Latin America's murky arms trade

Investigators suspect Vladimiro Montesinos's Swiss accounts are loaded with money from illegal deals.

Investigations into Peru's fugitive former spy chief Vladimiro Montesinos - the mysterious power behind the 10-year regime of former President Alberto Fujimori - are like a window opening onto the world of shady arms sales.

Peruvian investigators, with help from abroad, are figuring out how 10,000 Kalashnikovs from Jordan were diverted to Colombia. And why Peru decided to buy some decrepit MIGs from Belarus. The picture becoming clearer with each new Swiss bank account found is a landscape of corruption and kickbacks surrounding legal arms transactions.

But there is some positive news amid the revelations of dark doings in Peru: Arms purchases in general across Latin America have either dropped off substantially - as in Central America - or have settled at moderate levels, driven by modernization demands. Gone are the days when mutual suspicions among neighbors fed a South American arms race, or when Central America's ideological wars fueled a tremendous arms buildup.

In a survey of transfers of major conventional weapons over the past decade, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute shows a steep dropoff in arms purchases by Central American countries, with South American countries spending about $1 billion a year since the mid-90s. This makes Latin America the world's developing region with the lowest military expenditure, according to a 1998 report by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, in Santiago, Chile.

The SIPRI study even shows one South American country, Bolivia, coming in 148th out of 149 countries for 1995-99 arms expenditures, spending less than $500,000 during the period.

But the discovery of more than $75 million in Swiss bank accounts linked to the former director of Peru's much-feared spy agency, the National Intelligence Service or SIN, points out how a country's legal arms purchases can turn into a fount of corruption. When basic democratic principles of transparency and accountability are disregarded amid claims of "national security" and "military secrecy," experts here say, the door to influence peddling and illegal enrichment slides wide open.

"We're always told that [arms purchasing] is a national security issue and is only the business of those in uniform," says Cesar San Martin, a criminal-law professor at the Peruvian University of Applied Sciences in Lima. "But we're seeing that transparency is absolutely essential in all aspects of the arms trade." When Congress and an informed civil society have a role in overseeing arms purchasing and sales, he adds, "the kind of problem we're facing now can be greatly reduced."

Commissions from a $1 billion purchase of arms from Belarus and Russia in 1996 - mostly involving old MIG fighter jets and spare parts - were the major source of the Montesinos wealth now coming to light, a Peruvian congressional investigation is finding. Evidence is supporting press reports, denied at the time, of the arms deal that Montesinos, a former military official and Mr. Fujimori's chief advisor, made a deal first with Belarus for obsolete jets. When those planes proved lacking in spare parts Belarus could not provide, Montesinos negotiated an additional purchase with Russia. It appears both deals involved multimillion-dollar commissions that went to Swiss accounts.

Peruvian investigators are also taking a closer look at a case of arms diversion that is casting strong light on proliferating arms trafficking in the region - much of it to feed the Colombian conflict's insatiable appetite for weapons.

In a case that broke this summer, Peruvian military officials purchased thousands of arms from Jordanian officials. The Peruvians claimed the arms were for Peruvian use, according to the Jordanians, but the purchase - including 10,000 Kalashnikov automatic weapons - ended up diverted to the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC), Colombia's largest rebel organization.

Fujimori originally claimed Jordan illegally sold the arms to a group of private Peruvian and other arms dealers, but an investigation showed the 1998 deal involved high-ranking Peruvian military officers. The Peruvian Congress is now investigating a Montesinos link to that deal.

"What we have seen over the last five years is an opening of crime gangs focused on one area, such as drugs, to other markets," says Ricardo Soberon, a former researcher with the Peruvian Congress's national security committee, which is now studying arms trafficking. "We're seeing a wide diversification into weapons, the chemical products needed for narcotics, immigrant smuggling, and natural resources."

What Mr. Soberon calls the "gang" operated by Montesinos was one of the region's most profitable, he says, because of the former official's cachet of political power and his willingness to use his influence in the military.

Indeed the Montesinos renown - along with Peru's authoritarian regime - gave Montesinos an invaluable cover. He had longtime connections with the CIA and in the past was praised by some US officials for fighting Peru's terrorist groups and drug traffickers.

Experts say it was attractive for arms trafficking because his "gang" was peopled with officials. "The sheer numbers of arms an organization like the FARC needs requires an official connection," says Tom Cash, senior managing director with Kroll security analysts in Miami. Any arms manufacturer requires an international "end-use certificate" when completing a weapons deal, guaranteeing where the arms are going and who will be using them, Mr. Cash says. "Those certificates are limited to the hands of officials, like a Montesinos or military officials charged with purchasing, and that's what makes them so valuable."

A different kind of arms trafficking was revealed recently in Mexico, where justice officials broke a connection between Colombia's FARC and the Tijuana drug cartel. Officials say the relationship operated as a drugs-for-arms exchange (a connection the FARC has denied). Peru's Soberon says that kind of bartering is similar to a case in Suriname.

"The Suriname-based gang worked with a Dutch group that took a few tons of cocaine a year to European cities," he says, "in exchange for mortars, launchers, uniforms ... that went through Brazil before ending up in Colombia."

Kroll's Cash says such drugs-for-arms deals will always be outweighed by trafficking with an official connection. But experts agree that Colombia's deteriorating situation and prospects for heightened violence will continue to make it a focus of the region's arms trafficking. A report published earlier this year by Colombian officials - showing a sharp increase in arms seizures - adds weight to their argument.

"It's difficult to imagine a more serious crime" than arms trafficking, says Richard Werksman, a top State Department corruption specialist in Peru last week. "It's absolutely essential that all of us place more focus on this."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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