Global Risk

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

12.19.06 | 4 min read | Text by Matt Schroeder

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.

See all publications