c o m m e n t a r
Small Arms Trafficking in the Americas
By Jeffrey Fields | August 2001
This commentary was commissioned and originally distributed
by the IRC’s Foreign Policy in Focus
(FPIF) project. It is reproduced here courtesy of FPIF. Foreign Policy
in Focus—A Think Tank Without Walls—can be accessed online at
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 rocketsnot 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
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 drugsand
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
In the Americas, the consequences of ambivalence could be substantial.
When peace comes to Colombia, thousands if not millions of small arms
and light weaponsmany of U.S. originwill 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.
(Jeffrey Fields http://cns.miis.edu/
is a research associate at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies. The
views expressed do not necessarily represent those of CNS.)
This commentary is a product of the Interhemispheric
Resource Center’s Global Affairs
and Americas Programs .
All rights reserved.
Recommended citation: “Small
Arms Trafficking in the Americas,” Americas Program Commentary, (Silver
City, NM: Interhemispheric Resource Center, August, 2001).
Web location: http://www.americaspolicy.org/commentary/2001/0108arms.html