South American Crackdown on Illegal Gun Trade Reveals Serious Trafficking Despite Pandemic

© Interpol

Lyon (France), 6 April 2021 — A law enforcement operation targeting firearms trafficking across South America has seen the seizure of thousands of illicit firearms and generated global intelligence on crime networks and smuggling routes.

The successful operation was the result of ongoing cooperation between INTERPOL and UNODC in detecting, identifying and prosecuting weapons trafficking networks worldwide, heeding the call of UNODC Executive Director Ghada Waly, who remarked that “It is vital for UNODC and INTERPOL to join forces to ensure countries develop the capacity and tools to tackle firearms trafficking both on the ground and in court.”

Operation Trigger VI took place over the course of three weeks (8-28 March 2021). Dozens of officers from police, customs, border and prosecution services worked together across South America to track illegal firearms and identify their links with organized crime.

Coordinated by INTERPOL and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the joint operation saw the arrest of multiple suspects and resulted in the seizure of illegal weapons across Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, France (French Guiana), Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Uruguay, and Venezuela.

“Firearms proliferation is a very serious threat to South America’s security and stability,” said INTERPOL Secretary General Jürgen Stock, highlighting that the effort “requires coordinated regional law enforcement action to thwart the organized crime and terrorist groups behind it.” 

“With criminals quick to capitalize on COVID-related socio-economic changes —particularly regional lockdown— Operation Trigger VI is testimony to the commitment of South American law enforcement who are to be commended for conducting operations during a global pandemic,” added INTERPOL’s Secretary General.

Intelligence Led, Evidence-Based Investigations

Throughout the operations officers in 13 countries simultaneously checked firearms against INTERPOL’s iARMS database to determine if the weapons had been reported as lost, stolen, trafficked or smuggled. With over a million records, iARMS enables the identification of firearms trafficking patterns and smuggling routes. 

“By providing training and fostering cooperation as part of Operation Trigger VI, UNODC was pleased to support South America’s criminal justice systems’ responses to firearms trafficking and its links to organized crime. This is in line with our Office’s role as the guardian of the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime and its Firearms Protocol — the only legally binding instruments addressing transnational organized crime and illicit firearms trafficking at the global level,” added UNODC’s Executive Director Ghada Waly.

 Pre-operational training delivered jointly by INTERPOL and UNODC ensured that officers and prosecutors had the skills needed to detect, identify, investigate and prosecute firearms crime holistically, with each firearm to be considered as part of a larger, connected criminal network. 

New Trends Exposed

Operation Trigger VI further enabled countries to detect new regional trends that will assist in preventing, uncovering and prosecuting criminal activities in the future. Among these are:

  • There has been a noted increase in the circulation of weapons that are typically difficult to trace; such as handmade weapons, ghost guns, replica weapons, weapons with obliterated serial numbers, and others.
  • Social media has seen a surge in content that encourages the use of firearms in perpetrating crime and violence.
  • Firearms often travel from Asia, Europe, and North America to South America by mail, in separate parts spread among different parcels, and are then reassembled for criminal us.
  • Small arms are enablers for many forms of violent crime, including gang intimidation, human trafficking and terrorism linked to the illegal drug trade.
  • There has been a spike in domestic violence and violence against women involving firearms; highlighting the importance of promoting gender mainstreaming at a policy as well as operational level.
  • Smugglers are taking advantage of South America’s vast coastline, densely forested mountains and numerous clandestine airstrips to illegally transport stolen firearms in and out of the continent.
The success of operation Trigger VI and the iARMS database —the world’s only global illicit firearms database— were made possible through the generous support of the European Union.