3D Firearm Proliferation Among Latin American Criminal Organizations
Since 2013, when Texas University student and gun-rights activist Cody Wilson released online blueprints for the Liberator, the world’s first 3D-printable weapon, the 3D-printed firearms industry has expanded globally. According to the European Commission, the multidimensional (3D and 4D) printer market is estimated to be worth 9.64 billion euros.
In Latin America, 3D-printed plastic weapons, also known as ‘ghost guns,’ are relatively new due to technological delays and high import costs. However, as drug trafficking has become more sophisticated, 3D firearms have become a booming market enabling criminal organizations to control production while reducing their reliance on imports from the US.
Until today, the US, as the world's largest exporter of armaments, had a prominent role in sustaining the legal and illicit flow of firearms and ammunition to Latin America. The region is the most violent worldwide, accounting for 33% of all murders globally. In civilian hands, there are 61,900,300 conventional guns, most of which are unregistered.
Also, 3D weapons have the potential to undermine some regional gateways for illicit arms, such as Paraguay, in favor of an equal distribution of criminal power. As a result, more regions would specialize in the trafficking of guns, and more criminal organizations will likely deal in them. Finally, since 3D firearms are not serialized and hence untraceable, they are ideal for Latin American criminals who smuggle cocaine over borders and need to maintain control of territory in vast urban slums that are continually policed.
Brazil has shown the most interest among Latin American countries in 3D-printed weapons. In May, authorities uncovered a clandestine facility in Gravatai, near Porto Alegre, in southern Brazil. The owner produced and sold online 3D gun components, mostly Roni conversion kits that make handguns more accurate at longer ranges.
Brazil’s high gun-related murder rates likely provide a favorable environment for 3D firearms. Brazilian Ministry of Health estimated that 45,000 lives were lost in 2019, corresponding to 21.6 murders per 100,000 people. The Fórum Brasileiro de Segurança Publica revealed that Brazilian police seized 106,776 conventional weapons in 2019.
In Santa Catarina state, police arrested two far-right drug traffickers in April. Authorities discovered two flags in their home: a Reichskriegsflagge from National Socialist Germany and a flag of Kekistan—a meme nation promoted by some users of the message board 4chan—along with digital scales for weighing narcotics. They also discovered a 3D printer and a loaded model of the FGC-9 MK-II (JStark's model), instructions on how to print it, and a copy of the ‘Practical Manual on How to Learn to Speak and Write Russian’.
Last March, the Florida Heat operation in Rio de Janeiro, Mato Grosso do Sul, and Miami, Florida, revealed that a Brazilian criminal organization was illegally sending gun components from Miami to Brazil in containers and by mail. The ultimate destination was Vila Isabel, in northern Rio. Once in Brazil, the criminals assembled the gun using 3D-printed pieces. Instead of laying filaments plane by plane, they relied on Ghost Gunners, or a general-purpose CNC mill, which ghost gun manufacturers use to drill and finish partially completed parts such as lower receivers. Then, the Brazilian cell sold the final products to local criminal groups. Ronnie Lessa, a militiaman accused of murdering Brazilian activist Marielle Franco, was one of the clients.
The Brazilian criminals moved the funds to the US to purchase gun components through black market dealers. They then invested the revenues in residential real estate in Brazil, as well as in cryptocurrencies, stocks, yachts and other luxury vessels. Authorities seized assets worth around 2 million $USD.
"There is great potential, especially for 3D printed gun components," Bruno Langeani of Instituto Sou da Paz, a non-governmental organization tracking the proliferation of guns in Brazil for years, told Militant Wire. "There's a chance the 3Ds will attract largely smaller Brazilian criminal groups for whom gun maintenance has been problematic due to the costs." According to Langeani, 3D will allow criminals to operate firearms continuously. As a result, small criminal groups will increase in size and power and cause more territorial conflicts.
However, photos of Brazilian firearms entirely manufactured through 3D printers, such as the FGC-9, a 3D-printable semiautomatic pistol caliber carbine first released in early 2020, have lately surfaced on the internet. They were likely early attempts by large criminal organizations eager to innovate, such as the First Command of the Capital (PCC), the most powerful organized crime group in Brazil, which the U.S. Treasury sanctioned in 2021.
Drug trafficking and, as a result, traffic in illegal weapons, are also on the rise in other Latin American countries. For example, Chilean authorities recovered 924 illegal guns in 2021, many of which had been modified.
The first 3D weapons seizure occurred last November. Authorities discovered a package delivered from the US to Temuco, in a Chilean region already in a state of crisis. The package included metal and plastic magazines for AK and AR15 rifles and a 3D printed polymer handgun and other components.
"We're talking about guns or ammunition with a war caliber. The same ammo used in attacks on our police officers”, said Rodrigo Delgado, Chilean Minister of the Interior and Public Security.
There have also been cases of Latin Americans escaping to Europe for political reasons and turning to 3D gun manufacturing, like a former Venezuelan military officer who relocated to Spain and was arrested in November 2021, in Tenerife, for operating a 3D printed gun workshop. Police seized 3D printed weapon frames, two 3D printers, two flags, and a pistol holster with Nazi emblems. Authorities also discovered 30 documents with instructions on how to 3D print weapons and make homemade explosives and chemicals often utilized in their production, such as nitrate.
"Additive manufacturing, also known as three-dimensional (3D) printing, is a disruptive technology that dramatically raises the risk of weapon proliferation by allowing access to criminal and terrorist organizations," police stated mentioning a 2019 terrorist attack on a German synagogue by a far-right neo-Nazi, who, it should be noted, actually used a craft-made firearm in his assault and not 3D a printed weapon.
There are indicators of receptivity to 3D guns even in Mexico. Andrew Scott Pierson, a man from Oklahoma, was sentenced to 12 years in jail in late April for his role in the arms trafficking to Mexican cartels. Pierson, based in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, purchased and received firearm components from the US and then built automatic guns for the Cartel Del Noreste (CDN) and Cartel Jalisco Nuevo Generacion (CJNG) in Mexico using Ghost Gunner printers.
In Guadalajara, Jalisco, a clandestine firearm 3D manufacturing facility was found and decommissioned in 2015. CJNG operated the business and made AR-15 weapons, popular among Mexican cartels.
Mexico is the world's fifth-biggest illicit arms market, with more than 13 million illegal guns. Almost 70% originate from the United States, where Mexican gangs sell narcotics and import weapons through the same routes.
A 2016 US Government Accountability Office (GAO) report revealed that Mexican criminal groups are trafficking incomplete receivers and weapon components, hindering authorities' attempts to prevent illicit firearm smuggling from the United States to Mexico and Latin America. Component trafficking, in particular, provides fertile ground for the illegal usage of 3D printers to assemble the parts.
Information shared online about 3D firearms manufacturing is increasing worldwide. Although the files from Cody Wilson’s website, Defense Distributed, are not downloadable in Latin America, other sites offer similar services such as Yeggi, Thingiverse, Thegatalog.
However, technology evolves in a legislative vacuum since there are no specific legal regulations and little public debate in Latin America. 3D printed weapons are already illegal in Europe and remain in legal limbo in the US. It is legal to 3D print firearms, but they must include some metal components so that they cannot avoid metal detectors. In Latin America, legislative silence is often coupled with pro-gun campaigns, as is the case with the Bolsonaro government.
This legislative limbo poses a severe threat to citizens' safety. It's hard to say how dark the dark side of 3D printing will become, but new criminal activities will likely be enabled in the long run such as the manufacture of explosives, trafficking of 3D-printed drugs, human organs, and 3D-printed counterfeit currencies. Skimmers, which are fake card readers connected to real payment terminals that fraudsters use to steal information from the magnetic stripe on the back of a debit or credit card, might also be printed, to name one more nefarious use for 3D printers.
Tracking and monitoring the 3D printed weapon import and market should be a priority until specific rules are in place to mitigate the risks of this unregulated business. Downloads of blueprints for 3D weapons from websites should also be restricted.