The Impact of Small Arms Misuse in Central America: Conflicts and the Gangs of Central America Essay

The profound effect of the widespread accessibility of small arms on all forms of violence is well known.

Research shows that the availability of small arms is among the major factors that contribute to the global human security deficiency (Garcia, 2006). The increased availability of small arms is a major factor contributing to the intensification of conflicts and hindering re-building of affected nations in the aftermath of wars and conflicts. There are about 500 million military small arms in the world.

These arms are responsible for the killings of 300,000 people, worldwide, every year besides causing most of the civilian casualties in modern conflicts. Small arms include weapons like handguns, pistols, mortars, sub-machine guns, grenades and light missiles. Small arms increase civilian suffering in the affected areas, hinders assistance for victims in conflict zones, increases the deadly effects and the length of conflicts, and impedes reconciliation and reconstruction of the affected regions (Shah, 2006). This paper looks into the impact of the misuse of small arms in Central America, by looking at the impact they have on the conflicts and the gangs of Central America.The preference for small arms over other weapons is influenced by 3 factors: accessibility, variety and the social norms concerning their use. In Central America, small arms are excessively available, with a wide range of both civilian and military weapons to choose from and willingness by large sections of society to use them, albeit for diverse reasons. It is important to note that a great deal of this phenomenon has to do with many civil war and military dictatorship years in Central America.

Nevertheless, there are still other factors conditioning armed violence, such as drug trafficking, youth gangs’ activities and the continued frustration of ex-soldiers with the “false promises” of peace and prosperity (Muggah, Godnick & Waszink, 2002).According to a recent report, the annual global homicide rate is estimated to be about 7.6 per 100 000 population. In America, the rate is higher than 20 per 100 000. In Central America, the rate is about 30 per 100 000 population.

According to the World Bank, the rise of violence in Central America can be attributed to factors like persistent poverty, organized crime, rapid urbanization, political violence, post-conflict cultures, social exclusion, the emergent drug abuse and trafficking, as well as authoritarian family structures. On its part, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime attributes the aggravating violence rates to geographical factors and weak institutions. 90% of the cocaine that finds its way into the US and the deep entrenchment of organized crime are attributed to weak institutions in Central American States. Even the gang phenomenon that has recently forged ahead in Central America can also be attributed to the weak institutions factor (Rodgers, Muggah & Stevenson, 2009).Gang members outnumber military personnel in Central American states like Honduras and Nicaragua, both of which have armies of approximately 12 000 soldiers each; El Salvador has an army of 13 000 soldiers while Guatemala has an army of 27 000. More studies show that gangs are the primary actors in the landscape of contemporary regional violence. Gangs are now mostly urban manifestations, because for them to emerge there has to be a significant demographic youth mass. Also, of great importance when considering the presence of gangs and crime, it is crucial to consider other factors like regional war histories and their aftermaths, which play a very important part in determining why small arms are easily accessible and less regulated in Central America.

The number of unregistered small arms in Central America is more than two million (Rodgers, Muggah & Stevenson, 2009).Migration is more significant as a structure variable. At first, “pandillas” – localized home-grown gangs that directly inherit youth gangs which have been a historic feature of societies in Central America – were found all over the region during the post-conflict period.

However, today their presence is only significantly evident in Nicaragua and, to an even lesser extent, Costa Rica. In Costa Rica, they are often known as “chapulines”. In Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, these gangs have become almost completely displaced by “maras”, which are trans-nationally-rooted gangs. Pandillas had been formed by young men as vigilante-style groups for self-defence, to bring about some order for themselves as well as their communities (Rodgers, Muggah & Stevenson, 2009).However, these Central American gangs are now being linked to trafficking of migrants, kidnappings, and international organized crimes, but studies show that these gangs are mostly implicated in small-scale, localized crimes like petty thefts and muggings, although such crimes can sometimes result in deaths. Maras and pandillas mostly use firearms, which are quite easily accessible in Central America. But these gangs are now increasingly becoming more involved in crimes like drug-trafficking/dealing. Central America is now a point of transit for over 80 percent of the total cocaine trafficked between Andean nations and North America.

In Central America Drug-trafficking is decentralized, however, where cartels get a share of the drugs being shipped from one cartel to another, and then to the better organized Colombian cartels to their Mexican counterparts (Rodgers, Muggah & Stevenson, 2009).It is common knowledge that small arms and light weapons, especially civilian and military firearms, inundate Central America. There are those who estimate the number of small arms in Guatemala to be two million, while others say that the figure represents the small arms number in the entire region. The number of firearms that are in civilian hands is estimated to be 400 000 in El Salvador. In 2000, only 42.

5 percent of them were registered. In 1989, police in Nicaragua estimated the number of military small-arms arsenals in the Sandinista army to be 250000 (Muggah, Godnick & Waszink, 2002).To arrive at a working estimate of the number of Central America’s civilian and military firearms, it is possible to calculate the total number of licensed firearms which are to mean legally-registered firearms.

The total number of legally registered weapons will therefore be around 537 000. When this sum is added to the 230 000 weapons, which is about 57 percent of all illegal firearms in El Salvador, and about 50 percent for the other Central American nations, the total will be about 1 318 300. In order to calculate the amount and distribution of the known firearms, the total number of arms held by the police, private-security agents, and the armed forces is about 1 589 500 in the region. These figures are based on the assumption that one person holds one weapon, without considering other kinds of small arms and light weapons like mortars, grenades or large-caliber machine-guns. If these are taken into account, the number would rise to around two million (Muggah, Godnick & Waszink, 2002).There is still no systematic estimate of the number of weapons present in the Central American region today were present even before the region’s civil wars’ came to an end. However, it is well known that many firearms which were distributed to the insurgents and the armed forces in Central America during the Cold War were from the United States, the Soviet Union and their other suppliers like Cuba, Argentina and Israel.

The biggest recipients of weapons from the US government in the 1980s and the early 1990s were Honduras and El Salvador. The reason El Salvador was among the biggest recipients was because it was fighting against the guerillas of the communist FMLN (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front), and Honduras because it provided the main base of the Contras or Nicaraguan Resistance’s operations which were backed by the US (Muggah, Godnick & Waszink, 2002).In the Guatemala case, the Israel military intervened when, in 1977, President Jimmy Carter of the US stopped all US military support due to the Guatemalan army’s human rights abuse record. From 1979 to 1981, Israel sold 15 000 Galil rifles to the Guatemalan government, as well as sub-machines, bazookas, grenade launchers, and mortars.

Guatemala’s record of human rights abuse was very bad and was against the United States’ values (Muggah, Godnick & Waszink, 2002).                                                           The Guatemala ExampleDuring the 36-year armed conflict in Guatemala, thousands of citizens were killed by the State, and one million displaced. These extra-judicial killings took place during all presidential regimes since 1960, when the modern insurgency and counter-insurgency period began. There was dramatic increase of state repression during the late 1970s, when Guatemala was under General Fernando Romeo Lucas Garcia.

State repression peaked after a 1982 coup, when the practice of destroying entire rural villages became common under Gen. José Efraín Ríos Montt’s rule (Ball, Kobrak, Spirer, 1999).With the increase of massive, indiscriminate violence, press coverage of the political violence almost ceased, leaving room for the state to execute its terror in silence. Eventually, the state stretched its range of victims.

At first, the killings were targeted at selected militants in the 1960s’ armed insurgency; in the 1970s, the killings were also targeting the political opposition. By the beginning of the 1980s, the state, in its attempts to end the insurgency, terrorized civilian populations, killing many villagers in large groups, including high percentages of women and children. The sizes of the groups of people who were killed swelled as the violence extended from the city to the rural areas. Most of the killings in the urban areas were committed by clandestine squads, which carried out selective murders, especially in Guatemala City. This made it easy for the government to refuse taking responsibility for the killings. However, in Guatemala’s isolated Indian communities, soldiers in uniform openly carried out extra-judicial executions, most of the time in the company of civil patrollers. Civil patrollers consisted of villagers compelled to serve in the army, in order to help execute rural massacres (Ball, Kobrak, Spirer, 1999).

 Even though security forces had managed to pacify most of the country by the early 1980s, 34 363 people in Guatemala had either been killed or disappeared, part of which was state-executed, while the rest were as a result of the government’s policy of extra-judicial execution of opposition politicians until the official end of the conflict, i.e. in 1996. After this, many of those killed were activists who attempted to re-establish political opposition movements, in the aftermath of the mass terror. These included human rights activists in both the City and the countryside. For 40 years, most of the political violence in Guatemala became part of planned and centralized state terror campaign, whose aim was mainly to destroy armed insurgencies. The campaign was led by the military’s high command, which authorized its troops to execute the terror, although the government also employed civilian forces to carry out extra-judicial killings on its behalf (Ball, Kobrak, Spirer, 1999).By the beginning of the 1980s’ climax of violence, military commissioners and army spies or “orejas” became rural intelligence service providers for the army.

The commissioners themselves also took part in the violence by becoming actively involved in torture, murders, and disappearances. On the other hand, guerillas were busy trying to eliminate or co-opt the commissioners. Village patrols, on their part, were not just playing defensive roles; they too participated in some of the most horrific massacres during the whole armed conflict. The state’s extensive use of civilians to attack fellow civilians was one of Guatemala’s state terror’s most devastating aspects. This practice started with the military commissioner systems (Ball, Kobrak, Spirer, 1999).This graph shows the rank of state terror peak in 1982, when hundreds of Indian communities were killed. The graph’s scale obscures the ups and downs in the state violence’s intensity, both before and after the 1980 to 1983 peak.

Source: American Association for the Advancement of Science, 0-87168-630-9. The Guatemalan Defense Ministry responded to the United States’ withdrawal by developing a large arms industry through Guatemalan Military Industries, a state enterprise. This it did by establishing a munitions factory in the Alta Verapaz department. It was also here that the Galil rifles from Israel were assembled. Also significant was the Soviet Union’s and Cuba’s military aid to Nicaragua, which was then distributed to the region’s other leftist groups (Muggah, Godnick & Waszink, 2002).

This relationship was confirmed by the UN-sponsored disarmament operations in El Salvador, during which large clandestine arsenals outside Managua in Nicaragua were discovered. The communist guerrilla movements also had direct deals with Cuba for military supplies; a good number of the rifles in El Salvador’s FMLN stocks traced back to the 1960s weapons purchases by Cuba. This was ironical because Cuba also provided the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unit with M-16s they bought from Vietnam. These were left-over weapons from the pre-1975 United States’ involvement in Vietnam.

In 1987, Cuba received 100 000 Kalashnikov-type assault rifles from North Korea. Many of these were distributed to the Salvadoran guerillas among other rifles from East Germany and Yugoslavia. The AK-47 rifles that were used by the Contras had been confiscated from the Palestine Liberation Organization by Israel (Muggah, Godnick & Waszink, 2002).

With the Cold War and the region’s conflicts having ended, the focus shifted to other parts. The military and police institutions in Costa Rica, Honduras, El Salvador, Panama and Nicaragua still acquires small arms, small arms’ parts and ammunition from the US through foreign military and direct commercial sales. To what degree the transfer of small arms is part of the United States’ Western Hemisphere Drug Elimination Act of its International Narcotics Control Program, which facilitated for Plan Colombia and its bilateral agreements with Central American nations, is not clear (Muggah, Godnick & Waszink, 2002).Military grenades and assault rifles are still being spread throughout Central America. In Guatemala and El Salvador, grenade attacks and injuries resulting from chance discoveries of the artifacts are common. US sources show that firearms commercial retail and black-market sales surpass the deals between governments in both quantity and value. North and South American, European (particularly Spain), Chinese and South Korean manufacturers and brokers also supply arms to Central America.

It is very likely that the weapons are used by private-security companies and for personal protection. According to a Guatemalan retail armory owner, keeping popular models in stock is hard because civilians buy weapons everyday to defend themselves and their families from armed assaults (Muggah, Godnick & Waszink, 2002).The high-level availability of arms in Central America aside, some groups and individuals are making their own weapons. The maras assemble makeshift pistols from metal tubing and bed-springs. These kinds of weapons are very popular and have been identified by authorities as a major problem associated with the youth gangs. In Santa Ana, El Salvador, pistol imitations of the popular brands, called “tacos” are made in makeshift workshops. In 2000, between January and August, the police in Santa Ana confiscated more than 200 such weapons, as small clandestine workshops continued to be uncovered throughout El Salvador.

Despite these weapons being more expensive than other weapons, they remain to be cheap, easy to use, easily disposable and hard for authorities to trace. The excessive small-arms circulation aggravate the need for more production of weapons for the parts of society that need or feel the need to obtain cheap firearms (Muggah, Godnick & Waszink, 2002).ConclusionThere has been a growth in the private security industry in Central America, a thing that is seen as both indicative of and contributive to a violent setting. This is because even though some violence indicators have improved, Central Americans still feel insecure. Violent crimes are among the most significant impediments to good governance in the region, alongside poverty, natural disasters, deep-rooted corruption and social inequality.

All together, it is weak governance – especially inadequate justice and poor public security structures – that perpetuate the impact of small arms on Central America (Muggah, Godnick & Waszink, 2002).            To end or check the problem of small arms in Central America, it is important to study the sources of small arms. It is important to understand how many companies there are, their owners, the number of persons they employ, how they control the small arms, etc, in order for authorities to be able to step in and regulate them. This can help reduce their negative impact and by stopping small arms flow, peace and stability can be restored in some of these regions.ReferencesBall, P., Kobrak, P.

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(2006). Small Arms and Security: New Emerging International Norms.Routledge, UK, 978-0-415-49485-4.Godnick,W.

, Muggah, R., & Waszink, C. (2002). Stray Bullets: The Impact of Small ArmsMisuse in Central America. Small Arms Survey. Retrieved 28 Jul.

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, Muggah, R., & Stevenson, C. (2009). Gangs of Central America: Causes, Costs,and Interventions. Small Arms Survey, 1661-4445.Shah, A. (2006).

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