Ammunition identification and tracing: Indumil of Colombia

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Katherine Aguirre and Jorge A. Restrepo *

As far as weapons are concerned, Colombia is a curious country: on the one hand experiencing high levels of armed violence, - approximately 500,000 deaths by firearms in the last 27 years - , while at the same time backed by strict regulations and advanced systems for the control, identification, and tracking of the legal weapons that circulate within the country.

This paradoxical characteristic could indicate that the violence from weapons in Colombia is caused by the use of arms and ammunition illegally brought into the country 1. Deaths by firearms linked to criminal violence, as well as those originating from direct action of the internal armed conflict (that oscillate between 8% and 12% of the total death count by firearms each year), occur mainly from war supplies and arms coming from illegal sources.

Legal production and importation has also been supplying organized crime rings and groups in conflict, but in a smaller proportion 2. According to the Military Industry Company (Indumil), the high standards for tracking  military and personal defense weapons have ensured that this proportion is not in the majority by enabling identification and monitoring of cases of illicit transfer.

The Military Industry Company (Indumil)

In Colombia, the state company Indumil (one of the top 100 companies in the country), has a constitutional monopoly of the production, import and export of firearms, ammunition and explosives. Indumil has established itself as a highly profitable and growing enterprise. In the past two years, the company has doubled its production capacity: as for rifles, it has increased its production of Galil rifles from 23,000 units to 45,000 units a year, managing to export this brand, which is the standard weapon of the Colombian Armed Forces 3. The company has also reached high levels in the manufacture, import and export of revolvers, explosives, grenade launchers and other products. The production of pistols, mortars and machine guns of various calibers could start immediately. The company also produces ammunition of a variety of calibers for personal defense purposes and for the exclusive use of the Armed Forces, including 5.56x45mm caliber ammunition for the Galil rifles.

Innovation in Ammunition Identification:

The high standards of marking and tracking held by Indumil are the result of a natural response from the Colombian military industry to continued attempts by criminal organizations to obtain the arms, ammunition, explosives, and other materials that it produces and sells.

Indumil imports raw materials for the production of ammunition. According to information supplied by the National Tax and Customs Bureau (Dian), the shells and their components are imported, with their corresponding markings, from South Africa, United States, Brazil, and Israel, in that order of importance.

Ammunition for military use (5.56mm and 7.62mm for rifles and various machine gun calibers) is marked at the base of the rim of the shell, each one with the letters “IM,” date of manufacture, and batch number made up of 25,000 cartridges. This number allows for tracking down to the level of each force to which the ammunition is sold, and each force can determine, according to its own information system, the depot or unit that receives each lot. Ammunition for personal defense (revolvers, pistols, and shotguns) bears the marks “Indumil Colombia” and the cartridge caliber; the lot number is shown on the ammunition box 4.

Indumil has its own additional registry of production and sales in which there is a register of all products sold to the various state security forces, as well as merchandise sold through the country’s military brigades, the only ones authorized to sell weapons, explosives, or ammunition through the military depots in each brigade.

These security systems make it possible to resolve a high proportion (98%) of the many tracking requests sent to the company by legal and police authorities whenever a weapon or ammunition is apprehended, or when a weapon manufactured by this company is involved in a legal investigation 5. According to Indumil statistics, the company receives approximately 200 tracking requests a year, for arms as well as ammunition and explosives. Even taking into account that these numbers may include requests for multiple weapons, the figures, when compared with seizures of arms and ammunition indicate that trafficking to the illegal market for criminal use is relatively small (see graphs 1 and 2)

Graph 1: Number of requests received by Indumil, 2003-2006*


Graph 2: Number of weapons and ammunition seized


by the National Police, 2003-2006*

Although outlaw groups have managed on many occasions to violate the company’s security systems, this pressure encouraged Indumil to develop an innovative, novel, precise and highly reliable marking and tracking method. Most of the technologies used at the company are a result of the ingenuity of Indumil’s technicians. On the other hand, high marking standards have forced organized crime and organizations in conflict to turn increasingly to illicit international trafficking in order to obtain war materials, weapons, ammunition, and explosives 6.

The next step in tracking will be the creation of a unique ballistic register for self-defense arms sold to individuals, which is the subject of a law project now being put through Congress. According to this project, the Department for the Control and Sale of Arms and Explosives (DCCA 7) will register the marks left on a projectile by the weapon in order to facilitate the tracking of weapons that have been used criminally. Finally, Indumil marks every shell used for war ammunition, but doesn’t mark ammunition considered to be for personal defense (cartridges for revolvers and pistols and shotgun cartridges) because of the cost that this would entail for consumers. Marking this type of ammunition in an individual manner is a difficult political decision which would mean a high cost for consumers and for the company, but it must be considered not only by the manufacturers, but also by those responsible for public policy in this matter.

* Katherine Aguirre is a researcher at the Resource Center for Conflict Analysis (Cerac). Jorge A. Restrepo is Associate Professor of the Department of Economics at the Javeriana University in Bogotá and Associate Researcher of Cerac. The authors are grateful for the cooperation of Indumil, especially General Management and the Security Director.

1 Although no detailed study exists on how many of the weapons that are used in criminal activities and then seized are registered arms, police and legal authorities recognize that they are not in the majority. A study by Cerac and the Small Arms Survey (www.smallarmssurveyorg./copublications/CH9%20Colombia_English_Web.pdf) check the information.

2 El Tiempo, June 12, 2005 “El 10 por ciento de las municiones de las Farc y de los ‘paras’ tiene el sello de Indumil” ("10 per cent of the ammunition of the Farc and paramilitary groups bear the Indumil seal").

3 El Tiempo, April 7, 2006: “Colômbia quedó como único fabricante de los fusiles Galil y ahora los exporta a Israel” ("Colombia ends up as the only manufacturer of Galil rifles and now exports them to Israel").

4 On the other hand, arms produced by Indumil have unique marking features. Marking all the parts of a gun has been one of the main innovations of the Colombian system: the Indumil brand marks all the pieces of the rifles and revolvers they produce, which facilitates tracking, including in cases of cannibalization, and makes it almost impossible to destroy the factory’s marks. The marks on the arms they produce are done in bas-relief (removing shavings and applying pressure or making grooves) and include the letters IM (Industria Militar-Military Industry), year of manufacture and unique consecutive number.

5 Interview with the Security Director of Indumil, Bogotá DC, May 31, 2006.

6 The arms, explosives, ammunition and grenades produced by Indumil have various marking systems, many which are kept confidential to increase tracking ability. It is known that Indumil also includes invisible markings, with new technologies including laser, many of them in places that vary from lot to lot for the purpose of increasing tracking even if traffickers destroy part of the marks.

7 The DCCA is controlled by the National Ministry of Defense. It is in charge of supervising and of everything having to do with the regulation of weapons and the granting of licenses to persons and companies.


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