Amid Venezuela unrest, experts worry that criminals will acquire military’s weapons

Venezuelan Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez (R) mans a Russian-made 9K338 "Igla-S" (SA-18) portable air-defense surface-to-air missile launcher in Caracas on March 14, 2015.
Venezuelan Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez (R) mans a Russian-made 9K338 "Igla-S" (SA-18) portable air-defense surface-to-air missile launcher in Caracas on March 14, 2015. AFP/Getty Images

The Venezuelan government’s decision to arm civilians to defend the country’s socialist revolution amid growing unrest is rekindling fears of terrorists and criminal organizations acquiring part of the nation’s arsenal, which include a large stockpile of shoulder-fired, surface-to-air missiles.

Experts and U.S. policy makers are concerned about the risk that some of these missiles — as well as thousands of modern assault rifles and banned anti-personnel mines — might fall in the hands of criminal groups under President Nicolás Maduro’s regime, with its rampant corruption, its lack of internal controls and the country’s rapidly deteriorating conditions.

“Maduro is a dictator with close ties to terror-sponsoring regimes, and is now promising a ‘gun for every militiaman’ as his thugs counter the Venezuelan people’s peaceful pro-democracy protests with violence and lethal force,” Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said.

“This reckless action reeks of desperation and raises the possibility that Maduro could lose control over dangerous weapons systems,” the Republican senator said in a written statement.

According to internal military documents obtained by el Nuevo Herald, over a number of years Venezuela has purchased several hundreds of the latest variant of the land-to-air missiles, Igla-S, the Russian equivalent of the U.S.-made Stinger missile.

Though the militias are being armed with rifles, not land-to-air missiles, experts worry that the military gear could make its way to civilians eventually.

Caracas’ possession of the portable, infrared-homing Igla-S has been a source of concern in the U.S. for some time, given the socialist regime’s cozy relationship with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and with Lebanon’s Hezbollah, groups classified as terrorist organizations by the U.S.

Video captures the moment a woman refused to move out of the way of a police tank during a violent protest in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas on April 19, 2017.

Those concerns had previously taken a back seat given repeated Russian assurances that those weapons would not fall into the wrong hands, according to State Department cables revealed by Wikileaks.

But Maduro renewed those fears last week after green-lighting the Zamora Plan — a readiness operation that calls for the activation of militias when facing an imminent threat of war — after thousands took to the streets in Venezuela to protest while accusing the Chavista leader of executing a self-coup.

The signing of the Zamora Plan gave the legal grounds to enact Maduro’s previous announcement that he would give rifles to 400,000 militias to protect his government from a coup that he said was planned in Washington.

The prospect of rogue groups obtaining the Igla-S is particularly frightening given its small size and effectiveness. Weighing only 24 pounds, the tube-like launcher could be relatively easy to smuggle across borders, and its 2.5 kilogram warhead can shoot down an airplane or helicopter from 3.7 miles away.

“The anti-aircraft missiles are one of the most potent and dangerous weapons that are in this arsenal,” said Roger Noriega, former assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs under the George W. Bush administration.

“I remember U.S. officials being petrified about these things ending up in the hands of the wrong people and that was dozens of these things. In this case, we are talking about perhaps… thousands of these weapons,” he said.

Before entering into peace talks with the Colombian government, the FARC guerrillas were highly interested in obtaining these missiles since they would have been devastating against the type of helicopters used by the national army, according to press reports.

A group of protesters attacked a police armored personal carrier forcing them to retreat in Venezuela.

But today, the prime candidates for those weapons on the black market would be Mexican drug dealers, said former Cuban vice minister of commerce, Miguel Castillo, who is familiar with the inner dealings of the Chavista regimen.

“This type of weapon is highly desirable not only for political groups, but also for drug trafficking and criminal groups, and this could bring about a very dangerous situation if the military officials who have the control over these armaments end up losing control of them, or end up selling them,” Castillo said.

According to a source familiar with the Venezuelan arsenal, the Bolivarian regimen currently has in storage 5,000 of the one-man-operated missiles, many more than the 1,500 reported by Control Ciudadano, an NGO in the South American country that tracks military spending, and the 200 spotted previously by Jane’s, a British publishing company specializing in military, aerospace and transportation topics.

Military documents obtained by el Nuevo Herald supports the source’s claim regarding the 5,000 launchers, and show that the country’s armed forces also acquired 200,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles, 120,000 World War II-vintage rifles and 400,000 anti-personnel and anti-tank mines.

The last two types of weapons were provided by Cuba, said the source, who spoke under condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of the issue.

The source, who is highly knowledgeable in Venezuelan military operations, said that given the country’s institutional breakdown and lack of adequate internal controls, it’s almost certain that the military will lose control of any weapon given to the militias and to paramilitary organizations known as colectivos.

“Once they are out, the armed forces will not be able to control them. Any weapon handed out could end up in the hands of Colombian guerrillas, in the hands of drug trafficking groups or they could even end up in the hands of arms traffickers willing to sell them to terrorists,” he said.

Noriega said there are precedents throughout Latin America that make these fears a very likely scenario.

“It has been a pattern for decades that weapons of this nature distributed by the so-called revolutionary governments end up in the hands of irregular groups and illegal groups. It is extraordinarily serious and recurrent threat,” he said.

“This was a major problem after the Sandinistas distributed weapons in Central America. Those weapons ended up in the hands of other people, of criminal groups,” the former diplomat said.

Venezuelans defy government roadblocks surrounding the capital city of Caracas on April 19, 2017.

But there are also precedents in Venezuela.

The country found itself in the middle of a diplomatic spat with Colombia in 2009 after a number of Swedish-made, anti-tank rocket launchers found in the possession of the FARC were proven to have purchased initially by Venezuela.

Noriega also said there is a chance some of the weapons might simply become the personal possessions of high-ranking government officials to be sold later on the black market.

“For the next decade, we might see people being slaughtered by these weapons because this deteriorating, collapsing regime is full of crooks that might use these weapons to arrange their retirement funds. Weapons like these become commodities,” he said.

Follow Antonio María Delgado in Twitter:@DelgadoAntonioM