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Americas Quarterly, May 15, 2023
By Carina Solmirano

Weapons diverted from the U.S. and from militaries are plaguing the region. Governments can do more to combat the phenomenon.

Murder is on the rise in Latin America. In Ecuador, after a large drop in homicides until 2016, murder rates spiked from 6 to 15 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2021 and to 26 in 2022. In Jamaica, homicide rates neared 50, while Honduras’s were estimated at 36 in 2022. (For reference, the U.S.’s homicide rate is 6.)

A chief factor behind this epidemic of armed violence is the diversion of, and illicit trafficking in, small arms and light weapons (SALW) across the region. These weapons are responsible for over 60% of homicides. But where do they come from—and how can the illegal traffic in weapons be stopped?

Latin America and the Caribbean is not a large market for the transfer of military conventional weapons. For the past five years, international arms transfers have decreased in South America, although Brazil saw a 48% increase in its imports from 2017 to 2022. Only a few countries in the region are producers of SALW and ammunition: Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Mexico.

And the region has stricter regulations for civilian possession of weapons than the United States. This is particularly the case for military-style weapons, like the AR-15 rifle that is often used by Mexican drug cartels. Most countries make licenses to purchase guns contingent on numerous requirements, including psychological evaluations, criminal background checks—and they also impose limits on the number and types of guns civilians can acquire.

But despite these regulations, millions of weapons circulate in the region—with devastating effects. In 2018, it was estimated that over 60 million firearms were in hands of civilians in the region, both legally and illegally owned. In Bolivia, Colombia and Mexico, there are more unregistered weapons than registered ones. In Argentina and Brazil, the number of unregistered weapons is similar to the number of registered ones. Approximately 8.8 million SALW are also part of law enforcement and military holdings. It is harder to know the number of firearms owned by private security companies in the region, but a conservative number of 600,000 was estimated in 2015.

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Photo: Arturo Hernandez / Eyepix Group/Future Publishing via Getty Images