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Illicit Trafficking

The illicit trade in small arms and light weapons occurs in all parts of the globe but is concentrated in areas afflicted by armed conflict, violence, and organized crime, where the demand for illicit weapons is often highest. Arms trafficking fuels civil wars and regional conflicts; stocks the arsenals of terrorists, drug cartels, and other armed groups; and contributes to violent crime and the proliferation of sensitive technology.

Black market trafficking usually takes place on a regional or local level; publicly available data suggests that the multi-ton, inter-continental shipments organized by the ‘merchants of death’ account for only a small fraction of illicit transfers.  Among the most important forms of illicit trafficking is the ‘ant trade’—numerous shipments of small numbers of weapons that, over time, result in the accumulation of large numbers of illicit weapons by unauthorized end users. Data analyzed in the Small Arms Survey 2013 indicates that thousands of firearms seized in Mexico are traced to the United States annually. These weapons are often purchased from gun shops in small numbers and then smuggled over the border. While individual transactions occur on a small scale, the sum total of the weapons trafficked into Mexico is large. 

While most arms trafficking appears to be conducted by private entities, certain governments also contribute to the illicit trade by deliberately arming proxy groups involved in insurgencies against rival governments, terrorists with similar ideological agendas, or other non-state armed groups. These types of transfers, which are prevalent in Africa and other regions where armed conflict is common, are often conducted in contravention of UN arms embargoes and have the potential to destabilize neighbouring countries. In recent years, governments have covertly delivered tens of thousands of small arms and light weapons to various armed groups in Somalia despite a long-standing UN arms embargo.  As revealed in the Small Arms Survey 2012, these weapons range from Kalashnikov-pattern assault rifles to third-generation SA-18 MANPADS, one of which was used to shoot down a Belarusian cargo aircraft delivering supplies intended for peacekeepers in March 2007.  

The prices of illicit firearms and their relation to security dynamics have attracted interest among journalists and researchers for some time. In the Small Arms Survey 2013 finds a clear link between illicit market prices in Lebanon and reported fatalities during the first 19 months of the conflict in Syria. The particularly strong correlation between ammunition prices in Lebanon and fatalities in Syria underlines the value of monitoring ammunition prices. Yet available reporting from conflict zones has tended to neglect this important piece of the puzzle, focusing on prices for the most common weapons instead.

The Small Arms Survey 2014 reveals that newly produced ammunition is circulating in conflict-affected countries in Africa and the Middle East. Tracing investigations presented in this edition conclude that Sudan government stockpiles are the primary source of weapons for non-state armed groups of all allegiances in Sudan and South Sudan—both through deliberate arming and battlefield capture. Such arms monitoring is, however, increasingly hampered by the production of unmarked ammunition and the deliberate removal of weapons’ markings.

Small Arms Survey Publications

  • Feeding the Fire: Illicit Small Arms Ammunition in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia, July 2014. Issue Brief No. 8.

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  • Rogue Rocketeers: Artillery Rockets and Armed Groups, by Matt Schroeder, July 2014. Working Paper No. 19

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  • Documenting Weapons in Situations of Armed Conflict: Methods and Trends, June 2014. Research Note No. 42, Weapons and Markets.

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  • Identifying Sources: Small-calibre Ammunition in Côte d'Ivoire, by Holger Anders, a joint publication of the Small Arms Survey/Security Assessment North Africa project and the Integrated Embargo Monitoring Unit of the United Nations Operation in Côte d’Ivoire. Special Report No. 21. (This report is also available in French.)

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  • On the Edge? Trafficking and Insecurity at the Tunisian–Libyan Border, by Moncef Kartas, December 2013. Working Paper No. 17 (also available in Arabic and French)

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  • Legacies of War in the Company of Peace: Firearms in Nepal, May 2013. Nepal Armed Violence Assessment Issue Brief No. 2 (Also available in Nepali)

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  • Business as usual: Arms flows to Darfur 2009-12, September 2012. HSBA Issue Brief Number 20 (also available in Arabic)

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  • Scraping the Barrel: The Trade in Surplus Ammunition, April 2011. Issue Brief No. 2.

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  • Supply and demand: Arms flows and holdings in Sudan, December 2009. HSBA Issue Brief No. 15 (also available in Arabic)

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  • Assessing the Effect of Policy Interventions on Small Arms Demand in Bogotá, Colombia, by Katherine Aguirre et al., co-published with CERAC, December 2009.

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  • Skirting the Law: Post-CPA Arms Flows to Sudan, by Mike Lewis, September 2009. Working Paper No. 18 (also available in Arabic)

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  • Trading Life, Trading Death: The Flow of Small Arms from Mozambique to Malawi, by Gregory Mthembu-Salter, January 2009. Working Paper No. 6

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  • The Central African Republic and Small Arms: A Regional Tinderbox, by Eric G. Berman with Louisa N. Lombard, December 2008 (also available in French).

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  • Blowback: Kenya's Illicit Ammunition Problem in Turkana North District, by James Bevan, June 2008. Occasional Paper No. 22 (Executive Summary also available)

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  • Crisis in Karamoja: Armed Violence and the Failure of Disarmament in Uganda’s Most Deprived Region, by James Bevan, June 2008. Occasional Paper No. 21 (Executive Summary also available)

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  • Quoi de neuf sur le front congolais? Evaluation de base sur la circulation des armes lLégères et de petit calibre en République du Congo, by Robert Muggah and Ryan Nichols, published with the UNDP–Republic of the Congo, December 2007. Special Report No. 8

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  • Small Arms, Armed Violence, and Insecurity in Nigeria: The Niger Delta in Perspective, by Jennifer M. Hazen with Jonas Horner, December 2007. Occasional Paper No. 20

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  • Border in Name Only: Arms Trafficking and Armed Groups at the DRC-Sudan Border, by Joshua Marks, May 2007. Working Paper No. 4 (also available in Arabic)

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  • The militarization of Sudan: a preliminary review of arms flows and holdings, April 2007. HSBA Issue Brief No. 6 (also available in Arabic)

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  • Preventing or Abetting: Refugee Militarization in Tanzania, by Edward Mogire,  2006. In Robert Muggah, ed. No Refuge, co-published with Bonn International Center for Conversion (BICC) by Zed Books.

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  • Buying the Bullet: Authorized Small Arms Ammunition Transfers, by  Anne-Kathrin Glatz, 2006. In Stéphanie Pézard and Holger Anders, eds. Targeting Ammunition: A Primer.

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Other Publications

  • Florquin, Nicolas. 2014. Arms Prices and Conflict Onset: Insights from Lebanon and Syria. European Journal on Criminal Policy and Research. May.

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  • Goodman, Colby and Michel Marizco. September 2010. U.S. Firearms Trafficking to Mexico: New Data and Insights Illuminate Key Trends and Challenges. Working Paper Series on U.S.-Mexico Security Cooperation. September. Washington and San Diego: Woodrow Wilson Center & University of San Diego.

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  • EUROPOL. 2010. Rise in the use of heavy firearms by organised crime gangs. Europol News, 15 July.

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  • UNODC (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime). 2010. The Globalization of Crime: A Transnational Organized Crime Threat Assessment.

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  • Farah, Douglas and Stephen Braun. 2007. Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley and Sons.

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  • IRIN (Integrated Regional Information Networks). 2006. Guns out of Control: The Continuing Threat of Small Arms.  June.

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  • Amnesty International and Transarms. 2006. Dead on Time: Arms Transportation, Brokering, and the Threat to Human Rights.

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  • Schroeder, Matthew, Dan Smith, and Rachel Stohl. 2006. The Small Arms Trade: A Beginner's Guide. London: Oneworld Publications

  • Vines, Alex. 2005. Combating light weapons proliferation in West Africa. International Affairs, Vol. 81, Issue 2. March, pp. 341 – 360.

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  • Biting the Bullet. 2004. Small Arms and Light Weapons Transfers: Developing Understandings on guidelines for national controls and transfers to non-state actors. Small Arms Consultative Group Process, Chair’s Interim Report. London: International Alert, Saferworld and University of Bradford.

    More information
  • Marsh, Nicholas. 2002. Two Sides of the Same Coin? The Legal and Illegal Trade in Small Arms. The Brown Journal of World Affairs. Vol. 9, Issue 1. Providence: Brown University.

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  • Verlöy, André. N.d. 2002. The Merchant of Death. The Centre for Public Integrity. 20 November.

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  • Lumpe, Lora, ed. 2000. Running Guns: The Global Black Market in Small Arms. London: Zed Books.

  • Alves, Péricles and Daiana Cipollone eds. 1998. Curbing Illicit Trafficking in Small Arms and Sensitive Technologies: An Action-Oriented Agenda. Geneva: UNIDIR (United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research).

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