Handmade guns: weapons seizures point to growing trend in Brazil
Both specialists and authorities are worried after the Federal Police of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo recently seized handmade guns and arrested gun suppliers who work out of their homes. For Pablo Dreyfus, coordinator of Arms Control Research, part of the NGO Viva Rio, the phenomenon is worrying, and could indicate a trend.
According to Dreyfus, Brazil does not have much of a history of illegal arms production, since its well developed armaments industry produces factory-made firearms to be sold at affordable prices. One possible explanation for this appearance of home-made weapons, according to Pablo Dreyfus, is that the application of Brazil’s Disarmament Statute rendered guns more scarce on the formal Brazilian market. "It made guns so expensive that it is cheaper for criminals to make their own."
Have handmade guns always been around, or is this a new cottage industry in Brazil?
Illegal arms factories are relatively new in Brazil. These new illegal weapons come out of two main types of producers: The first includes homemade or hand crafted weapons. A homemade gun looks rustic, it is made with rudimentary materials under a coarse production process. Other weapons are more sophisticated, they show signs of the industrial process, created with industrial caliber machines, know-how, technical knowledge, and professional expertise. In Brazil, homemade guns were always limited to rural areas with hunters who made single shot rifles. These weapons are not being used by urban criminals.
Which Latin American countries produce homemade guns?
Chile and Colombia have a very large hand-crafted gun market. The Chilean gun market is much smaller since it does not sell guns to civilians, and borders are tightly controlled, which has lead to a tradition of handmade guns that are called, "hechizas." The same practice is quite common in Colombia where the handmade guns go by the name "changones."
Why isn't this market as important in Brazil?
Since the 1960s, factory produced arms have been widely available on the open market because they are affordable. Criminals didn't have to make their own because they were always available. The legal market, in one way or another, always fed the criminal market. In Rio de Janeiro, for example, 30% of the weapons used in a crime have been registered previously to third parties. This data is probably true of other States.
What are the characteristics of the illegal industry in Brazil?
What's surprising about Brazil is that it is experiencing a movement towards illegal arms production, like what you have in Colombia, where they have an internal conflict. The FARC and drug cartels have been making sub-machine guns since the 1990s using military personnel, machines and lathes. In Brazil, the first case I remember was in 2002, when an illegal workshop was discovered in São Paulo, producing the same kind of sub-machine guns that the FARC produces in Colombia. It was a factory with a significant production capacity with metal presses, mechanical lathes, and it was making arms for drug traffickers. Earlier this year, the police shut down another factory, this time in São Paulo, that used the same kind of machines to make assault rifles. A few weeks ago, in Rio, police arrested an arms supplier co-opted by the drug trade who had set up a clandestine weapons factory. A gun supplier is someone who deals in guns, or who works in their production. It could be a civilian or someone in the military. In this case the arms supplier made copies of the cheap Intratec 9 mm sub-machine guns, also known in the United States as "Saturday Night Specials". The SNS are not very effective for long range combat, but are adequate for the type of clashes that occur in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas.
To what do you attribute the cottage arms industry in Brazil?
It could be a sign of various things. One is the shutting down of the black market in Paraguay now that the authorities are using new controls to crack down on guns circulating in the country. The creation of Arms and Munitions Police Stations (Delegacias de Repressão de Armas e Munição, DRAE) under the Federal Police and the Federal Police's work could also be limiting access to automatic weapons. As a result gun prices go up, and it ends up being cheaper for criminals to make their own weapons.
Is it hard to make a gun? Are all the pieces made in the workshop or are some bought ready-made?
It's neither expensive nor difficult to make gun. All you need is an expert precision mechanic/ lathe operator (what matters is the know-how) who can make the casts for the weapons, and who knows how to copy the mechanisms to put together a production line of pistols or sub-machine guns. Making the barrel is the most complicated part, but with a good lathe and an expert machinist, it isn't too hard to do. All the pieces can be hand made, but the precision mechanic must have access to the casts, which means someone has to provide the casts. We cannot ignore the diversion of legally made parts.
Do you think this kind of activity is on the rise?
The illegal arms industry could expand in the future because the Disarmament Statute is reducing the amount of weapons available in the legal market. The diversion of apprehended weapons is smaller since all weapons seized by the police have to be destroyed within 48 hours. This leads us to believe that the illegal cottage industry of weapons could become a trend in Brazil.
The problem is serious because the metals industry in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro mean that Brazil has the infrastructure. The mechanization of this industry left many specialized laborers unemployed. Alternative work would prevent these professionals from turning to the traffickers. Without preventive measures, how can you avoid São Paulo becoming a center of little illegal factories? How can this activity be controlled?
We need to take various measures. One measure could involve more closely accompanying the activities of arms manufacturers. It means running periodic inspections of the arms factories, the stores, reviewing the log books with the entrance and exit of products, the financial movements, etc. If a gun manufacturer starts to sell illegally made guns, there will certainly be unaccounted for profits. A gun supplier is someone who deals in guns, or who works in their production. It could be a civilian or someone in the military. Another measure is to prohibit selling basic gun parts (trigger and barrel) in shops. Instead, they should be sold factory-direct, and identified with serial numbers. This is specified in the Statute. Controlling the parts in stock and destroying any surplus are basic measures to avoid diversions to the black market.
The mechanics who work in factories, especially military factories like Imbel that make rifles, cannot be forgotten when they retire or are fired or leave for any other reason. Even when they are working in the factory, these professionals have to have oversight to avoid incentives to avoid being lured by the drug trade. There has to be an accounting of the finances and sale of materials that could be related to illegal arms production in the same way that activities that could be related to drug production are followed. For example, account for the purchase of sheets of steel and aluminum that are used by weapons factories, and the purchase of lathes and metal presses.Another important aspect is to account for what happens when the industry renovates by replacing and throwing out old machines. Where are the left-over machines from the gun factories that closed in the 1970s, for example?