This is a basic introduction to the issue of small arms/light weapons trafficking and national and
international efforts to control it.
For more information, contact Matt Schroeder, Manager of the FAS Arms Sales Monitoring Project, at 202-454-4693 or by
email at [email protected].
Illicit arms trafficking fuels civil wars, contributes to sky-rocketing
crime rates and feeds the arsenals of the world's worst terrorists. Particularly troubling is the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons (SA/LW).
SA/LW account for an estimated 60-90% of the 100,000+ conflict deaths each year (Small Arms Survey 2005) and tens of thousands of additional deaths outside of
war zones. They are also the weapons of choice for many terrorists. Of the roughly 175 terrorist attacks
identified in last year's State Department report on Patterns of Global Terrorism,
approximately half were committed with small arms or light weapons.
Stemming the flow of these weapons is incredibly difficult. Unlike weapons of mass destuction, small arms and many light weapons have legitimate
military, law enforcement, and/or sporting and recreational uses. These uses preclude the types of outright bans on manufacture, stockpiling and sales imposed
- with some success - on landmines and chemical and biological weapons. Instead, governments try to prevent the diversion and misuse of SA/LW
without unduly infringing upon legitimate use and trade. This is no small feat. Plentiful, easy to conceal, and lethal, SA/LW
are a smuggler's dream and a law enforcement nightmare.
Hundreds of thousands of small arms in leaky government arsenals are vulnerable to
theft, loss and diversion. Once acquired by traffickers, these weapons are smuggled across national borders in every conceivable way. They are hidden under sacks of
vegetables in the back of pick up trucks, packed into household appliances that are then loaded onto cargo ships, even air-dropped out of old Soviet military
In the hands of terrorists and other criminals, these weapons have the capacity to kill dozens, even hundreds, of innocent civilians. A shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile - available
on the black market for as little as a few thousand dollars - can bring down a commercial airliner. Even a couple of $100 assault rifles can inflict horrendous casualties,
as evidenced by the November 1997 terrorist attack in Luxor, Egypt, during which 6 terrorists armed only with assault rifles, pistols and knives
systematically slaughtered 58 tourists.
For these reasons, small arms trafficking is not a problem you solve; it is a problem you manage. By enacting strong export and border controls, safegaurding
(or destroying) stockpiles, dismantling trafficking networks, and addressing the root causes of the civil conflicts and soaring urban crime rates, governments can
reduce the supply of, and demand for, these weapons.
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Terms and Definitionsback to top
- Ammunition: cartridges (rounds) for small arms; shells and missiles for light weapons; mobile containers with missiles or shells
for single-action anti-aircraft and anti-tank systems; anti-personnel and anti-tank hand grenades;
- Illegal black market transfers (from Small Arms Survey 2001): "In clear violation of national and/or international laws and without
official government consent or control, these transfers may involve corrupt government officials acting on their own for personal gain."
- Illicit grey market transfers (from Small Arms Survey 2001): "Governments, their agents, or individuals exploiting loopholes or intentionally circumventing
national and/or international laws or policies"
- Legal Transfers (from Small Arms Survey 2001): "These occur with either the active or passive involvement of governments or their authorized agents, and in accordance
with both national and international law."
- Light weapons: heavy machine-guns; hand-held under-barrel and mounted grenade launchers; portable anti-aircraft guns; portable anti-tank guns,
recoilless rifles; portable launchers of anti-tank missile and rocket systems; portable launchers of anti-aircraft missile systems;
mortars of calibers of less than 100 mm.
- Small arms: revolvers and self-loading pistols;
rifles and carbines; sub-machine guns;
assault rifles; light machine-guns
- Value of Conventional Arms Transfers in 2004 (Deliveries, Worldwide): $34.75 billion
- Top Five Arms Exporters (Worldwide, 2004)
- #1 - United States ($18.55 billion)
- #2 - Russia ($4.6 billion)
- #3 - France ($4.4 billion)
- #4 - United Kingdom ($1.9 billion)
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- Authorized Small Arms Sales (Worldwide, Annual): $4 billion (estimate)
- Illicit Small Arms Sales (Worldwide, Annual): 10-20% of the total trade in small arms (estimate)
- Number of Known Small Arms-Producing Countries (Worldwide, 2003): 92 (estimate)
- Number of Known Small Arms-Producing Companies (Worldwide, 2003): 1,249 (estimate)
The following cases reveal some of the sources, routes, and methods that gun runners use to acquire and deliver small arms and light weapons.
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- The Otterloo incident - In 2001, an Israeli arms dealer operating out of Panama duped the Nicaraguan government into selling him 3000 AK-47s and
2.5 million rounds of ammunition. The broker said that he was procuring the weapons on behalf of the Panamanian National Police, a claim ostensibly substantiated
by a Panamanian end-user certificate. It was a lie. The end-user certificate was a forgery and the Panamanians had
no knowledge of the deal. On November 2nd, the weapons were loaded into a Panamanian-registered ship named the Otterloo, which departed from the
Nicaraguan port of El Bluff the next day. Two days later, it arrived in Colombia where the actual recipients - members of Colombia's vicious paramilitary groups -
were waiting to claim their prize.
Sources: Small Arms, Terrorism and the OAS Firearms Convention (pages 24-25 & 28-29)
The OAS General Secretariat's Report on the incident.
- Victor "The Devil" Infante: On July 30th, 2003 U.S. law enforcement officials observed an associate of Victor "The Devil" Infante sending a Federal Express package from
Los Angeles to the Philippines. Infante was under investigation at the time for operating a multinational firearms and
methamphetamine distribution ring. Immigrations and Custom Enforcement (ICE) officials interdicted the Fed Ex package and the accompanying airway bill, which
falsely identified the contents as a $30 camera tripod. Inside the package, agents found parts for M-16 and AR-15 assualt rifles.
Source: "Victor "The Devil" Infante Charged with Weapons Exportation and Methamphetamine Distribution--Arrested
in the Philippines" (ICE news release)
- Victor Bout, Pecos and Liberia: Unhappy with a consignment of assault rifles they had ordered from a Slovak manufacturer, the Ugandan government requested that the Egyptian
who had brokered the original deal return the rifles to the manufacturer. The broker agreed and dispatched an Ilyushin-18 transport plane to pick up the rifles.
Unbeknonwst to the Uganda government, the broker had found a new buyer, a Guinean arms brokering company (Pecos) founded by a Slovak broker after criminal
investigations in Europe forced him to shift his operations elsewhere. Seven tons of the rifles were loaded onto the plane and flown to Monrovia - a clear
violation of a UN arms embargo on Liberian President Charles Taylor's thuggish regime. Three days later, the plane returned to Uganda to pick up the rest of the
firearms. By this time, the Ugandan government had caught wind of the diversion and had impounded the guns. Subsequent investigations uncovered a vast
arms trafficking network comprised of front companies operated by the infamous
Victor Bout and his associates.
Source: Report of the Panel of Experts pursuant to Security Council
resolution 1343 (2001), paragraph 19, concerning Liberia, United Nations Security Council, S/2001/1015, 26 October 2001
The International Response
Major International Agreements
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- U.S. Resource: U.S. Report to the Second Biennial Meeting of States (BMS), July 2005.
The U.S. Response
The United States leads the world in efforts to secure and destroy surplus and obsolete small arms and light weapons and eliminate terrorist access to man-portable air
defense systems. Below are brief descriptions of these and other U.S. SA/LW initiatives:14
- SA/LW Destruction and Stockpile Security - Since 2001, the State Department's Small Arms/Light Weapons Destruction Program
has facilitated the destruction of over 800,000 surplus small and light weapons and 80 million rounds of ammunition
in 23 countries. The Defense Threat Reduction Agency has worked with officials in
19 countries to improve the security and management of additional SA/LW stockpiles.
- Man-portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADS) - Since the late 1990's, the U.S. has led a global campaign to eradicate terrorist acquisition and use of
MANPADS. Their efforts have resulted in several international agreements on the manufacture, transfer, and storage of MANPADS, the destruction of over 13,400 excess
missiles in 13 countries, and national controls on MANPADS exports and
end-use monitoring that are among the most rigorous in the world.
- Hearing Transcript, "The Terrorist Threat from Shoulder-fired Missiles, House International
Relations Committee, 30 March 2006.
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FAS Resources: Publications
- U.S. Report to the Second Biennial Meeting of States (BMS), July 2005.
Additional FAS commentary on illicit arms trafficking can be found on the
Strategic Security Blog
FAS Resources: Data and Documents
Other Resources: Government
Other Resources: Non-governmental Organizations
FAS Public Interest Report Volume 60, No. 1 (Winter 2007)
The Small Arms Trade: A Beginner's Guide (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2006)
- "The Illicit Arms Trade in Africa: A Global Enterprise," African Analyst,
Third Quarter 2006.
- ""Small Arms, Large Problem: The International Threat of Small Arms
Proliferation and Misuse," Arms Control Today, June 2006.
FAS Public Interest Report, Fall 2005.
- ""Lord of War:" An Arms Trade Analyst's Perspective"
FAS Public Interest Report, Fall 2005.
- "Connect the Dots: US Gun Laws and the International Arms Trade,"
on-line interview with PBS, July 2005.
- "Controlling the Most Dangerous Weapons,"
San Diego Union-Tribune, 11 November 2004.
- Small Arms, Terrorism and the OAS Firearms Convention,
FAS Occasional Paper No. 1, March 2004.
- "MANPADS Proliferation," FAS Issue Brief No. 1, January 2004.
- "OAS Firearms Convention," FAS Issue Brief No. 2, January 2004.