Procurement: Air Pirates

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May 2, 2007: In the last decade, dozens of gunrunners have sold hundreds of millions of dollars worth of weapons to warlords and outlaw states, mainly in Africa and Asia. Attempts to stop this arms trade have largely been futile. That's because the gunrunners had several things going in their favor.

@ Cheap weapons. The end of the Cold War in 1991 left billions of dollars worth of portable weapons (pistols, assault rifles, RPGs, small rockets and missiles, mortars) sitting, unneeded, and often unguarded, in depots throughout eastern Europe. The communist governments that bought all this stuff were now bankrupt, and turning into democracies. But the guys in charge of the weapons were broke and willing to deal. And deal they did. Millions of weapons were sold off real cheap, with corrupt officials pocketing most of the money, and the buyers getting stuff cheap enough that they could afford to fly it to customers.

@ Cheap aircraft. The end of the Cold War also left lots of surplus Russian long range transports. The usual drill, with corrupt officials selling or leasing these aircraft to shady operators. These aircraft were more expensive to operate than comparable Western aircraft, so the arms trade, with its huge profits, was often the only work available.

@ Save havens for outlaws. When the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, some bits ended up more legit than others. The disassembling of the Soviet empire left places like Moldova, a quasi-independent state between Russia and Rumania, that became host to dozens of gunrunners, and the illegal air transport companies they formed to move the goods. Central Asia was another favorite base for some gunrunners. But from time to time, many East European nations were hospitable to the gunrunners and the bribes they brought with them. If one place cracked down, you moved on to another haven. This is one game of musical chairs that isn't over yet.

@ Buyers with money. The tribal violence in Africa, as well as rebellions in Asia and South America, was financed by all manner of lucrative activities. Drugs and high value raw materials (diamonds being the most well known) provided cash or commodities the gunrunners would take in payment for their weapons.

@ No international regulation of the arms trade. While most nations regulate the sale of weapons, the gunrunners perfected the art of taking off with a legitimate load of weapons, then simply taking the stuff to another, unauthorized, buyer. In other words, the weapons took off legal, and landed illegal.

There's a lot of effort now to shut down all these different situations that make the massive gunrunning possible. Too late. Most of the damage has been done. The East European arsenals have largely been emptied. Today, lots of the weapons are bought new from shady suppliers in places like Pakistan and China, and flown to wherever. Cracking down on the illegal airfreight means shutting down the quasi-legitimate air freight companies. These outfits are coming apart anyway, as Soviet era transports wear out. But this shadow smuggling network is worth going after, because these outfits have predicted the ability for gangsters to deliver, or pick up, just about anything, anywhere on the planet.

 


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