Weapons sales are on the rise in Latin America

The Miami HeraldNovember 2, 2009 

Whether it's called an "arms race" or a "coincidental modernization" of existing stocks, a wave of weapons purchases by Latin American nations is causing neighbors to watch each other with growing mistrust and fear.

Brazil says it must protect its new-found oil and gas riches. Venezuela says the U.S. military might attack it. Colombia is worried by Venezuela, Ecuador is watching Colombia and Paraguay is keeping an eye on Bolivia.

There's no question that weapons sales around the region are soaring. They almost doubled in just five years, from $24 billion in 2003 to $47 billion last year, according to one report by Colombian analyst Javier Loaiza. Others put the 2008 total at $60 billion.

U.S. government officials are monitoring the deals with a level of concern but avoid the term "arms race." One said he preferred to call it a "coincidental modernization of existing stocks" to reflect the absence so far of widespread tit-for-tat arms purchases.

"They're buying big-ticket items but the data shows we're not yet at an arms race," said one top Obama administration official who monitors Latin America. Only four countries account for 80 percent of all the arms purchases -- Brazil, Venezuela, Chile and Colombia -- and 80-85 percent of the region's military expenditures go to salaries and pensions, not weapons, added the official, who asked for anonymity to speak frankly on the issue.

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