The discovery of a large theft of weapons of war from the Army’s arsenal last October marked country’s criminal history, but above all, highlighted the mismanagement of stocks in the arsenals of the country’s armed forces and highlighted one of the ways criminals in Brazil are creating a powerful arsenal. Investigations indicate that the stolen weapons were sold to at least one of the main criminal factions in the country, which also uses of other approaches for obtaining arms and ammunition, such as smuggling from neighboring countries, and strawmen to legally acquire weapons. The wide access to heavy weaponry by criminals gives organized crime in Brazil a capacity of damage and to disrupt society threatening the state of law and order. Repressive strategies by the legitimate powers have not yielded the desired results, allowing criminals to become even better armed in the past few years. Authorities must start investing in intelligence and technology to monitor strategic hubs through which illegal firearms circulate in order to reduce the criminals’ firepower.

The Biggest Weapons Heist from the Army

In October 2023, the Army found that it had 21 large-caliber machine guns (.50 and 7.62) stolen from its arsenal, based in Barueri, SP. This is the biggest heist suffered by the armed forces since 2010, when 18 weapons of multiple calibers were stolen from the entire national territory. The recent incident, however, represents a totally different level of severity. First, the superior numbers of firearms were obtained from a single source. Second, this source is not a simple battalion, but an important unit of the arsenal. Third, the weapons subtracted have a great firepower capable of firing an average of 600 rounds per minute, with a maximum range of 6 km, and the ability to penetrate light vehicle armor and to shoot down aircrafts.

Heavy machine guns stolen from the Army’s arsenal in Barueri (SP) that were recovered by São Paulo Civil Police. Photo Credit: Governador Tarcísio de Freitas/Social Network.

This case is just the tip of the iceberg of a much bigger issue. It allowed the investigators to uncover the catastrophic management of the arsenals, since the theft of the machine guns was not recorded, verified and declared until 40 days after the fact. Indeed, it was established that the theft would have taken place during the national holiday, September 7, but was only discovered on October 10, when the armorer on duty had decided to recount the stocks after noticing that the lock had been changed for no apparent reason.

However, after almost 2 months of investigations by a joint action of investigators from various federal and state agencies, and despite the arrest of several military and gang members, there are still to date two .50 caliber machine guns to be found.

Even though the army has declared that these weapons were not operational, since they were defective and destined for destruction, the fact remains that the institution has been ineffective in the management of its stockpiles. For example, a study published by the newspaper O Globo and the NGO “Instituto Sou Da Paz” in 2021, established that, between 2010 and 2020, more than 140 batches of ammunition (some of which consisted of millions of cartridges) were diverted from their destination and were involved in more than twenty cases, as well as more than 80 deaths, in several states of the country.

In any case, the various police institutions were able to trace the different routes and identify the different recipients of most of these war materials. But the task is arduous, and the real resources provided by the government are limited, thus many similar cases may never have a solution. In addition, while authorities struggle to control their own arsenal, criminals have developed many other ways to obtain firearms in small and big cities across the country.

Heavy machine guns stolen from the Army’s arsenal in Barueri (SP) that were recovered by Rio de Janeiro Civil Police. These units were sold to the Red Command (CV) and were in the West Zone of Rio de Janeiro, an area where the CV is waging war against militas to conquer new territories near Barra da Tijuca. Photo Credit: Rio de Janeiro Civil Police.

Funneling Weapons Into the Hands of Gangs

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