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Larger scale firearms trafficking activities


Large-scale trafficking involves different scenarios and situations. The examples below illustrate some of the most common cases that involve large-scale trafficking and point to some of its characteristics, such as the complexity of its modus operandi and the global nature of its illicit trade.

Illicit arms traffickers are organized to move large-scale shipments of arms, measured in hundreds of tons or more, passing through numerous national law enforcement agencies. Large-scale trafficking is often associated with supplies to groups involved in armed conflicts (State and non-State actors, rebel and insurgent groups inter alia) or shipments to embargoed and banned destinations (UNODC, 2015). It is intuitive, given the size and their military-like structure of many of these armed groups, that they require not only higher quantities but also a certain degree of standardization of their military arsenals, unlike common and organized crime groups.

Upscale instances of firearm trafficking often involve illegal brokers and dealers, and at times covert government agencies dealing in high volume firearm transfers. For example, in the mid-1980s the United States supplied small arms and other light weapons to insurgent and rebel groups in Angola, and to the Contras in Nicaragua (Stohl and Tuttle, 2008). The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, in the 1980s, saw a wide variety of weapons covertly supplied to the Mujahedeen. Even following the scandal involving Colonel Oliver North and the Iran-Contra affair, and the media exposure of the scale of the misappropriation of government funds devoted to weapons smuggling, the Central Intelligence Agency persisted with a covert weapons supply pipeline to Nicaragua, shielded by a network of front companies (Klare and Anderson, 1996).

Case Scenario 4: Otterloo Case

Diversion of regular arms shipments are often also the result of corrupt practices, illicit brokering and loose controls. A notorious example of this type of trafficking is the so-called " Otterloo case " (named after the ship that transported the weapons), of 1999, where approximately 3000 AK47s and 2.5 million rounds of ammunition were diverted from the Nicaraguan National Police to the Colombian Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), a paramilitary terrorist organization in Colombia. The original, legitimate, transaction was to be a trade between the Nicaraguan National Police and a private Guatemalan arms dealership, Grupo de Representaciones Internationales (GIR S.A.), which had offered the police a quantity of new Israeli manufactured pistols and mini-uzis in return for five thousand surplus AK47s and 2.5 million rounds of ammunition. The arms were loaded in Nicaragua on board of a ship called "Otterloo" intended for Panama and from there to the buyer, a private company in Guatemala. Instead, the ship sailed directly to the port of Turbo, Colombia, from where the arms were loaded on 23 trucks and on their way intercepted and delivered to the AUC. The captain of the ship disappeared shortly thereafter, and the maritime company was dissolved several months later. The Otterloo was sold to a Colombian citizen. An investigation conducted upon the request of the Colombian Government by the Organization of American States (OAS) found that the diversion was made possible by negligent actions on the part of various government officials and private companies, and the willful and criminal actions of several private arms merchants (OAS, 2003).

The case and the subsequent international investigations revealed legislative gaps and the importance of more effective controls over brokers and brokering activities. It led eventually to the adoption by the OAS Member States of supplementary model regulation on brokers and brokering activities to prevent diversion and counter illicit trafficking more effectively.

Falsified documentation, corruption and the facilitative role of illicit brokers remain at the heart of many large-scale trafficking cases. In the so-called " Montesinos case", 2000 from 10,000 Kalashnikov rifles that the Jordanian Government had sold to the Peruvian Government were parachuted into the Colombian jungle into the hands of Colombian Guerrilla Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC). Although the sale was apparently legitimate on the Jordan side, the Government of Peru had provided falsified documents because the weapons were exchanged for cocaine with the FARC. In 2006, Vladimiro Montesinos, the top intelligence advisor of Alberto Fujimori, President of Peru, at that time received a sentence of 20 years in prison after being found guilty of designing and executing the operation (El Pais, 2006).


Large-scale trafficking of weapons from former government stocks: Post-Soviet and Post-Yugoslav arms trafficking

The role of Ukraine as an ' epicenter of post-Soviet arms trafficking' is highlighted in Overton's (2015) compelling analysis of firearm trafficking. A commission of Inquiry in 1992 had concluded that the nation's military stocks worth some $89 billion were six years later missing $32 billion. These stocks had been stolen, misappropriated and resold to terrorists, warlords, insurgency groups and organized criminals such as the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone, FARC forces in Columbia and Charles Taylor's army in Liberia. Weapons consignments trafficked comprised millions of rounds of ammunition and thousands of AKM-type assault rifles (Overton, 2015: 253).

The ending of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union created opportunities for criminal entrepreneurs with governmental and military connections to involve themselves in large-scale shipments of illegal firearms. However, now " new realities had created a different kind of smuggler", sometimes unofficially sanctioned by governments but also able to take advantage of global free trade, fluid money, mobile phones, the Internet and a range of covert and flexible business practices (UNODC, 2010: 14; Overton, 2015: 253). 

The aforementioned case scenario of weapons trafficking from Eastern Europe is illustrative of how a post-conflict region, like the Balkans, became the centre of major weapon trafficking operations to Iraq, Liberia, Sudan, Burma, Libya and Somalia, facilitated and engineered by international brokers like Tomislav Damnjanovic (Griffiths and Wilkinson, 2007). It also shows how legal and illicit activities, including arms transfers, were intermingled, and the levels of complexity that this type of large-scale trafficking incidence could reach.


Large-scale trafficking into Africa

The events following the collapse of the Qadhafi's regime in Libya in 2011 are also emblematic of the destabilizing consequences that the loss of control over the government stocks has had on larger regions in Africa. Large amounts of weapons stolen from government stocks were for years trafficked in Saharan countries, where they ended up in the hands of terrorist and criminal groups as well as other non-state actors, unleashing a series of events leading to terrorist attacks and political/military crisis in several neighboring countries, such as Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. The fieldwork conducted by the Conflict Armament Research in 2015 provided evidence on proliferation of weapons from Libya, which reached Mali, Chad, Niger and Syria, and were used in the 2012 Tuareg insurgencies in Mali, and allowed various groups at the beginning of the civil war in Syria to increase their firepower (CAR, 2016).


Legal transfers and illegal re-export: Large-scale trafficking linked to arms embargo violations

Lebrun and Leff (2013) investigated the supply of weapons and ammunition in Sudan and South Sudan for the Small Arms Survey (2013), concluding that the region contained some 2.7 million small arms and light weapons. From mid-2004, following the 2 nd Sudanese civil war (1983-2005), the region became subject to a UN arms embargo, although ' all sides in the conflict continued to gain access to military resources' and the embargo has been violated ' openly, consistently and without consequence'. According to official customs data, weapons produced in China and Iran and legally imported into Sudan appear to predominate in the region (although this will not account for the totality of weapons shipments), indicating that some 58% of weapons and ammunition transfers to Sudan originated in China.

Although such weapons transfers were made initially to the Sudanese authorities and subject to end-user certification guarantees, over two thirds of the weapons in the region are now in the possession of non-State actors (militia groups, insurgencies, tribal forces and rebel paramilitaries) because of retransfers: direct supply to non-State armed groups, battlefield capture, and supply to civilians by non-State groups. LeBrun and Leff (2013) conclude that such weapons continue to fuel insurgencies and inter-communal violence in the region. This is a clear example of legal transfers followed by illegal re-export to third countries, or re-transfer to other end users, especially countries facing conflict situations. These transfers are contrary to the aims of the Arms Trade Treaty, which strives to establish criteria that ensure no arms transfers are made to countries in such situations where there is a high associated risk of retransfers and diversion into armed groups, insurgents and rebels likely to result in serious human rights violations. 


Role of end use certification

SIPRI produced another study of end user certification procedures in 2010 (Bromley and Griffiths, 2010). The study found examples of forged, fabricated or otherwise altered End-User Certificates issued for weapons transfers involving Equatorial Guinea, Chad and Tanzania. The same study found examples of certificates, which have since 1945, ensured a great deal of discretion and limited documentary oversight to British arms dealers thought to be operating ' on behalf of' the government. Between 2003 and 2005 a series of falsified EUCs allowed the export of 200,000 AK47 assault rifles from Eastern European States. As the Small Arms Survey (2002) has noted, firearm supplies must be seen as an ' independent variable' in conflict zones, or ' situational facilitators' of a range of forms of violence, spanning from domestic abuse, gang-related and misogynistic violence, all the way to terrorism and civil war (Squires, 2014: 230). 

Next:  Smaller scale trafficking activities
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