Understanding arms trafficking in Colombia

In Colombia, more than 70% of the homicides are committed with firearms coming from at least twenty countries. Their main recipients are drug traffickers and criminal gangs. Español

Eduardo Carrillo Galvis
20 November 2017
Colombia armas_1.jpg

Image: Policía Nacional de los colombianos/Flickr. Some rights reserved.

This article, which is part of the #NiUnMuertoMas project of the Latin American strategy for homicide reduction Instinto de Vida funded by Open Society Foundations and Igarapé, is being published as part of the partnership between ¡Pacifista! and DemocraciaAbierta. Read the original content here.

Drug traffickers and criminal gangs are the main recipients of the multimillion-dollar trafficking business in arms, ammunition and explosives which get into Colombia by land and sea, through rivers and air. The Department of Criminal Investigation and Interpol (DIJIN) asserts that arms trafficking is associated, to a large extent, with trafficking in cocaine, heroin and synthetic drugs, since they are practically inseparable activities generating multimillion-dollar profits. Its agents warn that arm trafficking is a progressive and cyclical phenomenon which ranks third in the most profitable illegal activities list. Drugs and human trafficking are in the first and second place. 

The ‘generations’

The Police have registered the entry into Colombia of large quantities of weapons in waves which they call generations:

The first generation is known as "Genesis": according to the authorities, arms trafficking skyrocketed with the growth of guerrillas in the country in the aftermath of the Cuban revolution.

The second generation is called “Rotation” by police investigators because the weapons which entered the country came from Central American conflict zones - from the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Union, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front in El Salvador, and the Sandinista National Liberation Front in Nicaragua. 

The third is the "Gray Traffic" generation and it is linked to the trade in firearms which legally enter the country but which, somewhere in the process, end up in the hands of illegal armed groups. 

The fourth generation is known by experts as "Technical Weapon Replacement": it begins with the acquisition of small quantities of weapons which are subsequently modified according to the preferences of the illegal groups - preferences which have to do with the type of weapons and their military impact. To these parameters should be added their lethal aspect which, in the case of the Bacrim (criminal gangs), for example, is considered a sign of power. The armed groups and criminal networks resort to fictitious companies in order to acquire war material. Through these they are able to acquire weapons, in small quantities, in the United States and then, through a series of maneuvers, ship them to Colombia. Colombian authorities acknowledge the fact that the 'black market' helps criminal groups to evade government restrictions, company controls and international treaties.

Types of weapons: chosen for their intimidation capacity and reach

High impact and lethal weapons: these are the Bacrim’s prime choice, according to the Colombian National Police Criminology Research Centre. They exchange drugs for weapons and prefer those with greater military impact and lethal aspect, so as to strengthen their power of intimidation within the criminal hierarchy.

The AK-47 assault rifle (Kalashnikov), the most popular in the international market, is a weapon of Soviet origin designed in 1947 and used in more than 80 countries, including China, Iraq and in the Arab world. Colombia, of course, is no exception. It is the preferred assault rifle of the guerrilla dissidence, which chooses it for its long-range reach, high maneuverability, resistance, user friendliness and great accuracy.

R-15, M-16 M-4 and M-60 rifles: they are mainly used by criminal groups dedicated to the barter of drugs for weapons. Their leaders also use sophisticated handguns.

According to the Military and the National Police, all types of weapons have been seized in Colombian territory in recent years, especially assault rifles, shotguns, mortars, machine guns, submachine guns, handguns and even ground-to-air rocket launchers. According to the authorities, more than 25.000 long and short-range firearms were seized in Colombia in 2016.

The DIJIN maintains that the illegal weapons seized come from Venezuela, Chile, Ecuador, Romania, South Africa, Egypt, Israel, Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Belgium, Bulgaria, Russia, North Korea, Germany, China, United States and Colombia. However, according to sources from the same security agency, "it is possible that the firearms seized had entered legally into Colombia, where they were stolen or lost, or they were acquired legally in the United States and shipped from there to Colombia despite the severe State controls ". 

For the State security agencies, the Military Forces and the Police, the permanent acquisition of sophisticated war material by the Colombian organized armed groups not only allows them to strengthen their power of action and intimidation, but also to expand their field of action. To these ends, they resort to a variety of dealers and suppliers. 

Colombia: high vulnerability

According to the authorities, Colombia is one of the most vulnerable countries for the illegal arms trade because of its location and easy access and because criminal networks take advantage of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, the rivers and the large land border with Panama, Ecuador, Peru , Brazil and Venezuela. Illegal actors have become experts in fluvial navigation and terrestrial communications.

The routes: a report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) records the established routes for the entry and exit of war material into and from Colombia. Organized armed groups use these routes to flood their areas of influence with illegal weapons.

Means of transport: arm traffickers use all possible means to deliver weapons to the highest bidder. To that end, they "contaminate" ships arriving at the Pacific and Atlantic ports and make good use of their extensive knowledge of rivers and forests. They also use aircraft to deliver their shipments by dropping them from the air or by landing on clandestine airstrips. 

International contacts: according to Colombian intelligence service reports, organized armed groups and their supporting and supply networks contact international arms dealers, especially in Panama, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador and, to a lesser extent, Costa Rica.

The war bazaar: the international arm dealers’ networks are key to supplying sophisticated war material from countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia which were once part of the Soviet Union and have large infrastructures for the production of all kinds of weapons, military material, explosives and ammunition far in excess of their defense and national security needs.

Registered mail: the new modality

Today, in Colombia, the Office of the Attorney General, the Navy, the Army and the Air Force make enormous efforts to fight arms trafficking with state-of-the-art equipment in ports, airports and land transportation terminals. However, recent findings show that arm traffickers are already one step ahead: they have devised a new and sophisticated strategy, using registered mail services, to get assault rifles from the United States into Colombia. 

Traffickers use this service taking into account that, at Bogota airport alone, 5.000 parcels a day on average are being registered. When the criminals acquire an R-15 rifle in the US, for example, they disassemble it and camouflage its spare parts in computers, appliances and other products. Once the parts arrive in Colombia, the rifle is assembled again and can be immediately sold for 220 million pesos – its cost in the US is around 1.5 million pesos. 

Scanners often fail to detect the disassembled weapons that traffickers take through border controls. The Office of the Attorney General, the National Tax and Customs Office and the Police say that only experts could do it. The number of weapon parts which, according to the Fiscal and Customs Police, were seized in 2016 alone is about 5.000 – which, once assembled, would have turned into some 290 high-powered weapons. 

Colombian authorities are also concerned about the production of homemade weapons, which is generating the existence of an increasingly sophisticated and powerful arsenal. 

Criminal organizations also operate maintenance facilities ran by experts in the field. According to police investigators, a pressing need of the illegal armed groups, the Bacrim and drug traffickers is to renew their war material, which deteriorates rapidly due to the lack of maintenance and the climate where these organizations are operating. 

The weapons after the FARC

Colombian authorities are concerned about the fate of the arm factories which used to be run by the FARC before the signing of the Peace Agreements. They produced explosives, mortar grenades, bombs and rifle parts, shotguns and other types of war material. It is feared that these factories could now fall into the hands of dissident groups.

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