U.S. Interests Undermined by Unlawful Firearms Trade

By Erwin, Sandra I. | National Defense, May/June 1998 | Go to article overview

U.S. Interests Undermined by Unlawful Firearms Trade


Erwin, Sandra I., National Defense


Clinton administration concerned about impact of illegal small arms sales on anti-drug efforts

The illicit traffic of firearms worldwideparticularly in Latin America-is increasingly gaining attention from U.S. policy makers and arms control advocates. The reason, say officials, is that an alarming proliferation of small arms in some regions is posing threats to the United States on more than one front.

The availability of firearms such as military-style rifles and assault weapons, on the one hand, assists illegal drug trafficking activities in nations such as Mexico and Colombia, say U.S. officials. The Justice Department estimates the illicit drug trade costs the United States $200 billion a year.

Access to small arms by rebel factions in many under-developed countries, additionally, fuels regional conflicts where increasingly the United States is summoned to intervene militarily. In many of these nations, organized crime undermines fragile new democracies, and, ultimately, "challenges our own security," says President Clinton's national security strategy blueprint.

The administration policy calls for the United States to "prevent arms traders from fueling regional conflicts and subverting international embargoes."

U.S. government interest in these, socalled, "trans-national" threats was articulated in 1995 when President Clinton-in a speech to the United Nations-underscored the danger posed by international criminals, terrorists, and narco traffickers. He also urged other governments to work with the United States to shut down the black and gray firearms market.

Deaths Caused

More deaths today are caused by small, civilian-owned firearms than by major conventional weapons, says Michael G. Renner, senior researcher at the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group. These arms, he says in an interview, are increasingly associated with crime and constitute a major source of illicit profits for trans-national criminal networks.

Small arms, says Renner, cause as much as 90 percent of the casualties in current regional conflicts and civil wars.

Although governments may profess concern about private arms smugglers and rogue suppliers such as insurgent groups or drug traffickers, he notes that governments are "by far the most important source of those weapons."

Given the plethora of legal and illegal trading networks for small arms, once the weapons are produced, he explains, "there is virtually no telling under whose control they will end up. In fact, the original suppliers have come to be haunted by a boomerang effect, with weapons intended for friendly recipients often falling into the hands of adversaries."

Left with excess supplies of weapons in the aftermath of the Cold War, armies in North America, Europe, and the former Soviet Union are selling arms cheaply to other countries, he says. And weapons left over at the end of civil wars often enter the black market and resurface in new hotspots. Renner asserts that arms originally supplied to combatants in Nicaragua and El Salvador, for example, have found their way into Colombia and other parts of Latin America where the United States is involved in anti-drug trafficking efforts.

As a result of widespread activities by grassroots groups, meanwhile, the proliferation of small arms is beginning to attract the attention of policy-makers and international organizations.

In a recent address to the U.N. General Assembly, Secretary General Kofi Annan expressed concern at the spread of conventional weapons, especially landmines and small arms which are extensively used in regional conflicts. A U.N. report notes that "preventing and reducing the excessive and destabilizing accumulation of small arms was one of the most serious challenges facing the international community." Yet, the task is intractable because these weapons are easy to produce, obtain, use and transport, and hard to place under effective governmental controls. …

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U.S. Interests Undermined by Unlawful Firearms Trade
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