Though the AK-47’s inventor, Mikhail Kalashnikov, has passed away, the assault rifle’s long-standing role in Latin America continues.
Many guerillas in Latin America, including the FARC rebels, have made the Kalashnikov a kind of symbol for their fight. Mikhail Kalashnikov created the automatic weapon for the Soviet Union in the early 1940s, hoping to fend off a German invasion, but Businessweek reports that the AK-47 has been used in 40 or more of the 60 large armed conflicts since 1945.
From Venezuela to Brazil to Chile, the Kalashnikov has played– and continues to play– a central role in the region’s politics and violent encounters.
The AK-47 and guerilla warfare
Both in Latin America and elsewhere, the AK-47 is often chosen for its ease of use and low maintenance needs, becoming a “symbol of revolution around the world,” according to the BBC.
The extended conflict between the Colombian government and FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) is a prime example of how the assault weapon has come to stand for guerrilla warfare tactics and revolutionaries. FARC members make regular use of AK-47 assault rifles, training women, men, and even children in its use. The gun is used to combat government troops both in Colombia and along the country’s borders.
Kalashnikovs also figure prominently in the drug war across Mexico and southern California, with narcotraffickers posing with their AK-47s for photo shoots and music CD covers. In fact, the “narco” genre of music, glorifying violent battles between drug cartels and kingpins, is one of the most popular Latin music genres at the moment, as reported by NY Daily News.
Narco singers like El Komander go so far as to carry assault weapons onstage during shows, as well as filming music videos brimming with Kalashnikovs.
AK-47s, while figuring prominently into Latin American guerrilla movements, have also played a role in governmental politics over the years.
Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s former president, made waves in 2006 by announcing his plans to build the Western Hemisphere’s first Kalashnikov factory, according to Fox News. Mr. Chavez indicated that his goal was to protect the country against potential U.S. invasion or interference. As of 2012, Venezuela had assembled 3,000 AK-103 assault rifles, as reported in The Guardian, and the government plans to continue building automatic weapons, ammunition, and surveillance drones.
On the other end of South America, history shows that the AK-47 figured into Chilean politics, as well. According to the NY Times, the recent exhumation of the country’s former president, Salvador Allende, confirmed his cause of death: the leader killed himself with the famous assault rifle.
Troubled Relationships: The United States and Latin America
While Venezuela, for example, has made an agreement with the Russian government to manufacture Kalashnikovs, many of the weapons in South and Central America have been provided by the United States.
The NACLA Report on the Americas, from 2008, provides the history behind Latin American weapon importation. Looking back to the armed conflict in Nicaragua during the 1980s, as one instance, the report outlines the U.S.’s role in supplying the revolutionary Contras with AK-47s. More recently, data from 2005 showed that the U.S. sent $29 million worth of small arms to South America, with the bulk of that going to Colombia (ostensibly to fight against the FARC rebels).
Other data from the report shows that because Kalashnikovs can be sold for three times as much in Mexico as in the U.S., illegal smuggling routes are common along the border between the two countries.