Soon Venezuela is expected to choose a new 5.56 mm assault rifle to replace the 7.62 mm assault rifle that all branches of its military have used for more than 40 years. Distribution begins in 2003, starting with border patrols. But the move by Venezuela has implications that go far beyond the arms deal.
Thousands of the decommissioned rifles are likely to find their way onto the region's illegal arms market, where they will sell for as much as $2,000 each. Moreover, the flood of weapons will bolster arsenals of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC) and National Liberation Army (ELN) at a time when tension is already high.
Venezuela's move to rearm its troops will lead to an expansion of violence in the region. Some of the decommissioned FAL rifles will be "reassigned to second-line units," Rear Adm. Carlos Molina Tamayo said, while the remainder will be stored at the Venezuelan army's arsenal in the city of Maracay, about 100 miles from Caracas.
Venezuela's military arsenals already suffer substantial "leakage" of assault rifles and munitions that mysteriously disappear from allegedly secure locations and are subsequently acquired by guerrillas in neighboring Colombia.
Moreover, the swell in arms in the region will come at a time when the number of weapons flowing into Colombia is increasing overall due to escalating violence in that country. That violence will fuel demand in Colombia for more weaponry in a criminal and political conflict that already kills some 30,000 Colombians each year.
Factors fueling increased violence in Colombia include the cocaine trade, in which over 200 drug-trafficking organizations are in business alongside the FARC; the rapid expansion of paramilitary forces battling the FARC and the smaller ELN; escalating FARC hostilities against military and economic targets; and a growing U.S. military presence in Colombia. In fact, the growing violence in Colombia will create additional profit incentives for black-market arms smugglers in Venezuela who work in league with corrupt military personnel.
The illegal arms market in Colombia is highly lucrative. FAL 7.62 mm assault rifles sell for about $2,000 apiece, while M-16s cost over $2,000 and AK-47s sell for about $1,400, according to Colombian defense ministry sources. According to Colombian military sources, between January 1998 and July 5, 2000, the Colombian army seized from FARC rebels 470 FAL rifles, three machine guns, 96 semiautomatic pistols, 18 revolvers, 58 light machine guns, 744 magazines and over 90,000 rounds of ammunition stamped with the seals of either the Venezuelan armed forces or Cavim, the Venezuelan military's arms and munitions industry.
The change from FAL 7.62 mm rifles to new 5.56 mm rifles also will provide Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez the wherewithal to achieve his goal of turning Venezuela into an international arms exporter. Chavez would gain a sizable inventory of up to 100,000 used 7.62 mm assault rifles that could be sold to foreign clients in the international market for used arms.
Also, the arms manufacturer who wins the contract to supply Venezuela's new 5.56 mm rifle must agree to license out production of the new assault rifle to Cavim in Venezuela. While the re-arming of Venezuela's military will help Chavez with a dark economic goal, the inadvertent effect is much more macabre. It will put more assault rifles into the hands of people who are working in tandem with drug traffickers and against American anti-drug forces.
Jack Sweeney is an senior analyst for STRATFOR, a leading provider of global intelligence. To subscribe to STRATFOR or find out more about its products, click here.