Foreign Policy Blogs

Note to Calderon: Look to Venezuela and Nicaragua for Smuggled Weapons

Much has been made of Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s claim that US-sourced and manufactured weapons, smuggled across our southwest border, continue to enable the cartel violence that has killed more than 22,000 innocent men, women, and children.

But as a DHS source notes, there are plenty of people who know better, high-level officials in the CIA, leaders in the Senate, policymakers in the US  Department of Justice and in the White House, who understand that billions in small arms, assault rifles (manufactured in the US, Russia and the PRC) RPGs, AK-47s, SKS type arms, fighter jets, and various other instruments of sudden destruction intended for resale have been pouring into (and out of) Venezuela and Nicaragua for years. We also know that Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez and his Nicaraguan comrade President Daniel Ortega have been stockpiling enough arms to outfit their own militaries, if that were their purpose, dozens of times over.

US arms, some left over from our alliance with the Nicaraguan Contras and their push to oust the Sandinistas, are still plentiful in that country, and Daniel Ortega, who embraces the socialist agendas of both Venezuela and Cuba (also an arms supplier to Venezuela), is eager to supply like-minded visionaries with all the heat they need to someday challenge the United States and other capitalist imperialists — and he sees Mexico, if that country can be destabilized, as a ‘domino’ worth fighting for.

Hence the steady flow of US-manufactured arms from Nicaragua to Mexico’s cartels and criminal gangs.

Venezuela is also onboard as an arms marketer to simpatico socialist elements across Central and South America.  The Chavez government has spent more than $4b buying fighter jets, helicopters and Kalashnikov rifles from Russia since 2005.

Venezuela has also gotten $2.2bn in credit lines for more Russian arms, including T-72 tanks and the S-300 advanced anti-aircraft missile system.

“The Yankee empire doesn’t want us to have one single little plane,’ Chavez said at a news conference with Putin in April 2010.

There is also evidence that FARC has been trading cocaine for arms brokered by Venezuelan middlemen, entrepreneurs who are, at the same time, supplying weapons to Mexico.

These middlemen are almost certainly motivated by greed more than ideology, but US government insiders suggest that the arms flows  between Nicaragua, Venezuela, Mexico, and the FARC are, at bottom, part of a larger ideological blueprint to destablize countries already weakened by social and political unrest:  for the FARC, that country is Colombia.

The United States has warned that such actions–this increase in the import and sales of weapons–might “spark an arms race in Latin America,” but the fear must certainly be much broader than that.

What US policymakers should dread is this scenario:  the steady sale of arms to Venezuela from Russia, Iran, China, and Cuba, and the willingness of both Venezuela (Russian and Chinese arms) and Nicaragua (US-manufactured weapons) to resell firepower to criminal or insurgent elements throughout South and Central America (Mexico being the prize) someday allows Chavez and Ortega to realize a common ambition — power over a Socialist Empire that encompasses most or all of Central and South America.

Mexico is unlikely to go in that direction, say DHS officials, but given the amount of weapons-for-resale flowing from Russia, China, Iran and Cuba–final destinations Mexico, Colombia (FARC) and other criminal or insurgent endpoints–there is growing concern that trouble lies ahead.

Of course, if  there’s one thing Washington doesn’t need right now, it’s more trouble.

On April 5, 2010 ” Congressman Connie Mack (FL-14), the Ranking Republican of the House Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, blasted Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin for completing another $5 billion arms deal the day before.

Mack said:

“This isn’t the first arms deal between the two countries, and I doubt it will be the last. Since 2005, Venezuela has purchased $4 billion worth of Russian arms, including assault rifles, helicopters and fighter-bombers.”

Mack continued, “This deal is another example of Hugo Chavez’s dangerous alliances with the thugocrats of the world and other enemies of freedom like Iran and Cuba.”

Be that as it may, it would appear to be less complicated and certainly more politic for US policymakers  to swallow Calderon’s can-of-worms pronouncements about arms smuggling from the US to Mexico’s cartels than it would be to swallow a much bigger bucket of ugly threats–arms transfers and trafficking to and between anti-American governments, or states shaken by internal threats, that are uncomfortably close to home.

It’s easier to counter the Mexican President’s complaint about the US lifting of the ban on assault rifles via a Second Amendment defense (“will of the people in a democracy”) than it is to go poking into uglier political realities about the source of guns to cartels, Marxist insurgents, and criminal gangs.

Indeed, Washington insiders say the Obama administration is in a bind regarding Nicaragua.

“Senior officials know that Ortega is riding roughshod over institutions and is dismantling democracy and the rule of law, but they do not know how best to respond,” says Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based think tank Inter-American Dialogue. “If they lead the charge and take a tough stand, that could backfire. It might evoke some unpleasant memories of US bullying in the 1980s.”



Kathleen Millar

Kathleen Millar began her career in public affairs working for Lyn Nofziger, White House Communications Director. She has gone on to write about a wide range of enforcement and security issues for DHS, for the US Department of the Treasury (Customs & Border Patrol), for Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME), then a Member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and for top law enforcement officials in the United States and abroad.

A Founding Member of the Department of Homeland Security, Millar was also the deputy spokesperson-senior writer for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Vienna, Austria. She has authored numerous speeches, articles and opeds under her own and client bylines, and her work, focusing on trafficking, terrorism, border and national security, has appeared in both national and international outlets, including The Washington Post, The Washington Times, The International Herald Tribune, The Financial Times, and Vital Speeches of the Day.

Kathleen Millar holds an MA from Georgetown University and was the recipient of a United Nations Fellowship, International Affairs, Oxford. She is a member of the Georgetown University Alumni Association, Women in International Security (GU), the Women’s Foreign Policy Group, and the American News Women’s Club in Washington, DC. Kathleen Millar is currently teaching and writing about efforts to combat transnational organized crime.