During the 1980s, El Salvador was the single largest recipient of U.S.-issued military hardware in the Western Hemisphere. All manner of weaponry—including over 32,500 M-16s and 270,000 grenades—seeped into the country from 1980 to 1993. Most of it was destined for the military-led government so that it could wage a vicious war against the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or FMNL. Although the armed conflict officially ended in 1992, the guns, grenades, and bullets linger. Officials estimate that at least half of the weapons turning up in crime scenes in the country can be traced back to the United States. And that is a lot of crime scenes; El Salvador has the highest murder rate in the world.
El Salvador wasn’t the only recipient of American guns. Most Central and South American countries aligned with the West were devoted consumers of military and civilian-issue small arms and munitions made in the U.S.A. The rest were supplied primarily with Soviet armaments, especially the ubiquitous AK-47. These client relationships have proven surprisingly resilient. United States and Russian sales continue to the present, even as dozens of exporters—such as Austria, Belgium, China, the Czech Republic, Germany, Israel, Italy, Spain, and Turkey—have piled on. More recently, several Latin America countries have also emerged as arms producers in their own right.
Thanks to legal sales and illicit trafficking, the region’s criminal organizations, street gangs, private security firms, and vigilantes have access to a steady supply of weapons. In turn, Latin American countries and cities are the world’s most exposed to gun-related violence. The regional homicide rate hovers above 28 per 100,000 people, compared to a global average of closer to seven per 100,000. Just four countries—Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, and Venezuela—account for roughly one-fifth of all gun-related deaths around the planet each year. A recent study also reveals that 47 of the world’s 50 most murderous cities are in Latin America and the Caribbean (two are in the United States and one