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.