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The Tangled Web of Illicit Arms Trafficking

Small arms trafficking in the 21st century is nothing if not a global operation. In 2002, traffickers acquired 5,000 AK-47s from Yugoslavian army stocks and moved them from Serbia to Liberia under the guise of a legal transaction with Nigeria. One of the planes used in this shipment came from Ukraine and made a refueling stop in Libya while en route. That same year, a group of West African gun smugglers persuaded the Nicaraguan government to sell it 3,000 assault rifles and 2.5 million rounds of ammunition by pretending to be brokering the deal on behalf of the Panamanian National Police. Instead, the illegal goods were routed to South America and sold to the United Self-Defense Forces of Columbia, an international terrorist organization.

These – and thousands of similar incidents – combine to make black market small arms trafficking a $1 billion-a-year global business. But the financial profit comes at a tremendous cost to the world's security. Some 500,000 people are killed each year by the 639 million small arms in circulation, and in some conflicts up to 80 percent of casualties are caused by these weapons. Moreover, small arms are today the weapons of choice for all warring parties around the globe – whether they be government armies, rebel forces, or terrorists – because they are cheap, widely available, extremely lethal, simple to use, durable, portable and concealable.

In particular, small arms fuel regional instability. These persistent weapons often remain behind at the end of conflicts, thus enabling disputes to reignite or spread to neighboring countries. Even when further war is avoided, small arms become instruments for criminal violence and the disruption of development efforts. Ultimately, this kind of regional destabilization can cause states to fail and create the conditions in which terrorist organizations emerge and thrive.

Our efforts to curb small arms proliferation are clearly failing, but why? The answer lies in our inability to understand the nature of the networks that we are trying to disrupt. These complex and innovative networks have evolved in the shadows of globalization and are quick to exploit legitimate international channels, systems, and infrastructures where they already exist – and are equally quick to create new ones where they don't. Consequently, we must start thinking of these shadow networks as deeply integrated not only with one another, but with the entire global economy. By doing so, we will be able to start crafting a strategic policy for combating the illicit small arms trade.

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