Venezuela Is Armed to the Hilt

The country has assembled one of the largest stockpiles of weapons in the Western Hemisphere. Here’s how to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands.

By Ryan C. Berg, Senior Fellow it the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and Andrés Martínez-Fernández
A member of the Bolivarian National Police Special Forces Group holds his gun during an operation against criminal groups in the Petare neighborhood of Caracas on Jan. 25.
A member of the Bolivarian National Police Special Forces Group holds his gun during an operation against criminal groups in the Petare neighborhood of Caracas on Jan. 25. Luis Robayo/AFP/Getty Images

Over the past two decades, Venezuela has assembled one of the largest military stockpiles in the Western Hemisphere. As the security situation in the country continues to worsen, the possibility of its arsenal winding up in the wrong hands presents a grave threat to regional stability. Securing Venezuelan weapons from opportunistic traffickers with well-established smuggling routes and guerrilla groups should be a top priority for the United States and its regional partners.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, and Nicolás Maduro after him, used the threat of a “Yankee invasion” as an excuse to purchase and stockpile hordes of weapons, mostly from Russia. Between 1999 and 2019, billions of dollars’ worth of Russian arms, financed through Russian loans, poured into the country.

Although a lack of transparency makes precise accounting nearly impossible, in recent years Venezuela’s government has purchased Russia’s state-of-the-art S-300 anti-aircraft missiles; imported hundreds of thousands of Kalashnikov rifles and ammunition; and acquired 5,000 Igla-S MANPADS (man-portable air defense systems). And this is just what has been on public display in Venezuela’s military parades or outlined in leaked military contracts. There are no doubt many more small arms and equipment in the Venezuelan military’s possession.

The security of these weapons is increasingly in doubt. With Maduro’s control still unsteady, it is easy to see a future in which corrupt narcogenerals seek to sell off significant portions of their armories for a quick profit before fleeing a collapsing government. And even if Maduro is able to remain in control of the country’s decrepit armed forces, there is still reason to be concerned about leaks of weapons and military materiel. The Venezuelan military is highly corrupt, has long-standing ties to regional guerrilla and criminal groups that prop up Maduro, and already plays an active role in trafficking drugs and weapons through Venezuelan territory.

Nonstate actors have long exploited Venezuela’s political turmoil as well as its porous borders with Colombia and Brazil to build redoubts and consolidate their power in vast ungoverned spaces.

The Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN), a Colombian guerrilla movement, is well-established in Venezuela and has a cooperative relationship with the military. Indeed, under both Chávez and Maduro, such groups found an ideological partner and source of support. There have been multiple reports of the Venezuelan military directly arming guerrilla groups and even ceding territory and governance roles to them, under the Cuban-inspired doctrine of “dispersed defense.” Similarly, the Venezuelan regime has shown a willingness to arm paramilitary colectivos to maintain repressive control over urban areas.

Brazilian drug-trafficking groups also stand to gain from a possible collapse in Venezuela. Upstart outfits such as Brazil’s Família do Norte (Northern Family) and the dominant Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC) have an established presence in several countries in the region. And Brazilian gangs, particularly the PCC, have already been caught smuggling Venezuelan military weapons into Brazil.

If Caracas crumbles, there would be little to stop a weapons bonanza—with dire consequences for the region. In particular, the proliferation of MANPADS poses a considerable threat to civil aviation (and even military aircraft and unmanned drones). In addition to being portable, concealable, and easily pilfered, they are difficult to detect. From a position atop a building, an Igla-S MANPADS, the particular model Venezuela’s military possesses, could take down a civilian airliner flying below 20,000 feet and up to four miles away.

Groups like the ELN and possibly the Zetas in Mexico have a strong interest in acquiring MANPADS, with some of these groups already procuring these weapons successfully, according to the Small Arms Survey. A State Department brief from 2017 highlighted the lethality of MANPADS: They have been fired at some 40 civilian aircraft around the world since 1975, downing planes in 28 of these attempts.

Beyond that, the spread of more conventional weapons—including those trafficked from the United States—would enable criminal groups to sow mayhem and challenge the authority of governments throughout the region. Guerrilla groups and other transnational criminal organizations have tended to favor weapons like Kalashnikov rifles, sniper rifles, and C4 explosives as their standard operating tools in terrorist attacks, robberies, and strikes on security forces. The Venezuelan military has plenty of those, and they could soon be up for the highest bidder. Even more alarming are reports that a long-awaited Russian factory for Kalashnikov rifles is set to begin operations in Venezuela by the end of 2019, promising an additional 25,000 rifles a year.

Past attempts to control small arms outflows do not inspire confidence. For instance, the U.S. Stinger missile program in Afghanistan during the 1980s was devastating to Russia’s war effort there. However, the CIA was still buying back missing Stingers on the black market as recently as 2005, managing to recover only a small fraction of the dangerous weapons it once fielded. And in the Venezuelan case, rather than serving as a check on small-arms smuggling, Russian soldiers stationed in Caracas are instead performing maintenance on more complex weapons systems, such as the anti-aircraft missiles now deployed near the capital.

The United States and its allies find themselves at a critical juncture in the fight against transnational organized crime in Latin America. Partners in the region are implementing historic peace deals, demobilizing guerrilla groups, redoubling their efforts to reform criminal sentencing and prisons, curtailing money laundering operations, and undertaking unprecedented actions against deeply embedded corruption.

The hemisphere needs a comprehensive strategy for the day after a potential collapse to ensure that weapons outflows do not undermine such positive developments. That could include sharing intelligence on the weapons Venezuela possesses, as well as efforts to leverage technology to secure borders and prevent weapons smuggling. The United States and its partners in the region should also ramp up pressure on Russia over its arms sales to unstable and dictatorial regimes and even enact targeted sanctions on arms exporters, replicating a strategy used to address Russian military support for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. It is insufficient for the region to simply hope that these weapons don’t fall into the wrong hands. Such a failure of planning could lead to a devastating new wave of violence.

Ryan C. Berg is Senior Fellow in the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

Andrés Martínez-Fernández is a research associate at the American Enterprise Institute, whose research includes Latin American policy issues.