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Small Arms in Latin America in the Aftermath of the NACLA Study

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According to the World Health Organization, gun-related fatalities are the leading cause of death among Latin Americans between ages 15 and 44. Overall, gunshot wounds kill between 73,000 and 90,000 people annually in Latin America, demonstrating that the region is inundated with fire-arms. In fact, the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA) claims in its major groundbreaking study that there are at least 45 million to 80 million small arms and light weapons in Latin America. Light weapons are defined as those operated by an individual or small group; this includes handguns, assault rifles, grenades, grenade launchers and man-portable surface to air missiles. The proliferation of small arms threatens the safety and well-being of all Latin Americans. The widespread availability of these weapons allows conflicts to break out across the region, resulting not only in major human rights violations but also instability in local communities, as well as stalled economic development.

The importation of small arms into Latin America
The United States and the Soviet Union introduced Kalashnikov rifles to Latin America during the Cold War. This facilitated the most significant flood of arms to Central America during the region’s widespread civil wars of the 1980s via proxy arms dealers. For instance, Soviet weapons were exported to Cuba and later were also sent to the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua during the 1980s. The United States, in turn, sent weapons to its own choice of allies, such as the right-wing Nicaraguan Contras. These weapons were funneled through the Salvadoran and Guatemalan militaries as well as by bribing the Honduran military by funding the Battalion 316. This U.S.-backed Honduran death squad operated in the country while John Negroponte was the U.S. ambassador there. In order to be able to deny U.S. involvement in the conflict, one popular method of getting weapons into these countries involved sending Soviet weaponry stockpiled in U.S. military-maintained warehouses. The U.S. also used third parties such as Israel to avoid directly supplying, for example, the Contras with illicit weaponry, which were then spread out throughout Latin America. The Honduran military ransacked the CIA’s weaponry supply for Nicaragua and in turn supplied them to the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) in El Salvador.

Although most legal weapons flowing to Latin America come from the US and Europe, as well as from small local, often “legal” arms industries scattered throughout the West, a significant portion of the trade is illicit. The international small arms trade lacks transparency, making it difficult to accurately estimate the volume of small arms flowing into the region. The Norwegian Initiative on Small Arms Transfer estimated that in 2005 Latin America legally imported at least $175 million worth of small arms, light weapons, ammunition and spare parts into the region. The U.S. is estimated to have exported almost $50 million worth of these types of weapons, serving as its main supplier. According to this data, $29 million worth of U.S. small arms sold to end-users in South America ended up in Colombia, some of which were sent as a part of Plan Colombia. That country suffers from an informal arms race among paramilitaries, guerrillas, and private citizens. A study by RAND claims that there are 37 weapons trafficking routes from Panama into Colombia, 26 from Ecuador, 21 from Venezuela, and 14 from Brazil. Mexico, too, faces an arms acquisition problem. It imported $10 million in small arms which was almost the equivalent to the amount that was imported by all of Central America and the Caribbean combined.

About 2,000 guns cross the border between the United States into Mexico almost every day. The guns also fuel a bloody arms race between Mexican drug cartels, which has cost the lives of 4,000 victims within the past 18 months. In order to vet this problem, President Barack Obama and Mexican President Felipe Calderón met at a North American summit in Guadalajara on August 9 and 10. Though Obama has repeatedly stated that the U.S. must stop American guns from reaching the hands of Mexican drug cartels, gun trafficking into Mexico shows no sign of abating. As Mexican government raids continue to uncover arsenals of firearms with American origins, its rhetoric begins to ring false. While Obama believes U.S. gun laws will constitute a major factor in ending gun trafficking into Mexico, he is not prepared to crack-down on U.S. manufacturers. The Mexican government has unsuccessfully pushed the U.S. to reinstate a ban on assault rifles with no success thus far; Obama publically admitted last April that reinstating this ban was unlikely.

In recent months, other governments have also become part of the major clients and suppliers in the small arms market. For example, the Venezuelan government spent $10 million on small arms and supplies, purchasing them mainly from Belgium. In 2005, Venezuela also purchased 100,000 AK-47s, collectively worth $4 million, from Russia; this deal also included co-production rights which officially licensed Venezuela to produce the weapon domestically. In 2005, Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, and Chile were the largest regional producers and exporters of small arms. The movement of these weapons across neighboring borders has been facilitated by vast coastlines, porous borders, densely forested mountains with clandestine airstrips and the lack of political will to confront powerful narco-traffickers. The tri-border area of Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina is a particularly lucrative region for arms and drug traffickers. All told, hundreds of millions of dollars worth of weapons and narcotics are smuggled through this region annually. These firearms are legally produced, sold and then diverted to the black market. Craft production, which is the small-scale, handmade production of weapons in Chile, Brazil, Colombia, Honduras, and El Salvador, is further fueling illegal trade.

Violence in Latin America
Though Latin America is no longer embroiled in Cold War-era conflicts, post-Cold War living conditions for the general population have yet to improve. The high poverty rates in Latin America contribute to the rampant violence in the region, where over 220 million people experience extreme poverty in Latin America and 96 million of them are completely destitute. This high degree of poverty has led to a surge in membership in international mafias and gangs which participate in criminal activities, such as the trafficking of drugs, arms and people.

As a result of a history of violence in their communities, the possession and use of weapons is understood to be socially acceptable throughout much of Latin America. The Guatemalan constitution, for instance, guarantees civilians the right to bear arms. Even before the extra-constitutional overthrow of President Zelaya, Honduras exhibited a high degree of domestic violence, as well as a growing movement to reinstate the death penalty, both indicators of socially ingrained acceptance of violence in daily life. Despite pressure by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the governments of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras have yet to take effective action on the growing numbers of young people involved in gangs. According to the International Development Bank (IDB), 30 to 75 percent of Costa Rican adult females have suffered psychological abuse while 10 to 30 percent have been physically abused.

The Inter-American Children’s Institute calls Latin American street children “the visible face of urban tragedy.” Most gangs consist of urban males from ages 9 to 25, most of whom live in disadvantaged conditions. Their deaths as a result of violence constitute a tragic waste of a valuable resource which their nations’ can ill-afford to lose. Marginalized children become both victims and oftentimes aggressors through their involvement in gangs. There is an urgent need for action on the part of national governments regarding the control of small arms in Latin America, as well as a change in the local culture that allows the current violence to be the norm.