Need to start a war? No problem. While stock markets gyrate and financial institutions (and even whole countries, like Iceland) teeter on bankruptcy, one global industry is still drawing plenty of high-end trades and profits: weapons.
In a Paris courtroom last week, 42 officials went on trial for taking millions in kickbacks and organizing huge arms commissions from the Angolan government during the mid-1990s. In the dock were such big names as Charles Pasqua, a former French Interior Minister; Jean-Christophe Mitterrand, the son of the late French President François Mitterrand; and Russian-Israeli billionaire Arkadi Gaydamak, who is currently a candidate for mayor of Jerusalem. The group is charged with having supplied almost $800 million worth of arms to Angolan President José Eduardo Dos Santos, including 12 helicopters, 6 naval vessels, 150,000 shells and 170,000 land mines.
The hardware came from the huge stockpiles of Soviet weapons left behind when the Soviet Union collapsed, and Dos Santos wanted it in order to crush the U.S.-backed Unita rebels during Angola's devastating civil war. (Dos Santos, who is believed to have made millions off the trades, won the war and is still in power.) The French businessman Pierre Falcone allegedly plied Angolan officials with tens of millions of dollars — some of it stuffed in suitcases — and deposited other sums of money in offshore accounts. Actor Nicolas Cage's character in the 2005 movie Lord of War was partly modeled on the alleged actions of Gaydamak, although the character may also have been inspired by the powerful Russian arms trader Viktor Bout, who is currently in a Thai jail awaiting the outcome of a hearing on a U.S. extradition request.
Researchers say arms trading has boomed in the decade since the Angolagate scandal was uncovered. That's partly due to heightened supply. As ex-Soviet republics emerged as economic actors in their own right, several countries developed national arms industries, refitting weapons from their stocks and manufacturing new weapons of their own. Those industries have taken off in recent years. Ukraine has about 6 million light weapons from Soviet stockpiles, and has modernized tanks, anti-aircraft missiles and other weaponry, says Hugh Griffiths, an expert on illicit weapons at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. A dramatic example of Ukraine's reach is playing out off the Horn of Africa, where a major shipment of Ukrainian weapons, including 33 T-72 tanks, was hijacked by Somali pirates and remains a vexing military and diplomatic problem.
"It is very difficult to stop arms trafficking, because there is no control," says Griffiths, who has researched Ukraine's arsenal for the U.S. government. Although NATO funds Ukraine to destroy its stockpiles, "the Ukrainians realize how much money they can make by selling surplus weapons," he says. In an action that broke no laws, the Ukrainians shipped about 40,000 Kalashnikov rifles to Kenya last year during the tense standoff following the country's disputed presidential election.
As world prices for oil and minerals have soared in recent years, rebel groups in Chad, Sudan, Congo and elsewhere are trading valuable oil and mineral deposits in their regions for arms. Rather than seek the backing of friendly foreign officials — as Dos Santos allegedly did in the mid-'90s — combatants can now bulk up on their own dime. "Each group raises its own funds and then negotiates to buy weapons," says Will Hartley of Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Center in London. "Gone are the days when governments will send weapons and cash into African states."
That makes arms deals far more difficult to track. But Griffiths says one tactic could work in nabbing arms traffickers: the "Al Capone method." When the U.S. justice system failed to convict the 1930s mobster for racketeering and murder charges, he was finally run in for tax evasion. Griffiths says arms traffickers have one obvious vulnerability: their need to ship arms on boats and planes, most of which require registration. When the E.U. introduced strict safety standards for air-cargo carriers two years ago, its leaders weren't thinking of arms dealers. Yet of the scores of companies they have since cited for violating safety rules, about 80 have been named in U.N. and human-rights reports as known arms shippers. "About 53 companies have been forced to close down," according to Griffiths, who released his findings in a report on Monday. Griffiths says enforcing similar rules against ships could put several arms traffickers out of business entirely. Until then, if you need weapons in Africa, "there are plenty of arms out there — so long as you have the money to pay for it," he says.
6 months ago