In a Venezuela deeply polarized over President Hugo Chávez, reports of groups arming themselves have raised the specter that an Aug. 15 recall vote on Mr. Chávez could trigger violence if the losing side refuses to accept the result.
The conflict over Chávez's rule has already left several dozen dead in street confrontations and has been punctuated by unsolved bomb attacks on political targets. Representatives of both sides - supporters who say Chávez is the savior of the poor, opponents who say he is an authoritarian who has run the country's economy into the ground - have accused each other of arming irregular paramilitary groups.
"The government's thesis is to surround itself with urban and rural militias in order to prevent a loss of power by whatever means it takes," says National Deputy Pedro Castillo, a member of the opposition who chairs a parliamentary commission investigating the illicit arms trade.
But Chávez has warned repeatedly that his opponents, who have charged the government with preparing to manipulate the referendum, might take up arms if they lose. "If they go for the route of violence, we will be ready to confront them," he said on June 27.
Mr. Castillo says that since January 2003 his commission has investigated more than 10 cases of suspicious or illegal arms shipments, including 120 Uzi submachine guns and 1,200 Croatian pistols imported ostensibly for the police force of a small rural state; a hundred assault rifles from Iran discovered at a port in a container labeled "scrap metal"; and several crates of ammunition.
Besides feeding fears of political violence, the profusion of guns and other light arms here has fueled a soaring rate of violent crime. Anti-Chávez newspapers regularly headline the latest murder tolls as a sign of growing lawlessness. And in a recent series of spectacular robberies, attackers have blown open armored cars using rocket-propelled grenades.
Venezuela is only one example of a continent-wide problem. In neighboring Colombia, outlaw groups fighting a 40-year civil war are trading drugs for arms in international markets. In Haiti, disarming the paramilitary gangs that drove out President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in February has become one of the greatest challenges for peacekeepers there. Such light arms are favored tools of terrorists and criminals from the Middle East to North Africa to South America. While the international focus is often on weapons of mass destruction, light weapons kill hundreds of thousands of people each year.
Many of these arms are purchased on gray markets in loosely documented transactions. In 2001, for example, 3,000 AK-47s and 2.5 million rounds of ammunition sold by the Nicaraguan police, supposedly destined for Panamanian police, were instead resold to a rebel group in Colombia. The same year, a pair of Lebanese diamond dealers linked to Islamic terror organizations tried to buy assault rifles, antitank weapons, and surface-to-air missiles through a dealer based in Panama. The deal apparently fell through.
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.
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."
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.