San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Documentary targets lucrative arms trade

From the print edition

With an estimated 45 to 80 million firearms and seven of the world’s 14 deadliest countries, Latin America and the Caribbean represent one of the world’s most violent regions. 

The film “Maras, NiNis y Malandros: Una Guerra no official” (“Maras, NiNis and Malandros: An Unofficial War”), directed by Tica filmmaker Erika Bagnarello of Costa Rica Filmworks and produced by the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress, explores the culture of violence in three of Latin America’s deadliest cities. A common thread that connects mass graves of drug cartels in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, El Salvadoran gang wars in San Salvador, and daily shootings on the streets of Caracas, Venezuela, is the ease of access to firearms. 

The soldiers of the unofficial war in the film’s title are “NiNis,” young people, mostly poor, that neither study nor work. Costa Rica’s State of the Nation report for 2011 indicates that 12.3 percent of Tico youth between the ages of 12 and 24 fall into this category.

The film doesn’t specifically touch on violence in Costa Rica, but filmmakers said that doesn’t mean the country isn’t affected.

According to the United Nations Global Study on Homicide, all Central American countries, including Costa Rica, have murder rates higher that 10 per 100,000. A homicide rate higher than 10 per 100,000 is considered an epidemic of violence. The same report found that firearms are responsible for 42 percent of all homicides committed globally. 

“We have quite a bit of material from here in the country,” Bagnarello said when asked why Costa Rica wasn’t shown in the film, after a recent screening of the documentary at San Pedro Mall east of San José. “The things we see in other countries we see reflected here in this country, too.”

The things they see, Bagnarello said, are corruption, impunity and easily accessible firearms. The 50-minute film drives home the point with scenes of carnage from Ciudad Juárez. In San Salvador, viewers witness a gang beating and listen to a gang member saying it is easier to buy a 9 mm handgun in his neighborhood than a carton of milk. From Caracas, a mother tearfully describes watching her son shot to death on a sidewalk, and viewers learn that more than 30 million rounds of ammunition are produced each year in Venezuela.

 Currently no legally binding international regulations of the arms industry exist. That could change in July, when U.N. member states convene to finalize the creation of an internationally binding Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). The treaty idea has gained traction since former Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, founder of the foundation that bears his name, first floated it in 1997. 

The U.N. will hold a fourth and final round of preliminary discussions on drafting a treaty this month to set the agenda for the July conference. 

“Getting the ATT signed is very important,” Bagnarello said. “There’s nothing that regulates the arms trade for us. It is a free day for the arms industry, and [the ATT] at least will create a protocol where there is no control.”

The U.N. Office for Disarmament Affairs doesn’t mince words about the unregulated global arms trade on its website, saying: “In all parts of the world, the ready availability of weapons and ammunition has led to human suffering, repression, crime and terror among civilian populations. Irresponsible transfers of conventional weapons can destabilize security in a region … and contribute to human rights abuses.”

The United States is the world’s largest arms manufacturer. A report by Swedish International Peace Research Institute and shared by, a global alliance that advocates for arms industry regulation, shows that from 2004-2008, the U.S. accounted for 31 percent of global transfers of “major conventional weapons” – a category that includes aircraft, artillery, missiles and other weapons. Between 2004 and 2007, the U.S. sold more than $51 billion in weapons.

Central America is located between a major producer of cocaine – Colombia – and the world’s largest consumer of illegal drugs – the U.S. An estimated 22 million illicit drug users live in the U.S., which also happens to be the world’s single largest distributor of firearms. 

Drug traffickers use the Central Ame-rican and Caribbean region as a transshipment point for drugs, and deadly battles over shipment routes are driving violence, particularly in the “Northern Triangle” region of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

“Maras, NiNis y Malandros: Una Guerra no official” makes clear that the violence plaguing the region stems from the flow of drugs from south to north and is bolstered by the flow of guns south from the U.S.

In recent months, Costa Rican authorities have seized more than two tons of cocaine, and also have seen some 215 Austrian-made Glock 9 mm pistols stolen from a Traffic Police warehouse in downtown San José. Agents of the Judicial Investigation Police recovered 56 of the stolen guns, but 159 remain at large (TT, Feb. 3).

In order to gain more control over small arms in the country, Costa Rican authorities announced last month the implementation of a strict new gun control measure. Some 24,000 legally registered firearm owners live in Costa Rica, and the country saw 276 gun homicides in 2011 – half of which, according to officials in the Public Security Ministry, were committed by legally registered guns. Celso Gamboa, Costa Rican vice minister of public security, said the new regulation will prohibit anyone with a violent criminal record from legally owning a firearm in the country and will stiffen penalties for carrying unregistered guns with minimum prison terms of up to four years.

These are steps in the right direction, but as “Maras, NiNis y Malandros: Una Guerra no official” indicates, violence in this troubled region will continue as long as the deadly trinity of poverty, drugs and plentiful guns exists here.

“Maras, NiNis y Malandros: Una guerra no official” will be featured during the International Arts Festival on March 21 at 2 p.m. at La Sabana Park in western San José. Look for the Cinescopia tent.

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