Venezuela’s Military Build-up: Who’s Watching the Guns?

On November 29th, Venezuela received the final shipment of the 100,000 AK-103 assault rifles that it purchased from Russia last year. Despite the high-profile nature of this sale, little is known about Venezuela’s plans for safeguarding the rifles, which would be a hot commodity on the region’s vibrant black market. It’s time to start asking some tough questions about the rifles and President Chavez’s plan for protecting them.

The rifle deal is part of a multi-million dollar military build-up by the oil-rich country, which has also signed contracts for fighter jets and military helicopters, and is reportedly considering the purchase of Russian air defense systems, submarines, and infantry fighting vehicles. The sales have been a source of heated rhetoric, mostly from Chavez, and have strained relations with United States. Unhappy with the Venezuelan government’s lack of cooperation on terrorism and concerned about its military build-up, the Bush administration banned U.S. arms exports to Venezuela in May and pressured several countries to forego major weapons deals. Spain, Sweden and Brazil have obliged; Russia has not.

In each case, Chavez and his officials have responded with characteristic bombast and vitriol, calling the U.S. a “senseless, blind and dumb giant” and accusing it of attempting to “isolate Venezuela, destabilize its democratic government and prepare the political conditions for an attack.”

While Chavez’s colorful insults steal the headlines, the issue of greatest importance—the influx of thousands of rifles and millions of rounds of ammunition into a region rife with black market arms trafficking—has received scant meaningful attention. The illicit arms trade stocks the arsenals of Colombian rebels and international narcotics traffickers, and the Venezuelan military has already inadvertently contributed dozens of its old FAL assault rifles to this trade. A 2003 study by the RAND Corporation found that weapons, some of which “are registered to the Venezuelan Armed Forces…routinely move from Venezuela into Colombia.” These findings are corroborated by a variety of sources, including Colombian government officials and defectors from the main rebel group, the FARC. In an interview that appeared in Jane’s Intelligence Review, a former member of the FARC’s ‘16th Front’ claimed that the rebels “…brought in rifles from Venezuela, such as used FALs in lots of 50…” from a supplier in Maracay, Venezuela’s main garrison town.

If the leaks in Venezuela’s arsenals aren’t plugged soon, many of the new rifles will undoubtedly follow the same path as the diverted FAL rifles. And if Chavez follows through on his commitment to arm a million or more Venezuelans, the trickle of weapons could become a torrent. Chavez is preparing for a “war of resistance” against a US invasion and is building a rifle factory to equip the huge reserve force, which will be tasked with “defend[ing] every street, every hill, every corner” from US invaders.

The Venezuelan government has revealed little about its plans for safeguarding the new rifles other than vague references to marking them with unique serial numbers. While marking weapons is important, serial numbers alone do not prevent the theft and diversion of small arms. Keeping weapons out of the wrong hands requires a variety of safeguards, including robust stockpile security, careful monitoring of local black markets, and a willingness on the part of other countries to hold governments accountable for failing to properly secure their arsenals.

The US government has repeatedly expressed concerns about the potential for diversion of the rifles and ammunition to terrorists and criminals. But anti-US sentiment is rampant in Venezuela, and America’s protestations have fallen on deaf ears. Nary a peep has come from the rest of the world; even those governments that champion the cause of small arms control have been conspicuously silent.

It is time for the international community to speak up. Pressure from foreign governments, and particularly Venezuela’s main trading partners, could help persuade Chavez to moderate his small arms build-up and to beef up controls on military stockpiles. To that end, these governments should take the follow steps: First, they should make it crystal clear to Chavez that he should not arm civilians. The threat posed by the distribution of military firearms to the civilian population is far greater – to Venezuelans and their neighbors – than the phantom US invasion force they ostensibly would be used to thwart. Second, these governments should ask the Venezuelan government to brief them on its plans for preventing the theft, loss or diversion of the rifles and ammunition. The plan should be thorough and detailed, and should include physical security and stockpile accounting practices that meet international standards. Finally, the Organization of American States and Venezuela’s neighbors should monitor the regional trade in illicit small arms and alert the international community if Venezuela’s rifles start appearing on the black market.

The region—and the world—deserve at least that.

Additional Resources:

Matt Schroeder, Small Arms, Terrorism and the OAS Firearms Convention, FAS Occasional Paper No. 1, March 2004 (see pages 22-25)

UN Office on Drugs and Crime, Violence, Crime and Illegal Arms Trafficking in Colombia, December 2006.

Pablo Dreyfus, “A questions of high caliber: Venezuela and the manufacture of 7.62X39mm ammunition,” Comunidad Segura, 1 November 2006.

Katherine Aguirre et al, La Hidra de Colombia: Las multiples caras de violencia armada, Small Arms Survey con CERAC, 2006. A summary in English is included in the 2006 Small Arms Survey Yearbook.

Kim Cragin & Bruce Hoffman, Arms Trafficking and Colombia, RAND, 2003.

From the NISAT Black Market File Archive:

“Venezuelan Deputy to Request Investigation into Arms Trafficking to Guerrillas,” El Nacional, 28 March 2005.

“General Tapias on Weapons Seized from Illegal Armed Groups in Past Five Years,” Cali El Pais, 11 June 2000.

21 thoughts on “Venezuela’s Military Build-up: Who’s Watching the Guns?

  1. Dear people of FAS : I just read your interesting article
    about Venezuelan weapons and stockpiles, i agree with most of it except from the fact that there is not a “rampant ”
    antiAmerican sentiment in Vzla. the fact is that our government does speak bad about USA and so on but on the other hand Venezuelans like American products best
    and there is not hate against Americans other than the one our government is trying to create without any success .and on the other hand we are people willing to make business with the USA . perhaps we are the country of south America that has the greatest cultural influence from the USA.By the way we prefer to watch your movies in English and not translated
    A friendly Venezuelan

  2. We sell guns to anybody and everybody without safeguards, but Venezuela is not allowed, because it criticises Bush’s US policies and Bush himself. I am of the opinion that we (the US) are one of the most violent nations in the world. Our policy is behind the creation of violence in the USA proper, as well as other countries. And then we have the Chutzpah to set ourselves up as the authority which decides who is allowed and who isn’t. Our foreign policy took over from the 20th century and prior centuries’ British Colonial Office which adhered to the principle:”divide et impera.”

  3. Dear friends: It is possible that this weapon purchases of Venezuela to Rusia are just the preface to one of the well known wars between 3rd world countries orchestated by USA and Rusia (maybe China somewere in the dark?) like the Servia-Bosnia and Korea episodes. Here a lot of money is made from weapon sales and 3rd world countries are assured to remain at their underdeveloped conditions and look as barbarians to the rest of the world. The question is: which is the country which will be prey to Venezuela?

  4. Who are we to dictate our will on sovereign nations? If we are so weak that we fear any narco government or a radical government that has a few rifles, we better question our foreign policy and our foreign policy makers. Global disarmament will lead to global tyranny.
    For it is the tyrants who fear the arms. Without arms, there is no strength. Without strength people can not secure their resource. Without resource people are slaves.
    Rick Nader,
    citizen of the world

  5. All of you are missing the point entirely. This article has nothing to do with Venezuela’s foriegn or domestic policies, it’s relations with the U.S. or Iran, OR it’s gun laws. The question asked is simply, “Will the Venezuelan Gov’t actually police it’s new Service Rifles?”, i.e., not covertly give them away to anyone who wants them via the black market.

    Don’t kid yourselves, this has happened before, and it will happen again. Venezuelan AKs may soon find thier way into the hands of terrorist, rebels, drug cartels, and all sorts of other violent criminals.

    These aren’t you daddy’s AKs, either. The AK-103 not only has all the qualities that made AK-47 the most popular, widespread, and widely used weapon since the Stone-Age bow and arrow… it is also sturdier, more durable, and built to last… and last, and last… Also unlike the older AKs, the AK-103 is lethally accurate — keep that in mind if gangs, drug smugglers, or other miscreants decide to expand into you hometown.

  6. I just can’t see why this story is here. The other problems the USA and the rest of the world are facing today seem large and looming compared to this. Of course it’s important to secure these guns, but I don’t think it’s our responsibility. We need to worry about the climate, our corrupt leadership, our dishonest media, our downward spiraling image, the growing threat of new technologies and their misuse, and other problems that may end up causing unimaginable havoc.

  7. Something to think about…

    In 1929, the Soviet Union established gun control. From 1929 to 1953, about 20 million dissidents, unable to defend themselves, were rounded up and exterminated.

    In 1911, Turkey established gun control. From 1915 to 1917, 1.5 million Armenians, unable to defend themselves, were rounded up and exterminated.

    Germany established gun control in 1938 and from 1939 to 1945, 13 million Jews and others who were unable to defend themselves were rounded up and exterminated.

    China established gun control in 1935. From 1948 to 1952, 20 million political dissidents, unable to defend themselves, were rounded up and exterminated.

    Guatemala established gun control in 1964. From 1964 to 1981, 100,000 Mayan Indians, unable to defend themselves, were rounded up and exterminated.

    Uganda established gun control in 1970. From 1971 to 1979, 300,000 Christians, unable to defend themselves, were rounded up and

    Cambodia established gun control in 1956. From 1975 to 1977, one million ‘educated’ people, unable to defend themselves, were rounded up and exterminated.

    Defenseless people rounded up and exterminated in the 20th Century because of gun control: 56 million.

    The next time someone talks in favor of gun control, ask them “Who do YOU want to round up and exterminate?” With guns, we are citizens. Without them, we are subjects.

  8. Hello!

    I just wanted to ad Mr. Eirigis comment from February 5th with the gun control.

    I just want to say that I am very lucky about the gun control. I am a german cintizen and the example with the jews in germany was a genocide from the Goverment and Executive against jew civilians. In this situation there is no chance even they were armed. Noone expected such an terror.

    But in a stable democracy the gun control is very useful: If you have no guns you must talk with each other.
    And you have not to worry about to go at midnight to a shop if there could be a heavy armed robber in the darkness.

  9. Americas Military Build-up: Who’s watching the guns

    The article is a bit rich – Pot, kettle, black.

    • There are approximately 192 million privately owned firearms in the U.S. – 65 million of which are handguns.[1]

    • Currently, an estimated 39% of households have a gun, while 24% have a handgun.[2]

    • In 1998 alone, licensed firearms dealers sold an estimated 4.4 million guns, 1.7 million of which were handguns.[3]

    Additionally, it is estimated that 1 to 3 million guns change
    hands in the secondary market each year, and many of these sales are not regulated.[4]

    1. Cook PJ, Ludwig J. Guns in America: Results of a comprehensive national survey on firearms ownership and use. Police Foundation. Washington DC. 1996.
    2. National Opinion Research Center, The University of Chicago, 1997-1998 National Gun
    Policy Survey. September 1998.
    3. US Department of the Treasury. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Commerce in Firearms in the United States, February 2000.
    4. Cook PJ, Ludwig J. Guns in America: Results of a comprehensive national survey on
    firearms ownership and use. Police Foundation. Washington DC. 1996.

  10. First, this isn’t about “gun control” of personal weapons, its about the ability or willingness of a government to control the stock of weapons in its own arsenal. Second, Contrary to popular myth, the US does not sell arms to whoever has the money. The US is a party to the Inter American Convention on small arms, and abides by its provisions. The US Government even busted Bass Pro Shops for selling hunting rifle scopes to Canadian citizens without a license. Its very hard to get an export license for small arms. Even sales to governments will not be approved if the numbers requested exceed the apparent need. A sale the size of the AK103 to Chavez would require Congressional notice as well. What is at issue here is whether 100000 AK103 actually is for Venezuela’s own need or is intended for re-export. Even if intended entirely for Venezuela’s own use, that still raises the question of what Chavez will do with the thousands of automatic weapons the AK103s will replace and therefore render surplus.

  11. the problem has nothing to do with gun control, but with failed u.s. foreign and domestic policy. instead of trying to make friends with chavez, which we could easily have done, we organized a coup against him and made him out to be a monster. he is simply returning the favor. drug lords could not buy expensive weapons or anything else if the u.s. legalized drugs. but, we will not legalize drugs, because we have too much invested in our failed drug policy. legalizing drugs would put too many people out of business. the u.s. always creates at least one foreign enemy to distract its own populace from the failures and foolishness of domestic policies. venezuela is just a backup enemy in case iraq, iran, north korea, somalia, et al. settle down. not likely, but it’s always nice to have a big bench.

  12. Bad news for Venezuelan democratic majority. We share with American people, the same principles of periodic elections, freedom of speech, and private properties. Who knows the agreements between Chavez and foreign powers to keep himself in power and kidnap an entire country population. Perhaps this is a perfect opportunity for the Russians to sell arms, for corrupt Venezuelan officials to bite a share in the deal, an American military to practice turkey shot. Sad use for this money badly needed in education, and sanitary services.

    If a confrontation arises, don’t blame us Venezuelan for this conflict, blame Chavez, Bush, and other morons with minds full of fantasies and imperial will for all the suffering.This is not our call. We tried several times to get him out of the Government, and were badly mauled. Thanks.

  13. Yes in a stable democracy the gun control is very useful: If you have no guns negotiation and speaking with each other becomes easier. I know it is not as simple as this, but it would be a good start.

  14. Guns are like gold to alot of countries including the United States. Other countries will pay lots of money for them, and we are willing to sell them to the countries who will support our cause. I am also sure that there are under the table types of deals goign on every day in this respect.

  15. A broadly armed population, such as in Switzerland or Yemen, isn’t necessarily more violent than an unarmed population. A good reason for ensuring that militarily capable arms are in the hands of the citizens is to guard against foreign invasion or domestic tyranny. Certainly any sovereign state has the right to choose such a policy. Indeed, the Second Amendment to the US Constitution enshrines this policy in the United States. The regulation of popular militia is perhaps carried to an extreme in Switzerland, where sealed packages with a limited number of rounds are issued to each reservist to store with the weapon. In general though it makes little sense to demand centralized control of a decentralized militia policy.

    Chavez has good reason to fear foreign intervention. On the other hand, he does not seem to fear being seen as a domestic tyrant. That speaks for his bona fides. But tyrant or free, Venezuela has every right to maintained a fully armed populace.

  16. I’d like to respond to Mr. Schwartzkopf’s comment from March:

    The problem with gun control is that, as Thomas Jefferson said,

    “…laws that forbid the carrying of arms are laws of such a nature. They disarm only those who are neither inclined nor determined to commit crimes … Such laws make things worse for the assaulted and better for the assailants; they serve rather to encourage than to prevent homicides, for an unarmed man may be attacked with greater confidence than an armed man.”

    I’m not familiar with German law, but in the US, it is illegal for a convicted felon to possess a gun, meaning that outlawing *all* personal firearm ownership is simply a redundancy of laws, and an unnecessary restriction of personal freedom.

    Also, it has been shown that crime rates tend to increase when gun control is enacted, and that firearms are used much more frequently in self-defense than they are in crimes.

    Will H.

  17. This article is VERY BIASED, confused, misinformed and quite false.
    Nothing said in it has been confirmed not even proved.
    NO ONE HAS SHOWN A SINGLE FAL sold from Venezuelan Goverment to FARC.
    Has been a few fusil’s captured in past acion from FARCS from our army, and sure, a few soldiers has sold their weapons, but there is a special section of the DIM (Military Intelligence Direction) that pursuit them.
    Please, document yourself and your article when you talk about another country!!!

  18. Hello friends. In reading the title here, about “Venezuela’s Military Build-up: Who’s Watching the Guns?” , I have to ask a few questions
    Every country has a right to buy the guns or weapons, or even make them, as they feel they need. So why is this called “Venezuela’s Military Build-up” since its not the first time Venezuela buyes guns. It creates surplus, yeah, the same happened everytime Venezuela bought guns in the past but the US didn’t complain because those were american, belgian, etc,,,guns, so the surplus wasn’t a problem. Such surplus can’t go to rebels or terrorists because those are american weapons.!!! Venezuela has had belgian rifles, american guns, french tanks, german submarines, etc, but in that case its not considered build-up.
    Can you all see that the whole problem is that Venezuela is not submiting to the US foreign policys and it bought russian guns which represented a loss for the american gun sellers, and all this stupid stress started when Venezuela started to work in order to increase oil prices, their main source of money income?
    Besides that, who in the world has the morals or the right to watch other countries guns?
    There are other isues that are very ridiculous as to think that Venezuela is not taking care of its guns because some few guns were found in FARCs hands. With that it is intented to acuse Venezuela is tring to support terrorists, etc,,,
    It sounds like that old story of weapons of mass destruction. Lies told many times (nazi propaganda style) using the convenient media (liars) to spread the false rumors reach unadverted people who think that all that appears in the media is true.

  19. 3,000 ak-103 from the very first shipment never made it to customs; they were directly transfered to the urban Guerrillas (Carapaicas, Tupamaros, Farc) for control and intimidation of the Venezuelans opposed to Chavez regime’s…
    Many more have gone the same way since. The rifles can be seen regularly in the posesion of antisocial groups, supported by the government in an effort “wipe out” (Chavez’ own words) the Oposition. Genocide in the making, at the rate of 44 “Caraquenos” killed every day…

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