Strategies to fight against arms trafficking in the region

This article seeks to systematize various problems, ideas and policy recommendations raised during the quadrilateral meeting between Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Mexico for the 'Strengthening of regional cooperation in Latin America to prevent and combat illicit firearms trafficking and related crimes' organized by the World Program on Firearms of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). This meeting was held in Mexico City between the 5th and 7th of June, 2019.

Latin America has the highest homicide rates in the world, of which almost 70% are perpetrated with firearms[i]. In addition, our region is afflicted by other forms of crime, such as drug trafficking, organized crime, human trafficking and other forms of illicit trafficking, which feed off from each other and enable their members to have access to illicit weapons

Not only are illicit weapons used for power and extortion, but they are also a lucrative item in illegal markets, being illegal ammunition part of the same problem. This kind of trafficking is an invisible phenomenon that becomes visible after violent episodes occur, namely, robbery, murders or terrorist acts.

International efforts are made to counter it through initiatives such as the UN Modular Small-Arms-Control Implementation Compendium (MOSAIC); the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which regulates the international arms trade and whose main objective is to curtail the illicit trafficking of conventional arms; and the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Goal 16, "Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions", aims to: 1. reduce significantly all forms of violence and related death rates worldwide; 2. curb illicit financial and arms flows by 2030, strengthen the recovery and return of stolen assets and fight against all forms of organized crime; and 3. establish effective, transparent and accountable institutions at all levels.

However, these efforts appear insufficient to substantially reduce illicit arms trafficking and the armed violence it facilitates.

There needs to be a paradigm shift. On the one hand, it is necessary to focus on the links between arms trafficking and money and asset laundering, terrorism and organised crime, by analysing the interconnections between these elements as part of the same criminal strategy. On the other hand, it is essential to exert a tighter control by boosting coordinated efforts among the countries in our region.

A number of studies and criminal investigations indicate that at some levels of criminal organisations, business rationale prevails, whereby the proceeds of crime are reinvested in logistics, technology and corruption. Through sophisticated financial mechanisms, these organisations seek to conceal the connection of economic profits with their criminal activity. Hence the importance of the fight against money laundering. Illicit flows also occur in legal financial transactions, and this is where opportunities arise to crack down on these gangs.

The modalities of illicit arms trafficking are multiple. For instance, countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Mexico have received disassembled weapons in parcels from other countries. Links between transport companies and criminal groups have also been detected. Between the US and Mexico, the same drug trafficking route from Mexico to the US is used in the opposite direction by US arms flowing to Mexico and from there to the rest of the region.

Another key aspect is the constant and imperceptible dripping of thousands of armories and weapons rooms of the Armed and Security Forces of the region towards the criminal world. The widespread lack of controls with detection technologies (such as RFID), now ready and relatively easy to implement, transform the arsenals into black boxes, with registers of entry and exit of weapons written down by hand or loaded into basic calculation programs. It is imperative to advance in the implementation of these automated control systems, which allow for rapid audits and record indubitable entry and exit movements without the need for personnel intervention.

The strengthening and/or creation of Arms Control Agencies at the national or sub-national levels also has a fundamental role. These Agencies register the legitimate users, carrying out psychophysical examinations and background analysis that guarantee the sporting or professional use of the weapon, and above all indicate the person responsible for its use. It is important to modernize these Agencies, to equip them with means and technology, as well as to find a balance between the high requirements or the absolute lack of them. An excess of requirements or a high registration cost usually generate a massive absence of registration by users; at the same time, the non-existence or inaction of these Agencies also leaves a large number of users without registration, matching them to those who carry weapons illegally.

It is of the utmost importance to redouble efforts in the destruction of seized and prosecuted weapons; to trace the weapons with markings, and to promote ballistic identification (which consists of the identification and 'matching' of the casing or projectile found at a crime scene with the weapon with which the shot was executed -through the use of electron microscopy[ii]).

Cooperation between countries in the region should be promoted so that information can flow in a more agile way; for instance, on the diversion of institutional weapons that may fall into the hands of criminal organizations from another country. Or, vice versa, to report on the seizure of weapons that come from another country, so that its authorities can carry out the corresponding internal investigations.

For this purpose, there should be a promotion of regional interconnection of systems: the Information Center for explosive devices and firearms tracing in Colombia, the Federal Police Communications System (SIFCOP) and the Controlled Materials Comprehensive Management System (SIGIMAC) of the National Agency for Controlled Materials (ANMAC) of Argentina, the Coordination Group on Arms of Mexico (GC Armas), and the Brazilian Tracking Center. There should also be a promotion of the MERCOSUR Security Information Exchange System (SISME). The Embassies’ security attachés can be collaborative nodes, and thus expedite transnational investigations.

We must move towards more integrated registry systems at the international level, and promote the exchange of instant or spontaneous information. Another pending task is the harmonization of a common nomenclative of controlled material between different countries and the standardization of the possible criminal types. For example, in Canada there is the criminal type of possession for the purpose of trafficking. It is very difficult to check traffic (as opposed to illegal possession). If the legal type ‘possession for the purpose of trafficking’ existed in our region, the potential or intention of trafficking would suffice for the crime to be constituted.

The combination of the use of different technologies for the tracking of weapons should be promoted, such as the exchange of ballistic information (with the Unique Ballistic Comparison System -SUCOBA-, for instance), tracking with marking, and automated Stockpile management.

Finally, the interchange of good practices at the regional level can be based on success stories such as the Tracing Center in Brazil, the automated Stockpile management system implemented in the Argentine Naval Prefecture, the detection system in ports in Colombia, or the model of the Antibombs y Tracking of Weapons Center (CIARA) of the National Police of Colombia, in order to achieve an integration of analytical, investigative and expert instances.

There are very good experiences and practices in the region, but it is essential to regionalize them, since illicit arms trafficking is led by organizations with transnational contact and operation networks. Coincidentally, to efficiently fight against this scourge, bilateral and regional cooperation must be promoted, adopting the network logic as much as possible, which is skillfully implemented by criminal groups.


Javier Parysow is MSc. in European Politics and Policy from the London School of Economics, member of the Interdisciplinary Center for Advanced Studies of the National University of Tres de Febrero, professor at the National University of San Martín and Argentine representative before the Technical Committee for Innovation Management of the ISO.



[i] UNODC, Global Homicide Study, 2019

[ii] In order for ballistic identification to work, extensive databases of ballistic records must be created (at least two shots per weapon protected at the base, whether physically or digitally). There are cases of major investments made to acquire electronic microscopes, without foreseeing the gradual constitution of these bases, so in fact, comparisons that would allow the identification of the weapon that fired a certain projectile or shell cannot be made.

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