Implementing SDG Target 16.4: Illicit Arms Flows, Diversion, and Corruption in Rio de Janeiro

By: Caroline Gonçalves and Kai Michael Kenkel

On 14 March 2018, Rio de Janeiro city councilwoman Marielle Franco and her driver Anderson Gomes were shot dead in an execution-style killing. Franco was a well-known human rights advocate whose personal background reflected the groups she fought for: a black lesbian woman raised in poverty in one the city’s most notorious favelas (slums), Maré. Her assassination made news across the world and led to major local protests. Just days before Franco’s killing, she had been named to head a committee overseeing the Federal Armed Forces’ intervention following yet another breakdown in Rio’s decades-long public security crisis.

It was soon discovered that the ammunition used to kill Franco had been diverted from the holdings of the Brazilian Federal Police, and that the gun used was a 9mm HK MP5 submachine gun — issued only to police special forces units in Rio state.[1] Further, as Brazil is one of the few countries to mark ammunition used by law enforcement, it was possible to quickly determine that the same batch of bullets had been used in a 2015 series of shootings that killed 23 people (the largest in the history of São Paulo state), for which four policemen have been found guilty, as well as in several similar attacks.[2] Preventing loss, diversion, and misuse of arms and ammunition from law enforcement stockpiles is therefore a top priority.

Below, we provide an overview of the context of Sustainable Development Goal Target 16.4 — aimed at a significant reduction of illicit arms flows — in Rio de Janeiro, supported by statistics on arms holdings and homicides, to analyse mechanisms of diversion and measures to combat the phenomenon.

Arms in Brazil and Rio de Janeiro

Maintaining the accuracy and currency of data on weapons holdings in Brazil and Rio de Janeiro is severely compromised by a lack of investment in terms of financial, personnel, and institutional support. The subsequent lack of this data facilitates diversion and other forms of small arms and light weapons (SALW)-related corruption. The most recent estimate is from a 2018 Small Arms Survey report.[3] In 2017, there were an estimated 19.6 million small arms in Brazil, 58% of which were unregistered.[4] Given the quality of current data on small arms in the country, these estimates rely on diverse but incomplete public reports as well as on existing expert estimations, which in the case of Brazil draw from reports of SALW seizures.[5] Therefore, seizures are a key element in the estimation of illicit SALW holdings and flows both nationally as well as in Rio de Janeiro.

Between 2000 and 2010, 147,628 arms were seized in Rio de Janeiro state alone.[6] The report of the Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry in the Rio de Janeiro state legislature concluded that the vast majority, 82 per cent, of arms seized (and, by proxy, illegally held) in Rio de Janeiro state during this period ‘were originally manufactured in Brazil and of legal calibre’.[7] There is remarkable stability in the figures regarding the origin of seized weapons. Though spotty data complicates the establishment of numerical trends, the majority of illegally held arms in Brazil consists of arms originally produced in Brazil, legally exported, and then trafficked back into the country. Brazil’s Federal Police came to the conclusion in a 2018 report that the majority of black-market weapons that ended up in the hands of criminal factions in the populous Southeast of Brazil had either re-entered from Paraguay (mostly Brazilian-made pistols and revolvers) or originated in the United States (rifles manufactured outside of Brazil).[8]

Favela de Rocinha, 1966. Source: Yutaka Nagata/UN Photo; Favela de Rocinha, 1987. Source: K McGlynn/UN Photo

Diversion and trafficking

Reported diversion of arms from both private and public holdings is relatively limited compared to cross-border trafficking, with only 8,912 cases in Rio de Janeiro state from 2000–2010.[9] The statistics on diversion are among the most firm in the Brazilian context. Diversion is related to the influence of organized crime and drug trafficking; statistical correlations show that arms influxes and spikes in drug trafficking occur simultaneously.[10] This is particularly true of weapons whose legal possession is restricted to the police and armed forces, such as rifles and machine guns; demand for these arms has increased as fighting between factions, as well as against state forces has intensified. Police and armed forces weapons tend to be of foreign manufacture, and as their possession is restricted, given current Brazilian legislation, they can only be obtained by civilians through diversion or cross-border trafficking.

Both extensive diversion and the extent of trafficking operations are explained through widespread corruption in the police forces and, on occasion, their direct involvement in the drug trade. Instances of diversion from police and armed forces have become a frequent topic of news coverage; this has shifted public perception towards this form of illegal procurement, while trafficking remains the major source of both restricted and unrestricted weapons (mostly pistols). For example, after the well-publicized occupation of the Alemão and Vila Cruzeiro favelas, an April 2011 joint report by security forces revealed that 60% of the 289 arms apprehended during the operation were restricted to security forces’ use[11], and 77% were foreign-made.[12]

Meanwhile, trafficking continues to furnish the majority of Brazil’s illicit foreign-made small arms, with many of the arms that are trafficked, for example, from the United States being transited through other countries before they enter Brazil. The country’s Triple Border area with Paraguay and Argentina remains a focus for illicit shipments, as well as the borders with Bolivia and remote crossings in the Amazon. Arms traffickers continue to benefit from the impossibility of policing Brazil’s over 16,000 kilometers of land borders, much of them in impenetrable terrain.

Addressing the problem: challenges to implementing SDG 16.4

There are currently a number of serious difficulties facing the implementation of measures to combat arms trafficking in Rio de Janeiro. These range from the complex jurisdictional and institutional landscape of law enforcement in Brazil to widespread corruption and incomplete, outdated, and methodologically incompatible information, which additionally is subject to limited information-sharing.

Sustainable Development Goal 16 aims to promote just, peaceful and inclusive societies. Target 16.4 sets out to: ‘By 2030, significantly reduce illicit financial and arms flows, strengthen the recovery and return of stolen assets and combat all forms of organized crime’. Source: UN Sustainable Development Goals website

In 2003, the Disarmament Statute was implemented at the federal level to regulate small arms ownership and improve policy coordination in the face of spikes in firearms-related deaths and instances of organized crime. It established strict guidelines whose implementation quickly was made cumbersome by bureaucratic inefficiency and underfunding. Legal firearms ownership for self-defence was restricted to specific groups, such as judges and active and retired security forces, and ownership for sporting and hunting purposes was subjected to tighter scrutiny as well. The Disarmament Statute continues to experience strong resistance from pro-gun legislators, who claim its strict provisions limit citizens’ capacity for self-defence in the face of extensive illicit arms circulation in the country. Nevertheless, on the whole, implementation of the Statute is estimated to have saved 160,000 Brazilian lives since its inception[13].

Perhaps the most significant initiative to engage in SALW control in Brazil has been the establishment of small arms databases by Brazilian law enforcement agencies. Unfortunately, these databases remain underfunded and understaffed, and beholden to extensive failures in their capacity for integration across agencies and particularly databases. As this blog post itself has shown, researchers are left dependent on outdated information, extrapolation from incomplete data, incompatible methodologies and spasmodic, anecdotal press coverage.

At the federal level, the National Arms System (Sistema Nacional de Armas — SINARM), managed by the Federal Police in accordance with the Disarmament Statute, acts as a repository for information on privately owned firearms. The Military Arms Management System (Sistema de Gerenciamento Militar de Armas — SIGMA), run by the Army, is intended for hunters, sport shooters, active-duty military, and members of the judicial branch. In parallel, the SALW holdings of the Rio de Janeiro state military police are registered in the Computerized War Materials System (SISMATBEL). These systems are severely hampered by a lack of investment in IT resources and dedicated personnel, as well as political commitment to effective interagency cooperation and information-sharing.

Sistema Nacional de Armas — SINARM; Sistema de Gerenciamento Militar de Armas — SIGMA; and Sistema de Material Bélico — SISMATBEL.

A further difficulty is the complex jurisdictional landscape, both vertically between federal agencies (such as those tasked with border control) and state-level, and horizontally between civil and military police forces at the state level. For example, the civil police of each state is responsible for reporting stolen and diverted firearms. After that, this information is sent to Federal Police to register in SINARM. In practice, however, it is common for the data held by each of the two forces not to match even with respect to the same individual incident.[14] Each force, even at the federal level, often has only a handful of dedicated personnel tasked with inputting to the database, leading to extensive omission and delays. The Rio state’s SISMATBEL, was effectively inoperative from 2012–2014.[15]

Moving towards effective implementation

Building partially on inputs provided by the 2015 Rio State Commission of Inquiry report, the following measures should bring about more effective control of illicit arms flows in the state, with a view to better implement SDG 16.4. First, there is urgent need to integrate the interface and methodology of firearms databases across all jurisdictional levels across the country. A second step is improving communication between organs at all levels involved in monitoring firearms and munitions in Rio de Janeiro. Third, increasing the resources — IT, personnel and data — available to firearms monitoring databases such as SINARM and SIGMA, as well as those covering firearms in civilian hands, will significantly improve their utility to policy-making. Fourth, Brazil on the whole should look to better integrate all law enforcement and armed forces agencies involved in small arms monitoring into the above databases, beginning with the inclusion of the Navy and Air Force in a database covering all the Federal Armed Forces. Fifth, support should be given for increased efforts by the Armed Forces to engage in thorough marking and cataloging of firearms to permit tracking and reduce diversion. Further, at the national level, increased integration, under federal oversight, of statewide capacities in the areas of border control, and investigative policing and patrolling at the federal, state and municipal levels is necessary. Finally, effectively combatting corruption within the various police forces and armed forces, with a view to reducing diversion.

At a moment of deep economic and political crisis, in Brazil — and especially in Rio, where the security situation is increasingly dire — the mood is sombre. Press and public attention has shifted to negative aspects of the country’s current situation. There is much progress to be seen as well, however — at least in the form of intentions. Much progress has been made in Brazilian legislation on SALW, and the issue has inspired parliamentary inquiries, extensive NGO research and concrete initiatives to reduce the effects of SALW proliferation. There is now an uphill battle to take these proposals to fruition against the resistance of a strong pro-gun parliamentary lobby. The path towards reducing Brazil’s gun-related violence is clearly indicated, however, and begins with effectively controlling illicit flows of arms to and within the country.

Caroline Gonçalves is a student and Kai Michael Kenkel is a professor at the Institute of International Relations, Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro.

Blog posts are intended as a way for various Small Arms Survey collaborators and researchers to discuss small arms- and armed violence-related issues, and do not necessarily reflect the views of either the Small Arms Survey or its donors.


[1] Roberta Pennafort, “Marielle foi morta por submetralhadora, e não pistola, mostra reportagem da Record“. O Estado de São Paulo. 7 May 2018.

[2] Galvão, César. “Munição que matou Marielle é do mesmo lote usado em chacina na Grande SP em 2015“. G1 (Globo). 16 March 2018; Stabile, Arthur.

[3] Small Arms Survey. Global Firearms Holdings. Accessed 16 July 2018.

[4] Ibid.

[5] See the methodology in Pablo Dreyfus, Benjamin Lessing, Marcelo de Sousa Nascimento, and Júlio Cesar Purcena (2010). Small Arms in Brazil: Production, Trade, and Holdings. Geneva: Small Arms Survey/Viva Rio/ISER.

[6] Assembléia Legislativa do Estado do Rio de Janeiro (Rio de Janeiro State Legislative Assembly) (2011) Relatório Final da Comissão Parlamentar de Inquérito con a Finalidade de Investigar, no Âmbito do Estado do Rio de Janeiro, o Tráfico de Armas, Munições e Explosivos e a Consequente Utilização desse Arsenal, por Traficantes de Drogas, Milicianos e otros Bandos, Quadrilhas ou Organizações Criminosas. [ALERJ Inquiry Report]. Rio de Janeiro: ALERJ; p. 132.

[7] ALERJ Inquiry Report, pp.123–127. Based on official data from Rio de Janeiro State authorities, the Sou da Paz Institute — a leading SALW research NGO in Brazil — comes up with 82.5% for 2014, a strikingly similar figure. See Instituto Sou da Paz (2016). De onde vêm as armas do crime apreendidas no Sudeste?. São Paulo: Instituto Sou da Paz.

[8] Fabio Serapião, „Armas do crime vêm de Paraguai e EUA e rota é pela Tríplice Fronteira, diz PF“. O Estado de S.Paulo, 9 January 2018.

[9] ALERJ Inquiry Report, pp. 134–135.

[10] Brazil. Câmara de Deputados. Relatório da Comissão Parlamentar de Inquérito destinada a investigar as organizações criminosas do tráfico de armas”. Brasília: Câmara de Deputados, 2007; pp. 155–156.

[11] Brazilian law restricts all small arms beyond pistols and small-bore (i.e. .22) rifles to the security forces; almost all restricted weapons are foreign-made. Brazil. Presidency. Decreto nº 3.665, de 20 de novembro de 2000. Accessed 16 July 2018.

[12] Evandro Éboli. „Tráfico internacional de armas abastecia o Complexo do Alemão“ O Globo. 28 April 2011.

[13] Gil Alessi, „Estatuto do Desarmamento salvou 160.000 vidas, calcula estudo“. El País. 13 May 2015.

[14] ALERJ Inquiry Report, pp. 138–139).

[15] O Fluminense. “Falta de investimento e capacidade na PM impedem monitoramento de armas”. 31 March 2016.




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