Reducing the Threat of Arms and Munitions in the Americas

Dimensions of the Problem

In many parts of the Americas, the threat of armed violence to citizens is a phenomenon appearing in news headlines on a far too regular basis. In large measure, this threat is magnified by relatively easy access to illegal firearms, ammunition and even explosives. In many cases, these items are remnants of past conflicts that continue to contribute to instability and insecurity throughout the hemisphere.

The linkage of illicit manufacturing, sale and distribution of firearms, munitions and explosive material with drug trafficking, terrorism, transnational organized crime, and other criminal enterprises has been well established, and the magnitude of the problem is significant. A 2006 study by the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress estimated that there were some 2.85 million illegal firearms in Central America, which means that there is more than one for every 16 people living in the region. The human toll inflicted by the illegal use of firearms has been enormous in many countries. According to the Inter-American Observatory on Security, six of the American states reported this past decade that more than 65 percent of homicides occurring in their countries involved the use of firearms. Each year, government security and police forces seize tens of thousands of illegal firearms but often lack the capacity to mark, trace and destroy these weapons in a systematic fashion. However, not only do many weapons found in the illicit markets originate in legal transactions, but in some cases, firearms used to commit crimes are obtained through legal international arms transfers.

To further complicate the problem of citizen safety there is the issue of large quantities of arms and ammunition which are legally held by armed forces, police or other state and private entities, a situation that becomes particularly dangerous when these stockpiles are inadequately stored, managed or secured. Large stores of expired or obsolete conventional ammunition and explosives are not only subject to illegal transfer and trafficking, but they also pose a significant danger to the surrounding communities. In recent years there have been tragic incidents involving fires, human error, lightning, unstable propellants or explosives, and sabotage that have caused devastating damage and casualties in neighboring communities requiring substantial clean-up and damage repair efforts, at a great cost.

Taking Action

Amid a growing awareness of the need to address the proliferation, security, and safety of firearms, ammunition, and explosive material, the nations of the Americas have rejected illicit trafficking of arms and munitions and taken important steps to control and secure them. Twenty-six OAS Member States have joined together since 1997 to ratify or accede to the Inter-American Convention against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Ammunitions, Explosives, and Other Related Materials (CIFTA) in an effort to promote inter-American cooperation to combat the scourge of illegal weapons trafficking. During the 2003 Special Conference on Security in Mexico, OAS members further resolved, to carry out the provisions of CIFTA by destroying, securing and managing national weapons stockpiles, regulating firearms brokering, and sanctioning illicit transfers. At its Fortieth Regular Session in June 2010, the OAS General Assembly expressed its support for organizing specialized workshops and training programs within the framework of CIFTA.

The task of carrying out this mandate belongs to the OAS General Secretariat and its Secretariat for Multidimensional Security. Modeled on the coalition that has successfully addressed the landmine problem in the Americas, the OAS has partnered with international donors, technical organizations, and supported Member States to develop and fund innovative approaches to meet specific national needs. These efforts fall into three general categories: control and destruction of firearms, control and destruction of ammunition and explosives, and remediation of sites contaminated by munitions.

Control and destruction of firearms

The OAS first became involved in the issue of firearms control and destruction in Colombia. In 2006 and 2007, the OAS provided assistance to the Government of Colombia with the destruction of 18,000 firearms surrendered by demobilized paramilitary groups in accordance with the Colombian peace process. In cooperation with the OAS Mission for Support of the Peace Process in Colombia (MAPP), planning assistance and international monitoring of the project were provided to the government with funding from the Canadian Government. OAS financial assistance also covered expenses for Colombian technicians to conduct ballistics testing and registration the weapons, as well as transportation from regional storage facilities around the country to a central destruction site at a commercial foundry.

To address the growing concern over the proliferation of illegal weapons in the Central American region, the OAS conceived a mobile arms and ammunition destruction workshop, a concept developed to facilitate the local needs of firearm and ammunition destruction. In joint collaboration with the Ministry of Defense in Guatemala and the Golden West Humanitarian Foundation, a non-profit organization with extensive technical experience in the field of weapons and munitions disposal, the OAS supervised the completion of the project in December 2010. Known as SEMAFORO (Sistema para la Eliminación de Municiones y Armas de Fuego – Regional), the workshop, a trailer-mounted system that can be towed by a medium-duty truck, is equipped with specialized cutting tools for firearms destruction as well as a modular gas-powered burner unit for safe destruction of 12.5 caliber ammunition. SEMAFORO has the capability to destroy some 300 weapons and over 100,000 cartridges of small arms ammunition per day. The OAS team responsible for the system is based in the region and offers formative training to the national staff of countries requesting support.

Another ongoing initiative is the effort to provide equipment and training to Member States to enable them to mark firearms with identifiable information, including model and serial numbers, as well as manufacturers’ or importers’ data. In addition to providing these services to national authorities, the OAS’ regionally-based team will also offer technical assistance and refresher training once the systems are fielded for better sustainability of the project. The aim is to enable law enforcement and judicial authorities to be more effective in tracing weapons that are linked to crimes.

Control and disposal of excess, obsolete or expired ammunition stockpiles

Since 2007, the OAS has also supported the safe disposal of more than 900 tons of expired ammunition from Nicaraguan Army stores and another 400 tons from military stockpiles in Guatemala. In the case of both countries, much of the ammunition remained from obsolete weaponry or was far in excess of national defense and security needs, in some cases posing a serious hazard because of deterioration after decades of storage. With financial support from the Governments of Canada, Italy, and the United States and technical advice from Golden West, the OAS assisted the Nicaraguan military in carrying out two destruction projects from March 2007 through 2008. An important innovation was the use of binary explosives, which can be easily and safely handled and transported with no special equipment or security precautions, and destroys the ammunition by detonation. This explosive material has about one-tenth of the cost of an equivalent amount of conventional explosives, like TNT, which resulted in significant savings. The same methodology was used again in the Guatemala project in 2010 and will continue through most of 2011. In addition to the effort of eliminating unneeded munitions from military stockpiles, the projects have also supported improvements to the physical security of storage facilities by repairing or improving lighting, fences, doors, and locks, among other issues.

Remediation of sites contaminated with munitions

One of the most difficult and hazardous tasks in dealing with munitions disposal is the clean-up of current or former military sites that are contaminated with abandoned or deteriorating ammunition. In 2005, a fire at a military munitions supply point, located only a few hundred meters from a densely populated area of the capital city, resulted in over 5,000 flammable, highly-volatile white phosphorous projectiles being deposited in open, water-filled pits. Based on a request from the Guatemalan government, the OAS coordinated support and technical assistance, as well as supervision of the safe removal and destruction of these munitions in February and March 2010.

In 2010, the OAS also launched a project to remove abandoned munitions from a former military base in central Nicaragua. Unfortunately there were several accidents at the site when local civilians attempted to collect discarded ammunition to sell as scrap metal. Using specialized detection equipment and technical training provided by the Golden West Foundation, teams of Nicaraguan Army engineers located and destroyed large quantities of buried munitions, clearing an area of over 44 hectares of dangerous artifacts by December 2010.

A Continuing Commitment

The OAS, through its support of national efforts to control firearms, munitions and explosive material, as well as to dispose of excess, obsolete or expired weapons and material, builds synergy between the humanitarian imperative for projects of this nature and their inherent need for peace, stability, and security. Past and current successes make it clear that the OAS can play a key role in combating the threats posed by uncontrolled firearms, ammunition, and explosives, and these initial efforts have spurred the interest of other partners. At the same time, each project serves to develop regional and national technical capabilities to address these problems. Future international and regional cooperation through the OAS not only provides the benefit of exchange of experiences in these difficult tasks, but also promotes the building of confidence and cooperation that enhance the prospects of a safer and more secure hemisphere.