Small Wars, Small Arms, Big Graft ; This Week UN Meets to Staunch Global Flow of Illegal Weapons. Traffickers Profit Increasingly in Small Conflicts
Howard LaFranchi writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
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 officials offer.
"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 purchasing.
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. …