The Kalashnikov Threat in Venezuela

(International Relations and Security Network, 02/06/2006)


Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez announced on 30 May that the first shipment of 30,000 AK-103 assault rifles would arrive in Venezuela by the end of June. On the same day, Alexander Badistan, spokesman for the Russian arms manufacturer Rosoboronexport, said the company would grant Venezuela a license to manufacture AK-103 rifles. Chavez's statement confirmed that claim. "The Russians are going to install a Kalashnikov rifle plant and a munitions factory so we can defend every street, every hill, every corner," he said.


The 30,000 rifles that are due to arrive in Venezuela are part of a larger arms build-up that has caught the attention of US and South American leaders. Yet for all the media coverage of new fighter jets and submarines from Russia, patrol boats from Spain, and the specter of ballistic missiles from North Korea, a threat that has been overlooked has become more serious.


The Venezuelan military does not employ strict control over its stockpile of small arms and light weapons (SALW) and ammunition for those weapons. According to the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), 400 of the 9,380 rifles seized from illegal groups in Colombia from 1995 to 2000 bear the symbol of the Venezuelan Armed Forces.


The US-based RAND Corporation think tank claims that there were at least 21 known arms trafficking routes between Venezuela and Colombia in 2003. Reports from Jane's Information Group claim that members of the Venezuelan Armed Forces continue to smuggle into Colombia small numbers of Venezuela's old FAL rifles.


An AK-103 rifle factory based in Venezuela could add hundreds of thousands of guns to Venezuela's poorly controlled SALW stockpile.


Meanwhile, Transparency International ranked Venezuela in its 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index as the third most corrupt nation in Latin America, more "honest" than Paraguay and Haiti.


Rampant corruption, combined with strong ties between some Venezuelan security officials and leftist rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), creates a scenario that places Venezuela in the center of a region-wide black market. Adding hundreds of thousands of assault rifles creates a temptation for Venezuelan criminals to sell those weapons on the black market, creating a region-wide security threat.


The transit point


Venezuela is known as the region's top transit country for cocaine flowing out of Colombia. Analysts believe that as much as half (or some 300 tonnes) of Colombia's yearly production of cocaine flows through Venezuela every year. Connections between FARC and the Venezuelan authorities have been suspected for years.


The recent seizure of 5.5 tonnes of cocaine in Mexico underscores Venezuela's facilitator role in moving drugs north from Colombia through Mexico into the US. The cocaine was packaged in suitcases loaded onto a DC-9 aircraft, which had set out from Caracas' Maiqueta International Airport.


Venezuelan authorities immediately began an investigation into charges of corruption that reached the highest levels of airport officials and Venezuelan security authorities. Analysts believe that criminals paid as much as US$2 million dollars to airport officials to allow the shipment of at least one tonne of cocaine a month.


Mexican authorities confirmed that the cocaine packages they seized from the DC-9 were stamped with markings that could be traced back to the FARC. They also believe the cocaine was en route to the Mexican Sinaloa cartel, currently run by "El Chapo" Guzman, who battles the Gulf Cartel for control of access into the US through the Nuevo Laredo border crossing into Laredo, Texas.


According to a Jane's Information Group report, several FARC units traffic an estimated 180 tonnes of cocaine a year from Colombia into Venezuela's southwestern provinces. The FARC's 16th Front has been heavily involved in this activity, moving at one time some 30 tonnes of cocaine into Venezuela a year, according to Jane's. The same FARC unit harbored Brazilian arms trafficker Fernando Beira-Mar, who traded weapons and munitions for cocaine used to sell into the drug market in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo.


Corruption as the source


Central America has traditionally served as a reliable source of black market weapons for the FARC. Paraguay and Brazil are also known resources for weapons, ammunition, and other materials. Venezuela has been seen as a major transit country, and not high on the list of source countries for arms flowing into Colombia. A new weapons factory there may change that fact.


Corruption helps create and maintain all sources of black market weapons. And as governance becomes less a priority in Venezuela, impunity and corruption develop into norms.


Billions of dollars, dog eared for government programs, have simply disappeared, most likely siphoned-off by corrupt officials, according to Gustavo Coronel, a former member of PDVSA state-owned energy giant's board of directors who now monitors corruption in the Chavez government. Coronel claims that social programs such as Plan Bolivar 2000, and its replacement program, The Centralized Social Fund (Fondo Unico Social), are defunct and run by military officers who have little to no oversight.


It has become clear that leaders of Venezuela's military, as long as they remain loyal to Chavez, receive no oversight from Caracas. Venezuela cannot offer any reasonable assurances that AK rifles purchased from Russia or manufactured in Venezuela will not leak into the hands of the FARC or other extra-legal groups in the region.


In the meantime, Chavez continues to spend billions on planes, boats, submarines, and helicopters, claiming the Venezuelan military needs a facelift. While this may be true, the more important matter lies with Chavez's new batch of AK-103 rifles, and those that follow. Fighter jets, submarines, and patrol boats are all part of a conventional army, quickly rendered useless by an opponent's missiles. Considering Chavez's adherence to guerilla warfare and the success asymmetrical warfare has had in the recent past, AK rifles are much more of a threat than any attack helicopter or fighter jet.