One thing is certain about El Salvador – there is no shortage of firearms. Along with explosives, firearms are the leading cause of violent death in the Republic. The frequency of violent attacks, such as the December 8, 2010 hand grenade assault on the City Hall in San Salvador, and recent highly publicized investigations of gun traffickers, such as former Brigadier General Martínez-Guillén, calls for a closer examination of where the weapons come from and how criminals get them.
El Salvador has an extensive and easily accessible black market where buyers can find firearms and explosives of all shapes, sizes and origins, with little interference from law enforcement. The black market is comprised of individual dealers who operate out of their homes, cars, or even the backrooms of local businesses. Most often, black market weapons come from international sources in the US or Europe and are trafficked through Mexico down to El Salvador, or they are stolen out of Salvadoran military or police arsenals.
One of the biggest buyers of illegal weapons is El Salvador’s numerous security firms that protect private and government interests. Though they are legal entities, security firms prefer to purchase arms off the black market to avoid government scrutiny. Security companies have thrived over the years, making millions from Salvadorans who increasingly live in fear of being robbed or killed by the country’s notorious street gangs. These security firms also serve as a large source of weapons for thieves. In the past two years alone, more than 1,700 weapons have been reported missing by private security companies.
Every year, Salvadorans purchase roughly $20 million in small weapons from the legal market, and approximately two to three times that amount from the black market. Though government officials tend to blame street gangs for the high murder rates that make El Salvador one of the deadliest countries in the world, political scientists and international experts have been questioning whether they could really accomplish the 10-15 murders per day they are blamed for. One of the points they make is that the youth involved in these gangs probably cannot afford to purchase the high-grade weapons that are often used.
Many of the weapons used in crimes have been in El Salvador for decades, left over from the 12-year civil war that ended in 1992. Despite the United Nations’ numerous efforts to disarm El Salvador following the conflict, a large percentage of wartime weapons continue to be bought and sold on the streets. Additionally, the Salvadoran military’s large arsenals are frequently stolen from, and their weapons end up being sold on the streets. Such weapons include M-16 AK-47 automatic rifles and hand grenades, such as the ones used in attack on San Salvador’s City Hall that killed two and caused $20,000 in damage. Last summer, the Washington Post published an article highlighting the issue of “1980s-era hand grenades, originally distributed to the militaries of El Salvador and Guatemala, making their way onto the black market. Drug cartels have used them in firefights with police and military, and against rival gangs.
As the Wall Street Journal recently explained, large-scale gun traffickers are responsible for a negligible percentage of the weapons in illegal circulation. Gun theft and small-scale distribution of stolen and found weapons are much more common and even harder to combat, especially since policymakers are focused on the very few large-scale distributors. Current strategies like this one, and using the United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms databases to trace U.S.-made guns used in crimes abroad, turns up fewer than 15 high-volume (more than 250 guns per year) gun trading networks each year.
The Ministry of Defense has uncovered numerous gang plots to steal or illegally buy small numbers of weapons from the armed forces or police. Traffickers tend to prefer lower-volume sales or thefts, and guns that change hands up to four or five times, making the guns harder to trace, and the buyers harder to find.
The illicit weapons market in El Salvador and other Central American countries is closely tied to drug trafficking. Not only do traffickers use the same routes, but drug traffickers buy weapons to protect their shipments and territories. Most significantly, guns are the most common method of payment for drugs. One explanation for this lies in the trade equity between the two products. Because guns and drugs are both high-value and low-density items, it is easier to trade based on bartering rather than using currency as a medium of exchange. Since weapons (especially small, cheap guns) are more abundant than drugs, the higher-ups in the drug trade networks have begun to demand and subsequently gain access to newer, bigger, and more sophisticated weaponry, making the potential for violence even greater.
A recent story that has been widely reported by the Associated Press, the Washington Post, and the Canadian Press, among others, highlights exactly how far this black market reaches. Three missing M-16 rifles from military barracks sparked an investigation aided by the US Drug Enforcement Agency, which has an office in El Salvador. The investigation revealed that Brigadier General Hector Antonio Martínez-Guillén was illegally selling arms to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which the United States considers a terrorist organization. Although the general resigned in May 2010, the DEA spent nearly a year on a sting operation that focused heavily on him. In a meeting with an undercover agent, Martínez-Guillén agreed to illegally sell rifles after being warned by the agent that they would be used to kill American troops and consultants in Colombia if possible. This agreement along with a later trip to the US to sell more than $1 million in cocaine in what he believed was a FARC drug deal, put the issue under US jurisdiction. He was arrested upon arrival to the Washington Dulles International Airport in Northern Virginia and has been awaiting trial, which is scheduled for July 29. Also accused of selling more than 20 pounds of C-4 plastic explosive, he allegedly fully supported the FARC’s cocaine trafficking and Anti-American ideology. He admitted selling “automatic rifles, ammunition and plastic explosives” to FARC members, but the investigation continues in El Salvador to unearth similar actors in illegal gun trades and narcotrafficking. His guilty plea came as part of a plea deal in which the prosecution agreed to seek no more than 45 years for terrorism charges.
This case is just one of many that highlights exactly how far the illegal black market for weapons extends. The cooperation between the Salvadoran authorities and US agencies was instrumental in this case, and it shows one way this widespread and dangerous trade can be confronted. The case is also a good sign, showing that El Salvador may be beginning to take seriously both illegal arms deals and military officials acting outside the law.