UN secretariat photo

Stay Active

AID logo

AID seeks to inspire a new generation of international leaders and promote America's image in the world.

UN wire logo

UN Wire is a free, daily e-newsletter that provides the most timely and relevant news on the United Nations and the world.

E-mail Updates

think. logo

Sign up for the monthly e-mail, think., from the Stanley Foundation.


Learn more about think.
Privacy Notice

Blood, Drugs, and Guns

Arms Trafficking Fuels Chaos

By Reese Erlich

Map of Colombia

This report is part of "Security Check: Confronting Today's Global Threats," a radio documentary produced by the Stanley Foundation in association with KQED radio.

speaker icon Listen

To this segment (MP3, 6MB)

To the full documentary

speaker icon Read

The print version

The day-to-day work of security officials at airports like Washington Dulles is filled with watching for contraband like drugs and weapons.

The trafficking of these and other items has an important connection to threats to global security. These weapons fuel conflict, and the profits fuel just about everything else.

The illicit trade of small arms has become a major global security threat. Nowhere is that more clear than in Colombia where criminal gangs, left-wing guerrillas, and right-wing paramilitaries smuggle tens of millions of dollars of dangerous weapons. These weapons not only threaten Colombia's stability but also that of nearby countries and the United States.

Easy Access

On their nightly patrol in Bogota, Sergeant Gabriel Ochoa and four other police officers focus on catching criminals carrying illegal small arms in the nation's capital city.

Columbia military photo. AP/Wide world photos


The United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, has been working with the government to hand over their arms as part of an on-going peace process. There is some doubt, however, that agreements like this one will have an effect the larger, more dangerous smuggling rings in and around Colombia.

Legally, Ochoa said, only those who get permits from the Ministry of Defense are allowed to own handguns, shotguns, and rifles. But the reality is far different.

"Although we have strict gun control here in Colombia, people can easily get small arms on the black market," Ochoa said.

A revolver goes for about $150 on the streets of Bogota. A 9-millimeter semiautomatic pistol can be bought for $350.

A Nationwide Problem

The country is awash in small arms, and the results are evident in the halls of a Bogota hospital.

One young man who did not want to provide his name said he was recently shot after some old enemies showed up on his doorstep, brandishing pistols acquired on the black market.

"It was about 11:30 in the morning at my place. My friend opened the door and suddenly this guy took out a pistol and started to shoot," he said.

"The owner of the house tried to defend me. So the guy killed him. He shot me in the shoulder. The bullet went through my body and is still lodged in my hip."

It is not just select neighborhoods that are suffering from the scourge of illegal arms, he said.

"The whole country is covered with arms. I've made the effort to get away from the world of guns, but it's a problem for the whole country."

Linking Weapons and Drugs

There are an estimated 3 million illegal small arms in this country of 43 million people. Most weapons are imported by drug cartels and political insurgents, and the guns are frequently traded for cocaine.

Colombia's Minister of Defense Jorge Uribe said this arms and cocaine racket is not only a problem for Colombia but also a security threat for Latin America and the United States.

Uribe's explanations are vivid.

"You should be worried about that," he said. "Every time an American goes into that trip from sniffing drugs, they should think where is that coming from and how many lives have been lost in the process of bringing that pleasure. The color of cocaine is white, but it's really red because of the amount of blood."

In 2000 the United States initiated Plan Colombia, a program aimed at stopping cocaine trafficking and, in part, arms smuggling. So far the United States has paid $3.5 billion for Plan Colombia, the third-highest amount of foreign aid given to any country in the world.

Santa Fe de Ralito, a small village about 200 miles northwest of Bogotá, is the birthplace of the AUC, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia.

The AUC is the umbrella group for Colombia's right-wing paramilitaries. They are the anticommunist organizations originally created by land owners and drug traffickers to combat a left-wing guerilla insurgency, which began 40 years ago and has plagued successive governments ever since. AUC soldiers in this compound openly carry assault rifles and side arms.

The paramilitaries are infamous arms smugglers. In a 2001 incident, according to a Colombian government indictment, the AUC brought in 3,000 AK-47s and 5 million rounds of ammunition aboard a ship supposedly carrying soccer balls.

A large amount of Colombia's small arms comes through Central America. Some are US-supplied weapons originally given to the contras in Nicaragua in the 1980s.

"At first we used our own arms to defend ourselves from the guerrillas," said Juian Bolivar, the chief negotiator for the AUC. "Later we got M60 machine guns and mortars. We got arms from Central America, from the arms the US sold to the contras, and from what the Soviet Union supplied to the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Some of the Central American arms went through three wars before they got here."

Working With the Enemy

In late 2004 the AUC began talks with the government, and the AUC paramilitaries are now in the process of demobilizing and handing over their arms. All 15,000 to 20,000 paramilitaries are supposed to be disarmed by the end of 2005.

Despite this process of disarmament, Antonio Navarro, a leftist member of the Colombian Senate, says the AUC is keeping some of its arms in order to maintain control of drugs and gambling in some cities.

"The majority of the paramilitaries have a mafia structure," Navarro said. "Their goal is not to give the arms back or to really stop fighting. The paramilitaries are actually drug dealers. So if they have these ways of exporting cocaine, they also have ways of importing illegal arms."

While the confiscated weapons are turned over to INDUMIL, the state-owned arms manufacturer, some charge that the confiscated weapons go back into circulation unnoticed.

"I'm afraid there's not enough control over those arms," said Alfredo Rangel, director of the Security and Democracy Foundation, a prestigious, centrist think tank.

Rangel also believes confiscated weapons make their way back into circulation.

"They could end up on the black market and end up rearming the paramilitaries or the guerrillas."

Calls to the Ministry of Defense for comment were not returned.

While the government focuses on taking illegal arms out of circulation, the drug cartels continue to trade arms for cocaine—a growing problem for Caribbean countries and the United States.

Sandro Calvani, head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Colombia, said the traffickers use transporters, or speed boats.

"The transporters do not come back empty," he said. "They come back with arms. In particular the Dominican gangs do that, the Jamaicans the same—because there is a lot of demand for small arms in the Caribbean, in Jamaica, in the Dominican Republic."

Finding the Source, Addressing the Threat

Back on the mean streets of Bogotá, the shooting victim from the hospital says doctors expect him to make a full recovery. Despite his condition, he is still looking toward the future.

"I was planning to study to be an electrician," he said. "At the moment I don't know what is going to happen. I like that job a lot."

Cases like these, in fact, are less common than they used to be. The government of President Alvaro Uribe has made serious attempts to reduce common crime and has made significant progress. From 2002 to 2005, murders went down 45 percent, according to official statistics.

Nevertheless, an estimated 400,000 illegal arms still enter the country every year. Because the arms trade is driven by large-scale criminal gangs and political violence instead of small-time crooks, experts say the small arms trade will continue as long as Colombia produces cocaine and political insurgency.

"The arms trafficking is well beyond government control because there are many international interests in that," said General Manuel Bonett, former head of Colombia's Armed Forces. "The problem in Colombia is the conflict. The only manner to control the trafficking of weapons is to reduce the conflict."

Making the Connections

By Keith Porter

For Professor Macartan Humphreys, the connection between war and illegal trafficking is clear.

"In the Colombia conflict, there are clearly those who are benefiting from the trade in the illicit drugs," he said. "They cannot continue their trade if there's a resolution of the conflict. So they need a conflict in order for that trade to persist.

"Whether you're a terrorist or a drug runner or a person who is actually trafficking in humans, you actually use the same techniques—whether it's trying to get false documents and passports or more importantly trying to figure out how to channel money."

Celina Realuyo of the US State Department draws the final connection between war, trafficking, and global security.

"Whether you're a terrorist or a Columbian drug lord, who can provide you with these types of services? If you think about that, these are the ways that the terrorists are trying to come into the United States and how to actually fund their operations."

Finding a Global Strategy

The State Department has recognized the only way to tackle the problem is through a global strategy.

"When we do a public designation of a group, let's say the Taliban in Al Qaeda, you really want to be able to shut down all of their operations financially around the world," said Realuyo.

Gareth Evans, former Australian foreign minister and president of International Crisis Group, agreed.

"Because no state, however big or powerful, can do the job by itself," Evans said.

"When you're talking about terrorism, you have to have cooperation. When you're talking about narcotics trafficking and when you're talking about weapons of mass destruction, you're talking about the need for states to have control systems all around the world because of the ease of transmission of this stuff."

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan recently commissioned a report from a blue-ribbon panel to look carefully at global threats and how the world, including the United Nations, needs to deal with those threats.

Evans, who served on the panel, found plenty to criticize.

"The United Nations is nothing very much more than a combination of the members that make it up," he said. "It's no good, those of us who like and clamor for multilateral system improvement to say that what we've got is the best of all possible worlds. It isn't."

"Security Check: Confronting Today's Global Threats" is part of the 2005 Public Radio collaboration "Think Global," May 16-22. The documentary is produced by Simon Marks, Keith Porter, and Kristin McHugh. It is a Stanley Foundation production in association with KQED Public Radio. The full program includes segments on civil war in Uganda, loose nuclear material in Russia, AIDS in Thailand, and an exclusive interview with Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Back to the top


Peace Keepers The Stanley Foundation, along with the UN Foundation, is sponsoring local showings of The Peacekeepers, a documentary on the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo. If you would like your organization to show the film, find out how by contacting us.

Courier 50 Cover The spring 2006 issue of Courier is now available. This issue features a look back over fifty issues of the magazine and a look ahead at the United Nations, a long-term view of US foreign policy, highlights of a recent poll of Iraqi civilians, a summation of the Iranian nuclear issue, and insight into the US international affairs budget. Read these articles in the new issue.