New Study on Light Arms Proliferation in the Americas

Federation of American Scientists
Arms Sales Monitoring Project
Contact: Anna Rich:
Phone: (202) 675-1016

Washington, D.C. A new study by the Federation of American Scientists Arms Sales Monitoring Project finds that nations of South and Central America have been inundated with small arms and light weapons over the past two decades, greatly contributing to the pervasive violence, lawlessness, and criminality in the hemisphere.

In A Scourge of Guns: The Diffusion of Light Weapons and Small Arms in Latin America, Michael Klare and David Andersen piece together information from official government records, regional scholars, trade statistics, and local press accounts to produce the most comprehensive analysis to date of the sources and magnitude of the regional gun trade.

The authors find that Latin American nations have acquired millions of pistols, revolvers, rifles, machine guns, grenades, landmines, and other light weapons over the past several decades through a variety of channels. The United States and the Soviet Union each donated huge quantities of rifles, machine guns, mortars and other light weapons during the Cold War period, many of which remain in active service. In addition, both superpowers clandestinely transferred thousands of guns to friendly insurgent forces. Rifles and machine guns were also imported into the region via the commercial arms trade, or smuggled in through various black-market channels. And hundreds of thousands of guns are produced each year in the arms factories of the larger Latin American countries. The book contains chapters on each of these supply channels, and an appendix of light arms production in Latin America.

The principal finding of the study is that light weapons are proliferating throughout society not just to government forces, but also to urban gangs, drug cartels, private security forces, leftist insurgents, and right-wing paramilitaries. This reality has led to a deadly "Catch-22," as author Michael Klare notes: "So long as government officials and ruling elites feel threatened by armed opposition or criminal organizations, they will sanction the use of state power often entailing the application of excessive force to suppress such threats; this, in turn, encourages opposition forces to rely on armed violence to advance their interests."

Among the report's other findings:

  • Light arms often outlive the conflicts for which they were originally intended. Governmental and non-governmental forces in Latin America acquired many weapons in response to the guerrilla conflicts of the 1970s and 1980s; once peace was finally achiev- ed, the various parties to the dispute often sold or donated their weapons to belligerent groups in neighboring countries, thereby contributing to the duration of other conflicts.
  • While the quantity of arms acquired through the black market is relatively small compared to inventories of legally-acquired weapons, illicit arms play a disproportionate role in the violence currently plaguing Latin America since they constitute the principal weaponry of insurgents, warlords, drug traffickers, and criminal organizations.
  • Because it is relatively easy to procure small arms and ammunition in the United States (as compared to most other countries in the hemisphere), many of the black-market dealers operating in Latin America rely on gun outlets in this country to replenish their illicit inventory.
  • Existing national and international measures for the control of arms trafficking are not adequate to the task of reducing gun violence in Latin America.

"Based on these findings, it is apparent that much more needs to be done to curb the diffusion of small arms and light weapons in Latin America," says Klare. The authors note that any significant moves in this direction will require consultation among the states of the region, including the United States and Canada, but the monograph lists a number of immediate steps that the United States and Latin American states can take to better control the spread of light weapons in the western hemisphere. Among these are increased transparency, enhanced export controls, suppression of illicit arms trafficking, and demilitarization and disarmament of warring factions as part of the peace process.

About the Authors Michael Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., and Director of the Five College Program in Peace and World Security Studies. He is the author of several books, including American Arms Supermarket (University of Texas Press, 1984) and Rogue States and Nuclear Outlaws (Hill and Wang, 1995). He is an advisor to the Arms Sales Monitoring Project. David Andersen is the National Chapter Coordinator at Student Pugwash USA in Washington, D.C. He was a 1995 recipient of the Herbert Scoville Peace Fellowship, which he used at the Federation of American Scientists Arms Sales Monitoring Project from July 1995-March 1996.

About F.A.S. Founded by atomic scientists in 1945, the Federation of American Scientists is dedicated to the responsible use of science and technology. Jeremy J. Stone is the President of the Federation. The Arms Sales Monitoring Project was established in 1990 to seek a reduction in the world-wide production and trade of weapons. Lora Lumpe directs the project.

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