The indictment of former Argentine President Carlos Menem last
week, on charges of illegally selling $100 million worth of light
arms and explosives, is but the latest sign of an ominous post-
cold war trend: The booming business in small-scale conflicts has
become a major source of corruption.
About half of all the weapons - assault rifles, mortars, and
grenades - supplied to civil wars from Sierra Leone to Chechnya are
from illegal sources, says a UN report. (Swiss lead effort to track
arms, page 9.)
Increasingly global mafias work in association with high-level
officials and pay huge fees in exchange for the legitimacy the
"It's not politically correct any more for governments to be
selling arms to regions in conflict, so the selling has to go
underground," says Tamar Gobelnick, director of the arms sales
monitoring project at the Federation of American Scientists.
That's what prosecutors allege happened in a scheme to illegally
sell weapons from Argentina to Croatia and later to Ecuador during
Mr. Menem's first presidential term, between 1990 and 1995. It's
also just one of the charges facing ex-Peruvian intelligence chief
Vladimiro Montesinos, accused of creating a pipeline of arms - from
Eastern Europe and involving Middle Eastern military contacts -
that ended up in Colombia's civil conflict.
Corruption in arms sales is also being investigated in South
Africa, where $5.5 billion in arms procurement under the ruling
African National Congress allegedly resulted in widespread
wrongdoing, including kickbacks and favorable contracting with
family members of ANC leaders.
Diplomats and weaponsmakers are meeting at the United Nations for
the next two weeks to regulate arms brokers and push for a system
to trace the movement of light weapons.
The South African case is an example of the kind of corruption
that has long affected government arms procurement. But while such
cases continue to pose a threat globally, international corruption
experts say the most troubling growth area in dirty arms sales
results from small regional conflicts, often under international
arms-supply embargo, with underworld organizations supplying arms.
"The supplying of arms to smaller wars ... is where there's the
greatest growth in arms sales corruption," says Laurence Cockroft,
chairman of the London chapter of Transparency International (TI),
an anti-corruption watchdog organization in Washington.
According to Mr. Cockroft, the largest sums of corruption money
in arms deals tend to be in traditional arms procurement such as in
the South Africa case. This is also where TI traditionally focuses
its efforts, he says. But he adds that research from the World Bank
and other institutions is shedding light on smaller-scale arms
Often sought to fight "small" conflicts, the purchases sometimes
involve middlemen connected to international drug and money-
laundering rings. Such purchasing is exacting a mounting toll on
developing countries, such as Angola.
The Argentine case, one of the more complex - the court file so
far runs more than 20,000 pages - involves a long trail of
officials and middlemen of various Latin American and European
nationalities. The arms were sold with "certificates of final use"
issued for Panama, Venezuela, and Bolivia - the certificates being
the magic passes that governments control but that middlemen need
to give arms shipments legitimacy. …