Arms trafficking

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A tower of confiscated smuggled weapons about to be set ablaze in Nairobi, Kenya

Arms trafficking, also known as gunrunning, is the trafficking of contraband weapons and ammunition. What constitutes legal trade in firearms varies widely, depending on local and national laws.

The 1999 Report of the UN Panel of Governmental Experts on Small Arms provides a more refined and precise definition, which has become internationally accepted. This distinguishes between small arms (revolvers and self-loading pistols, rifles and carbines, submachine guns, assault rifles, and light machine guns), which are weapons designed for personal use, and light weapons (heavy machine guns, hand-held under-barrel and mounted grenade launchers, portable anti-aircraft guns, portable anti-tanks guns, recoilless rifles, portable launchers of anti-aircraft missile systems, and mortars of calibres less than 100 mm), which are designed for use by several persons serving as a unit. Ammunition and explosives also form an integral part of small arms and light weapons used in conflict.[1]



Although arms trafficking is widespread in regions of political turmoil, it is not limited to such areas, and for example, in South Asia, an estimated 63 million guns have been trafficked into India and Pakistan.[2]

The suppression of gunrunning is one of the areas of increasing interest in the context of international law. Examples of past and current gunrunning include:

In the United States, the term "Iron Pipeline" is sometimes used to describe Interstate Highway 95 and its connector highways as a corridor for arms trafficking into New York City.[3]


Liberia and Sierra Leone Conflict[edit]

The civil war in Sierra Leone lasted from 1991-2002, and left 75,000 people dead. Arms Trafficking played a significant role in this conflict. Both small and large arms were shipped to all sides in both Sierra Leone, and Liberia from outside actors. Small arms being any handheld gun (pistol, assault rifle, sub machine gun, shotgun,) and other items such as grenades, claymores, knives, machetes, etc. Large arms indicates large amounts of explosives, missiles, light machine guns, mortars, anti tank missiles, tanks, planes, etc. During this time a civil war was occurring in nearby Liberia. The Liberian Civil War took place from 1989 through 1997. The war was between the existing government and the National Patriotic Front. Leader of the National Patriotic front of Liberia, Charles Taylor, helped to create the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in Sierra Leone. Taylor was the recipient of thousands of illegally trafficked arms from easter Europe (mostly the Ukraine). Taylor then sold some of these weapons to the RUF in exchange for diamonds.[4] President of Burkina Faso, Blaise Compaore, “directly facilitated Liberia’s arms-for-diamonds trade” with Liberia and Sierra Leone.[4] Compaore would give guns to Taylor, who would then sell them to the RUF in exchange for diamonds. These blood diamonds would then be sold back to Compaore for more guns. The cyclical exchange allowed Compaore the ability to deny directly sending arms to Sierra Leone.

The Liberian government received arms through an elaborate from company in Guinea. The arms were intended to be shipped (legally) from Uganda to Slovakia, however, the arms were diverted to Guinea as a par of “an elaborate bait and switch.”[4] Additionally the British government “encouraged Sandline International, a private security firm and non state entity, to supply arms and ammunitions to the loyal forces of the exiled government of President Kabbah.”[5] Sandline proceeded 35 tons of arms from Bulgaria, to Kabbah’s forces.[4]

Why Traffickers Choose Africa[edit]

Kimberly Thachuk and Karen Saunders argue that arms trafficking is no different from any other illegal business in their work Under the Radar: Airborne Arms Trafficking Operations in Africa. Traffickers first need a headquarters, or somewhere to base their operations. A headquarters needs several aspects to make it an ideal place to traffic weapons. First, the headquarters should have appropriate infrastructure. For a weapons trafficking this would include a landing strip for both importation and exportation. Additionally, warehouses are needed to “store product awaiting delivery."[6] Once the product has arrived and been stored it needs to be delivered to the customer, thus, the headquarters should be in somewhat of a central location near each customer. This is not the primary reason many traffickers choose Africa certainly has multitudes of unoccupied land that can be used by traffickers, as is asserted by Thachuk and Saunders.

Physical space is important but the rules and regulations of said space are also relevant. Traffickers look for places with corrupt, supply side, officials that can either be bribed, or blackmailed. This allows the trafficker to “circumvent the regulatory and oversight systems” put in place by the government.[6] Furthermore, a “lax financial system” is key so the large amounts of money moved by the trafficker are not seen as suspicious.[6]

Thachuk and Saunders finish their argument, a stable, and highly centralized government, is important. They then point out that 10 different African countries have leaders that have been in power for more than 20 years, which they argue meets the criteria a highly centralized and stable government.[6]

Market value[edit]

The total value of the global arms market is estimated around $60 billion a year, with around $8 billion attributed to pistols, rifles, machine guns, and bullets.[7] The total illegal arms trade is harder to estimate, but the illicit small arms market has been estimated at 10–20% of the total global arms trade.[8]

Notable arms dealers[edit]

In popular culture[edit]


  • Lord of War (2005), a fictional crime war film in which Nicolas Cage plays an illegal arms dealer similar to the post-Soviet arms dealer Viktor Bout; the film was endorsed by Amnesty International for highlighting the arms trafficking by the international arms industry
  • Making a Killing: Inside the International Arms Trade (2006), a 15-minute documentary included in the two-Disc Special Edition DVD of Lord of War (2005).[9] Numerous other documentaries about arms trafficking are linked on this film's YouTube page.[10]
  • Iron Man (2008), a superhero film in which based on the Marvel Comics character of the same name, centering inventor Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) discovers his company has been arms trafficking weapons of his own designs to criminals worldwide, and seeks to stop his corrupt executives and other employees by becoming the technologically advanced superhero Iron Man.
  • War Dogs (2016), a black comedy-drama biographical film based on the true story of two young men, David Packouz and Efraim Diveroli, who won a $300 million contract from the Pentagon to arm America's allies in Afghanistan who later became involved in arms trafficking.
  • Shot Caller (2017), a crime thriller in which recently paroled felon Jacob "Money" Harlon, is forced by his gang shot caller to orchestrate a major arms deal with an allied Sureno gang.
  • The Chosen (1981), in one scene, Reuven, an Orthodox Jew in 1940's New York, and some classmates are seen smuggling into the docks at New York Harbor and placing crates full of rifles labeled "Farm Equipment" on a ship bound for Haifa for the Israeli guerrilla fighters in the Arab-Israeli War. This scene also occurs in the book on which the movie is based.


  • Sons of Anarchy, a FX-TV series about a fictional outlaw motorcycle club whose main source of income is trafficking arms to a variety of criminal enterprises domestically and internationally.
  • Death in Paradise Series 3, Episode 5, features Simon Shepherd as Jacob Doran, Saint Marie's Minister for Commerce, who is later found out by Humphrey Goodman to be a gunrunner.
  • Jormungand, an anime television series based on the manga series by Keitarō Takahashi, produced by White Fox, which addresses the issue of arms trafficking in the Middle East and throughout the European continent.
  • The Night Manager, a BBC miniseries where a former British soldier who is currently a night manager in hotels infiltrates the inner circle of an arms dealer.

Video games[edit]

  • Grand Theft Auto V's multiplayer platform, GTA Online, has a downloadable content pack revolving around manufacturing and distributing illegal arms through smuggling operations and missions included in "Gunrunning".
  • Mafia III, one of Lincoln Clay's underbosses, Haitian crime lord Cassandra, runs gun rackets.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Greene, O. (2000). "Examining international responses to illicit arms trafficking" (PDF). Crime, Law & Social Change. 33. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2012-03-23.
  2. ^ Staff Correspondent (May 30, 2006). "Bangladesh turned into arms smuggling route; Experts critical of govt's indifference". The Daily Star.
  3. ^ Enos, Sandra L. (2012). "Iron Pipeline". In Gregg Lee Carter. Guns in American Society: An Encyclopedia of History, Politics, Culture, and the Law. ABC-CLIO. pp. 440–44. ISBN 9780313386701. Retrieved 7 May 2015.
  4. ^ a b c d Rothe, Dawn L.; Ross, Jeffrey Ian (2012). "How States Facilitate Small Arms Trafficking in Africa: A Theoretical and Juristic Interpretation". SSRN Electronic Journal. doi:10.2139/ssrn.2427762. ISSN 1556-5068.
  5. ^ Schabas, William (2004), Schabas, William; Darcy, Shane, eds., "A Synergistic Relationship: The Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Special Court for Sierra Leone", Truth Commissions And Courts, Springer Netherlands, pp. 3–54, doi:10.1007/978-1-4020-3237-0_1, ISBN 9781402032233, retrieved 2019-02-28
  6. ^ a b c d Thachuk, Kimberley; Saunders, Karen (September 2014). "Under the Radar: Airborne Arms Trafficking Operations in Africa". European Journal on Criminal Policy and Research. 20 (3): 361–378. doi:10.1007/s10610-014-9247-5. ISSN 0928-1371.
  7. ^ Whitney, Craig R. (December 2012). "Ruling Arms". World Policy Journal.
  8. ^ Schroeder, Matt & Lamb, Guy (2006). "The Illicit Arms Trade in Africa" (PDF). African Analyst. Archived from the original (PDF) on 21 February 2007. Retrieved 17 June 2016.
  9. ^ "Making a Killing: Inside the International Arms Trade". IMDb.
  10. ^ Making a Killing: Inside the International Arms Trade. YouTube.

External links[edit]