious are the thousands of tons of Colombian narcotics that flood the United States each year. These drugs sap the US economy of hundreds of billions of dollars and wreak havoc in the lives of the nation's 4.7 million cocaine and heroin users.

Transoceanic shipment of these weapons is another security threat that deserves more attention. While the terrorists and insurgents that stock their arsenals with loose weapons from Latin America are primarily homegrown, there is anecdotal evidence that arms traffickers from other continents, including some with ties to Islamic terrorist organizations, procure weapons from Latin America. The most unnerving of these cases is also the one that best illustrates the transcontinental nature of the trade in illicit weapons. In January 2001, Aziz Nassour, a Sierra Leonean arms and diamonds trafficker of Lebanese decent, emailed a list of weapons that he hoped to obtain for his "friends in Africa" to Shimon Yelenick, an Israeli arms dealer operating out of Panama. Nassour had many "friends in Africa" who were responsible for untold suffering, including Charles Taylor's corrupt and brutal regime; the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone, which gained notoriety in the late 1990's for hacking the limbs off civilians; and even Osama bin Laden's network, whom Nassour had helped to convert millions of dollars stashed in vulnerable bank accounts into conflict diamonds.

Nassour's list - sniper rifles, man-portable surface-to-air missiles, anti-tank weapons, etc. -constituted a veritable arsenal of terrorist tools. The list ultimately reached the Nicaraguan army but, according to Nassour, the weapons were never delivered. If that is indeed the case, it is not because Nicaraguan export controls are air tight. Less than a year later, Yelenick duped the Nicaraguan army into selling him 3000 AK-47s which he claimed were for the Panamanian National Police but ultimately were shipped to Turbo, Colombia, where the AUC took possession of them.

Regardless of whether the weapons were ever shipped to Africa, the attempt itself is significant. The fact that an arms dealer operating out of West Africa - which is awash in small arms and light weapons - chose to shop in Central America attests to the region's potential as a source of weaponry for brutal dictators, blood-thirsty insurgent groups and global terrorist organizations.

Like many of today's most pressing security threats, the small arms and light weapons problem defies quick and easy solutions. The durability, ease of use and versatility of these weapons ensure that the market for them will remain large and lucrative. As they are relatively small and nonperishable, they are easy to smuggle across national borders. Finally, they are ubiquitous. According to the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey, there are 600 million small arms and light weapons in existence today.

Nonetheless, there are many ways in which the international community can begin to rein in the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons. Strengthening and harmonizing arms export controls and procedures; increasing cooperation, information-sharing, and the provision of technical and legal assistance between national law enforcement agencies; and destroying excess stockpiles of weapons top the list. In Latin America, a framework for achieving all of the above except stockpile destruction is provided in the form of the Inter-American Convention Against the Illicit Manufacture of and Trafficking in Firearms, Ammunition, Explosive and Related Materials, otherwise known as the OAS Firearms Convention.

The OAS Firearms Convention is the only legally binding international instrument that focuses solely on controlling small arms and light weapons. It requires member states to, inter alia, criminalize offenses associated with firearms smuggling, establish a system of licensing firearms transfers, exchange information that will aid in the investigation and prosecution of arms traffickers, and improve border controls. The Convention enjoys broad support among the OAS member states, 20 out of 34 of which have ratified it, and has prompted several changes to their laws and practices.

The United States was an active supporter of the OAS Convention during its drafting, and continues to participate in the meetings of the Convention's Consultative Committee. Nonetheless, the Convention has languished in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for years despite the fact that the US is largely in compliance with its requirements.

US ratification is important not because of the changes to US policies it would require - which are minimal - but because of the United States' diplomatic influence in the hemisphere. Diplomats interviewed for a forthcoming report on the US and the Convention commented several times that US ratification would provide a discernable boost in the Convention's credibility. Conversely, continued refusal by the US to ratify the Convention will erode its influence and subsequently undermine efforts to achieve full and universal implementation of its provisions.

Ratification of the Convention would also allow the US to use it as leverage when dealing with countries in the region that have not taken all the steps necessary to control illicit arms trafficking. A good example of how the Convention can be used in this manner is the impact of a report on the November 2001 diversion of 3000 Nicaraguan AK-47s to the Colombian paramilitaries. The report, compiled by an OAS investigative team, provided a detailed summary of how the states involved in the diversion failed to adhere to the Convention. Immediately following the publication of the report, a Nicaraguan government official submitted to the head of the investigative team an outline of the steps his government would take to prevent similar transfers. The fact that the OAS investigative team found no evidence that national laws were broken suggests that the Nicaraguan government was responding directly to the stigma associated with failing to comply with their obligations under the Convention. Combined with the United States' unparalleled diplomatic influence, this stigma could be used with great effect by the United States but only if it becomes a full party to the Convention.

Halting the trade in illicit small arms and light weapons in the Western Hemisphere requires a multi-faceted, multilateral strategy implemented by all the states in the region. The OAS Firearms Convention is a good vehicle for developing and implementing such a strategy, and as such deserves the full support of all OAS members, including the United States.

Author's Note: Matthew Schroeder is a Research Associate with the Arms Sales Monitoring Project at the Federation of American Scientists.