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Latin America plagued by glut of small arms, civil homicide

GENEVA, Switzerland, Nov. 11 (UPI) -- Latin America faces an unrelenting onslaught on its citizens by a glut of small arms, responsible for thousands of homicides every year by gangs, organized crime and vigilantes.

Small-arms stockpiles that have permeated Central and South American societies are now an extremely serious threat because of the fatalities they cause in a region that has not had any major conflict since the 19th century, the author of a major new small-arms survey said.

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"The region now has the worst homicide rates in the world," Aaron Karp, author of "Surplus Arms in South America: A Survey," told United Press International in an interview.

Karp is a senior consultant to the Small Arms Survey, published by the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland, and teaches at the Department of Political Science at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va. The survey was published by the institute.

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Karp spoke to UPI as a new study in Brazil alleged that police in Rio de Janeiro were behind the killings of 10,216 people -- mostly slum dwellers suspected but not convicted of criminal acts -- between 1995 and 2007.

Karp said there was no justification for the huge number of killings in Latin America, which has had no major recent conflict on its mainland, except for minor conflicts between Ecuador and Peru between 1941 and 1995, and the war over the Falklands in 1982.

Most of the civilian killings have been the result of gang violence, urban terrorism or extrajudicial killings by law enforcement authorities or vigilantes.

One of the least explicable phenomena is the high spate of murders in Venezuela, while in Colombia gang violence has ebbed even as guerrilla activity remains a major threat.

Colombia and the United States recently signed a military cooperation pact to deal with drug-related terrorism and narcotics smuggling to North America.

Most Latin American countries either produce or import small arms, but Brazil is in the forefront of small-arms manufacturing and a major source of guns used by gangs in the United States.

Under the past military dictatorship, Brazil's arms industry thrived on the strength of orders from Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, who was hanged after the 2003 allied invasion, and Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi.

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Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has announced ambitious plans to regenerate Brazil's arms manufacturing industry.

The Surplus Arms survey estimated civilian firearms in South America totaled between 21.7 million and 26.8 million. "The reasons for this civilian preoccupation are principally linked to chronic gun violence," the survey said.

South America has 14 percent of the global population and roughly 3.5 percent to 4 percent of the world's civilian firearms, but it suffers from roughly 40 percent of all homicides committed with firearms, said the survey.

Less known is the problem of small arms and light weapons in the inventories of national armed forces, said the survey.

It estimated the 12 independent countries of South America had 3.6 million military small arms, 1.5 percent of the global total. Of those, about 1.3 million, more than a third, are surplus, said the survey.

It said excess military small arms, light weapons and ammunition should be destroyed under civilian supervision and public scrutiny to reduce the risk to South America.

Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Guyana, Paraguay and Peru were identified by the survey as priority areas for disposal of surplus weapons.

"The greatest threat posed by surplus small arms in South America is not war between states but civil violence, especially crime. Surplus military small arms are most dangerous when sold or lost to civilians," said the survey.

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