Manpads proliferation in Latin America: an analysis of the threat and the regional response

An exclusive article for the montlhy newsletter “En la mira – The Latin American Small Arms Watch.” Click here for subscriptions and for previous issues.

Matt Schroeder

Few weapons have attracted more attention in recent years than man-portable air defense systems, or Manpads.  The prospect of missile-wielding terrorists bringing down a jumbo jet has sparked an unprecedented global campaign to counter the threat from Manpads, which has been embraced by many governments in Latin America.  Below is a brief overview of the illicit trade in Manpads, both globally and in Latin America, and efforts by Latin American governments to address the resulting threat. 

Manpads are lightweight, guided surface-to-air missiles that are usually fired from a launch tube that rests on the shoulder of the operator.  The vast majority of Manpads employ an infra-red seeker that, once the missile is launched, guides it to the target with no additional input from the operator.  These “fire and forget” missiles constitute the vast majority of Manpads in both government inventories and the stockpiles of terrorists and insurgents.  In addition to infra-red seeking missiles, there are two additional types of Manpads: beam riders and command line-of-sight systems.  These systems use laser beams or, in the case of the CLOS systems, radio controls to guide their respective missiles to their targets.  Since the 1960s, at least twenty countries have produced more than a million Manpads, and an estimated 500,000 to 750,000 remain in the global inventory today. 1 While no Latin American countries have produced Manpads, at least 12 have imported them: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guyana, Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru, and Venezuela.  2

The Illicit Trade in Manpads

Acquisition and use of Manpads by non-state actors dates back at least to the early 1970’s.  The first confirmed terrorist plot involving actual missiles was uncovered (and disrupted) by Italian authorities in 1973 near Rome’s Fumiccino Airport.  Five years later, Soviet-backed Rhodesian insurgents staged the first successful Manpads attack on a commercial airliner, causing the plane to crash and killing 38 of the 56 people on board.  The proliferation of Manpads accelerated in the 1980s and 1990s, fuelled by the diversion of missiles supplied via covert arms programs to Afghanistan and elsewhere, and the pilfering of poorly secured Warsaw Pact arms depots after the Soviet Union collapsed.  By 2001, private analysts had identified twenty-seven different non-state groups that were either confirmed or suspected of possessing missiles, including the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) in Latin America. 4  

Manpads proliferation continues apace today. Since 2002, non-state groups have acquired hundreds, possibly thousands, of missiles from a variety of sources, including private arms traffickers, poorly secured government depots, and government patrons. While much of this activity is concentrated in three global hotspots (namely Chechnya, Iraq and Somalia), missiles have been seized from, transferred to, or stockpiled or used by non-state actors in at least seventeen countries.  Dozens of these missiles have been fired at military and civilian aircraft, resulting in several crashes and more than 200 casualties in the last five years.5

The Illicit Manpads Trade in Latin America

Compared to other regions of the world, illicit Manpads activity in Latin America is relatively modest. Since 1999, not a single plane has been lost to a suspected Manpads attack in Latin America despite a bevy of well-financed insurgents and organized criminals. This prolonged lull in Manpads activity is particularly striking when compared to the widespread illicit acquisition and use of these missiles in other regions.  In Iraq, for example, private analysts have recorded an average of 20 Manpads-related incidents per month. 6  Somalia is another good example. In a single three-month period in 2006, UN investigators documented the delivery of more than six shipments of Manpads to Islamic insurgents. 7

While many factors explain the sharp differences in regional Manpads activity, local availability and active state sponsorship are probably the biggest determinants. Shortly after the US invasion in 2003, Iraqi black markets were flooded with thousands of Manpads that were looted from Saddam Hussein’s massive arms stockpiles.  There is no source of missiles in Latin America that is comparable to Saddam’s arsenals, without which Iraqi insurgents could not sustain the current rate of Manpads attacks. Similarly, the Latin American criminal and insurgent groups lack government patrons comparable to Eritrea and Iran, which have reportedly provided Somali Islamists with dozens of missiles, including third-generation SA-18 ‘Iglas’.   8

Yet, as evidenced by recent reports of arms trafficking and assassination plots involving Manpads, loose missiles pose a threat to aircraft in Latin America.  In January 2005, Nicaraguan authorities seized a “corroded” SA-7 missile in a house adjacent to an air-conditioning repair shop near Managua.   In July 2006, Mexican authorities allegedly found four “surface-to-air missile launchers” during a raid of a suspected hit man’s house in the coastal city of Chetumal. 10  Two months later, Peru’s Interior Minister announced the arrest of three alleged arms smugglers and the confiscation of five surface-to-air missiles.  According to Peruvian authorities, the smugglers were attempting to sell the weapons to Colombian rebels.  11 

The most significant incident, however, was a plot to assassinate Salvadoran President Elías Antonio ("Tony") Saca González, the details of which were revealed by the president himself during a media interview on October 6th.  According to President Saca, alleged drug trafficker George Nayes planned to shoot down the president’s helicopter with a “ready-to-fire rocket launcher” – identified in the press as an SA-7 – which authorities reportedly found near one of the helicopter’s landing sites. Saca claimed that assassination attempt was a response to his counter-narcotics efforts, and that Nayes had unsuccessfully attempted to acquire additional missiles in Nicaragua.  The plot – and the other reports of Manpads trafficking in Latin America - are poignant reminders of ubiquity of the Manpads threat, even in regions where missile trafficking is less widespread. 12  

Countering the Manpads Threat in Latin America

Latin American countries have taken several steps to address the illicit trade in Manpads .  The most notable multilateral achievement is the adoption of OAS resolution 2145, “Denying Manpads to Terrorists: Controls and Security of Man-Portable Air Defense Systems.” 13  The resolution urges OAS member states to improve export controls and stockpile security, and unlike most international agreements on small arms, many of the provisions in the resolution are specific, detailed and rigorous.  Section 2, for example, calls on governments to conduct monthly physical inventories of all missiles, store missiles and launchers in separate locations, and provide 24-hour surveillance of missile storage areas.  The resolution is also ground-breaking in that it bans the transfer of Manpads to non-state actors – a step that governments have strenuously resisted in the context of other agreements on small arms. 

Also noteworthy are recent bilateral government programs to destroy surplus missiles.  US-Nicaraguan efforts to pare down Nicaragua’s massive surplus stocks of Manpads have resulted in the destruction of 1000 missiles (nearly half of the military’s arsenal) and security upgrades for the facilities housing the remaining missiles.  The Bush and Ortega administrations are currently discussing the destruction of 651 of the remaining missiles, possibly in exchange for medical equipment.   14

These efforts represent a solid first step toward reining in the illicit trade in Manpads in Latin America.  Universal adoption of the transfer controls and stockpile security procedures in resolution 2145 would significantly reduce opportunities for theft and diversion of Manpads from government arsenals, as would the right-sizing of these arsenals through the destruction of surplus and obsolete missiles.  Ensuring full implementation by all states in the region that possess Manpads is no simple matter, however.  Resolution 2145 is not legally binding, and there are no existing mechanism for monitoring and enforcing its implementation.  Similarly, states are no obligated to accept US offers to assist with stockpile destruction and security upgrades, and concerns about sovereignty and national defense occasionally delay or derail such programs.  Overcoming these obstacles will require active involvement by the OAS in the form of periodic surveys of (and reports on) implementation of Resolution 2145, and a willingness by member states to assist and cajole those states that fail to implement key provisions.

1 U.S. Government Accountability Office, “Further Improvements Needed in U.S. Efforts to Counter Threats from Man-Portable Air Defense Systems,” GAO-04-519, May 2004.
2 James O’Halloran, Jane’s Land-Based Air Defense 2006-2007 (Cambridge University Press, 2006) and Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Arms Transfer Database, accessed November 2007. 
3 Matt Schroeder et al, The Small Arms Trade (London: Oneworld Publications, 2007), pp. 64-67.
4 Thomas Hunter, “The Proliferation of Manpads,” Jane’s Intelligence Review, September 2001.
5 Matt Schroeder, “Rogue Missiles: Tracking Manpads proliferation trends,” Jane’s Intelligence Review, November 2007.
6 Michael Knights, “Unfriendly skies: Iraq’s Sunni insurgents focus on air defence,” Jane’s Intelligence Review, May 2007.
7 UN Security Council, “Report of the Monitoring Group on Somalia,” S/2006/913, November 2006.
8 There are several additional theories about why the Colombian Rebels specifically have not used their Manpads. See Pablo Dreyfus, “Political Economy of Illegal Arms Acquisitions in Colombia”, Background Paper for the Small Arms Survey- Rio de Janeiro, unpublished, June 2005 and “Rogue Missiles…”
9 See “Nicaraguan president dismisses report army may be trafficking missiles,” El Nuevo Diario, 31 January 2005; Traci Carl, “Shoulder-fired missiles U.S. left behind in Central America raise terror fears,” Associated Press, 25 February 2005; and Rowan Scarborough, “Nicaraguans seize missile during sting,” Washington Times, 27 January 2005.
10 Jorge Dominguez, “Mexican authorities arrest four suspected hit men armed with missile launchers,” Associated Press, 29 July 2006.
11 “Peru police bust network smuggling munitions to Colombia,” People’s Daily Online, 27 September 2006
12 Marcos Aleman, “Salvadoran president says Colombian drug cartel member planned his assassination,” Associated Press, 6 October 2006 and “Saca uses assassination attempt to justify new security policy,” Latin American Weekly Report, 10 October 2006.
13 Adopted at the fourth plenary session on 7 June 2005.  See
14 Filadelfo Aleman, “Nicaragua negotiating with U.S. to destroy missile stash,” Associated Press, 3 October 2007.


Thanks for the time and

Thanks for the time and efforts you took posting this, but in contrast to your article I'd like to say that I read these articles To make the story complete, it’s important to remember that not all the weapons came from the Soviets. The Iran-Contra papers contain a 1986 letter from Major General John Singlaub to CIA Director William Casey mentioning transfer of 50 SA-7 MANPADS to the Contras (along with mortars, rocket launchers, machine guns and the ubiquitous Kalashnikovs). Another reason why this row has been significant.

Today’s modern weapons are

Today’s modern weapons are not only about how much destruction it can cause but also how portable it is. Portability has made its statement even in the military. Today’s air defense system mostly comprises of man portable, also known as man pads. Since 9/11 attacking from air has become the trend for terrorists and in such a situation, these man pads can really shut down such air attacks!The last time I hear, they are trying to come up with a third type of manpad!

What the government is

What the government is failing to realize is the fact that for a completely developed society, there are many things to consider apart from investing and building huge infrastructures. One such important factor is the need for guaranteeing human security and as long as a region, if not nation can’t call itself fully secured, I do not think they can call themselves a full-fledged society! The Geneva declaration regarding the use of armed forces could just be beneficial in the case of Geneva due to the growing crime there!

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