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Weapons proliferate in Venezuela

Supporters and opponents of President Chávez are reportedly forming militias in the run-up to next month's referendum.

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In an effort to apply stricter controls, the Organization of American States (OAS) in 1997 adopted a convention requiring measures such as increasing documentation of commercial sales and marking arms at manufacture. Since then, 33 countries, including the US, have signed the convention and 22 have ratified it. After receiving President Clinton's signature, it has gathered dust in Congress.

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Supporters were heartened this year when the Bush administration indicated that the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee would finally hold a hearing on it in June. But the date passed with no mention of the convention.

"We are all baffled by the decision not to move on a convention that the US helped to draft and so clearly ties into the war on terrorism," says Matt Schroeder of the Federation of American Scientists, an organization in Washington in favor of arms control, who authored a report on the convention.

In an e-mail message, Andy Fisher, press officer for the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee, said: "Because the US complies and cooperates with the provisions of the convention, the Clinton and Bush administrations have not pressed for its Senate ratification."

Civilian soldiers

Meanwhile in Venezuela, Chávez announced in November that police had confiscated "weapons of war," including rifles and explosives, from opponents "who are trying to create a violent situation." In May, the government arrested more than 100 Colombian youths whom Chávez said had been sent by his enemies to assassinate him. Many ridiculed the account, because the supposed paramilitaries were untrained and unarmed. However, Chávez responded by calling for the creation of civic-military corps, which his critics charge means illegal militias. "Every citizen should consider himself a soldier," he told thousands of followers at the announcement.

There have been various indications that pro-Chávez groups are already armed. A rural organization called the Bolivarian Revolutionary Front has distributed posters of uniformed fighters gripping rifles. A leftist urban guerrilla group has battled police in Caracas. And Lina Ron, the radical leader of progovernment street activists, boasted recently to the Miami Herald that her followers are "armed to the teeth."

The concern about weapons here extends to Washington, which has a moratorium on commercial arms sales to Venezuela. Still, most of the 1,200 to 1,500 firearms which Venezuelan police seize each month from criminals are smuggled from the US, according to the national police.

Ratification of the OAS arms convention by the US, the continent's largest arms exporter, would not only oblige other nations to closely monitor arms imported from the US, but would also increase US influence in international arms policy discussions, say convention supporters. "A lot of governments ... think we're hypocrites [for not ratifying]," says William Godnick, a policy adviser with International Alert, a group based in London working to resolve international conflicts, who has written on the trade in light weapons.