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Issue Brief #3

The Illicit Arms Trade

Introduction  |   Terms and Definitions   |   Statistics  |   The International Response  |   The U.S. Response  |   Recent Cases  |   Resources

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 mschroeder@fas.org.


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 transport planes.

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 Definitions

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  • 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)

  • 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)

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Recent Cases
The following cases reveal some of the sources, routes, and methods that gun runners use to acquire and deliver small arms and light weapons.

  • 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
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The International Response

Major International Agreements Regional Agreements

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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.
  • U.S. Report to the Second Biennial Meeting of States (BMS), July 2005.
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FAS Resources: Publications

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