This module is a resource for lecturers  


Firearms trafficking as a cross cutting element present in many other crimes


Firearms are frequent crime enablers and multipliers of violence. The illicit availability, trafficking and use of firearms by organized criminal groups or terrorist groups exponentially increase the impact and harm caused by these groups on communities.

The effects are global; the demand for arms directly impacts on development. During a 2017 conference in Africa, officials declared that ‘Illicit arms intensify conflicts and facilitate organized crime. Even when they don’t occur in tandem, arms trafficking abets crimes like drug trafficking, human trafficking, illegal mining, fishing, wildlife trade and oil theft’ (ENACT, 2017: 1).

While the illicit possession, manufacturing, trafficking and use of firearms represent autonomous offences in most jurisdictions, their strategic role in both the genesis and operations of organized criminal groups, gangs and terrorists has only recently been acknowledged and addressed as a criminal justice and policymaking priority (see Module 8).

Addressing these interrelationships and cutting the supply chain that enables criminal and terrorist groups to illicitly acquire firearms, and disrupting their organizational and financial structure, represent strategic goals in wider efforts to counter organized crime and terrorism. They are primary objectives to achieve sustainable peace and development, and explicitly enshrined in several goals of the United Nations Agenda for Sustainable Development, in particular Goal 16.4 (see Firearms Modules 1 and 10 for more details).

As explored in Module 3 (The Legal Market in Firearms), most of the firearms that end up in the hands of criminal and terrorist groups come originally from legal sources. These sources include legal arms transfers, national or foreign government stocks, private security companies, and civilian households (from where they are often stolen or lost), or illegally diverted from their legal transfer and end up as illicit and non-authorized. Also falling under this broad category of diverted and trafficked firearms are grey transfers, which are often linked to violations of arms embargos through exploitation of legal loopholes or complex and multiple transfer schemes. This can take the form of simple smuggling, or be more complex involving several exports and re-exports to disguise the origin of the trafficked arms.

Only a smaller amount of illicit firearms are thought to be illicitly manufactured. Examples of this category of arms include artisanal or craft production of firearms without valid authorizations, or assembled from unmarked or trafficked parts and components, and illicitly reactivated firearms or other types of arms (such as gas pistols) illicitly converted into firearms. However, as discussed in Module 2, technological progress and the globalization of the Internet have provided new and more sophisticated means and modalities for criminals and terrorists to procure and produce firearms. For example, modular weapons can be assembled from different parts, or purchased as a kit on the Internet. Polymer made weapons, whose parts are not easily detectable through scanners, can in theory be printed with a 3D printer using blueprints available on the Internet. Easy methods are available to reactivate previously deactivated arms, or convert arms into fully functional firearms, or upgrade the power capacity of firearms, to mention a few.


Illicit firearms trafficking and manufacturing

To better understand the various aspects related to the illicit acquisition of firearms by organized criminal groups or terrorist groups, it is important to refer to some key legislative definitions and concepts. In particular, the terms “Illicit firearms trafficking” and “illicit manufacturing” are contained in the Firearms Protocol of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), adopted in 2004, as well as other key concepts contained in its parent convention, the Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC). Modules 1 (Introduction to illicit trafficking, availability and criminal use of firearms), 2 (Basic Concepts) and 4 (The Illicit Firearms Market) address these aspects more in detail:

Illicit manufacturing” is defined in article 3(d) of the Firearms Protocol and shall mean:

the manufacturing or assembly of firearms, their parts and components or ammunition:

(i) From parts and components illicitly trafficked;

(ii) Without a licence or authorization from a competent authority of the State Party where the manufacture or assembly takes place; or

(iii) Without marking the firearms at the time of manufacture, in accordance with article 8 of this Protocol.”

The offence of illicit manufacturing presupposes the existence of a comprehensive firearms control regime that subjects the manufacturing process to the control and authorization of a competent authority, and with a specific regulatory framework for the marking of firearms, parts and components.

Illicit firearms trafficking” is defined in article 3(e) of the Firearms Protocol as:

the import, export, acquisition, sale, delivery, movement or transfer of firearms, their parts and components and ammunition from or across the territory of one State Party to that of another State Party if any one of the States Parties concerned does not authorize it in accordance with the terms of this Protocol or if the firearms are not marked in accordance with article 8 of this Protocol.”

The international definition of trafficking refers to a transnational phenomenon that requires the crossing of at least one national border, and subjects these cross-border movements to an established mechanism of mutual authorizations or licences issued by competent authorities in the concerned countries of import, export and transit.

In practice, however, not all illicit firearms used by organized criminal groups and terrorist groups in a particular territory have been previously trafficked from abroad. Often these groups manage to obtain access to firearms as a result of thefts and losses from police and military stocks, private security companies and civilian households, as well as recoveries from battlefields in countries facing armed conflicts, inter alia. The Module will refer to illicit firearms distinctly and specify when it intends to refer to illicit trafficking and when the transnational dimension of the cross-border movement is of relevance.

The references to firearms trafficking in this Module are broad and will include both large-scale as well as small-scale trafficking. Large-scale trafficking mostly involves larger quantities of weapons that are illicitly exported, diverted or re-exported to unauthorized destinations, such as countries in conflict and/or under arms embargo. While most cases of large-scale trafficking appear to be linked to situations of armed conflict, they can also present links to organized crime or terrorism.

Small-scale trafficking refers in general to the trafficking of quantities of firearms ranging typically from one to ten, or their parts and components, and typically amounts that can be transported by an individual or a small group of persons, or that can be concealed inside common means of transportation. This type of trafficking, more commonly known as ‘ant trade’, often has a repetitive character and uses well established routes and roles.

Another specific method of small-scale trafficking is the use of electronic means of communication and delivery through postal or fast parcel services. The use of this form of trafficking opened up access to the illicit market to terrorist and criminals without the need for previously established connections, as will be seen in the case studies presented in this Module. Other examples of firearms offences typically linked to organized crime or terrorist groups can also be found in this Module. These involve particular forms of firearms or modus operandi, such as the trafficking of arms illicitly converted into firearms, illicitly reactivated firearms, and other forms of illicit manufacturing and trafficking.

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