Drugs, Guns and Rebellion: A Comparative Analysis of the Arms Procurement of Insurgent Groups in Colombia and Myanmar


Several insurgent groups have financed their arms procurement through drug trafficking, explaining in part the long duration of conflicts in drug producing countries. Incomes generated from this trade do not however automatically translate into improved military capabilities, since access to military-grade weapons typically requires tacit or active state support. Hence, two groups with similar types of funding can still have access to very different types of armaments, impacting their operational capability. This paper compares the arms procurement of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) and the United Wa State Army (UWSA) in Myanmar. Both insurgent groups have procured arms through networks and with finances from the drug trade. The UWSA's 20,000-strong force and significant armaments, including Man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) believed to be provided by China, is largely supported by these illicit activities and the networks they provide. FARC has ample access to small arms, the acquisition of which has been financed by taxation of the drug trade. In spite of significant incomes, FARC however until very recently lacked access to MANPADS, a fact which has significantly hampered its ability to withstand the Colombian counterinsurgency campaign, specifically targeted aerial assaults. The exploratory comparisons drawn in this paper offer insights into how insurgent groups can pass a crucial threshold of arms procurement, funded by illicit activities, that renders their dissolution far more difficult, while also highlighting the continued importance of state support in explaining rebel group resilience.

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  1. 1.

    Cornell, “Narcotics and Armed Conflict,” 222.

  2. 2.

    Ross, “What do we know about natural resources and civil war?” 337–340.

  3. 3.

    Myanmar is the official name, since 1989, of the country formerly known as Burma.

  4. 4.

    The figure is widely accepted, although various estimates range between 15,000 and 30,000. See Maung Maung Than (2013).

  5. 5.

    One of the authors conducted in total 82 interviews with FARC ex-combatants and a handful of Colombian police and military intelligence analysts, but the analysis here draws only on excerpts of direct relevance for this article. All names of the FARC ex-combatants cited have been changed to protect the anonymity of the respondents.

  6. 6.

    Cornell, “Narcotics and Armed Conflict,” 220–222.

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    Aguilera Peña, Las FARC, 54–55.

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    Arenas was the ideological leader of the FARC until his death in 1990

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    Author’s interviews with military intelligence analysts in Bogota, September 2012.

  13. 13.

    Ibid., 141.

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  15. 15.


  16. 16.


  17. 17.

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  18. 18.

    Black and Davis (2008) “Wa and Peace”.

  19. 19.

    Interview with FARC ex-combatant “David” from the 16th front, Villavicencio 2011-07-21. See also El Tiempo (2001)

  20. 20.

    El Tiempo, “Golpe al Tranquilandia de las FARC”

  21. 21.

    Interview with FARC ex-combatant “Juan” from the 16th front Villavicencio, August 2011; El Espectador ”Quiero ver a mi niña” January 29 2008.

  22. 22.


  23. 23.

    Black and Davis “Wa and Peace”

  24. 24.

    US Department of State, “Burma: A heart-to-heart with the Wa,”

  25. 25.

    Shroeder, Small Arms, Terrorism and the OAS firearms convention, 22–23.

  26. 26.

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  27. 27.

    Interview with FARC ex-combatant “Eduardo” Bogotá, July 2011.

  28. 28.

    Interview with FARC ex combatant “Bergin”, Bogotá, July 2011.

  29. 29.

    These e-mails formed the basis for Smith Lockhart and Inkster Los Documentos de las FARC.

  30. 30.

    It should also be noted in the 1990s China supplied the Tatmadaw with tanks, armored personnel carriers, artillery equipment and military aircraft.

  31. 31.

    Black and Davis (2008) “Wa and Peace”

  32. 32.

    Stratfor “Man-Portable Air-Defence Systems”

  33. 33.

    US Department of State “MANPADS: Combating the Threat to Global Aviation from Man-Portable Air Defense Systems,” July 27, 2011.

  34. 34.

    Stratfor “Man-Portable Air-Defence Systems”

  35. 35.

    China is not a participating state to the “Wassenaar Arrangement on Export Controls for Conventional Arms and Dual-Use Goods and Technologies” – an agreement that promotes transparency and greater responsibility for transfers of conventional arms such as MANPADS.

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    Black, Davis (2008) “Wa and Peace”; Stratfor (2010) “Man-Portable Air-Defence Systems”.

  37. 37.

    Black, Davis (2008) “Wa and Peace”; US Department of State (2009), “Thai Intelligence Keeps Wary Eye on Burma Border,” 09CHIANGMAI167, Consulate Chiang Mai.

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    Black Davis (2008) “Wa and Peace”.

  39. 39.

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  42. 42.

    Author’s interview with FARC ex-combatant “Alex” in Villavicencio, July 2011. See also for instance Penhaul (2011)

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  48. 48.

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    Whereas surveys suggest that fear was a minor cause of defections (see for instance Arjona and Kalyvas 2012) the lead author’s interviews with 82 FARC ex-combatants illustrated that when pressed on the issue, approximately half of the respondents had defected due to fear either of combat or of their own mid-level commanders.

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  55. 55.

    US Department of State (2009) “Burma: A heart-to-heart with the Wa”


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Jonsson, M., Brennan, E. Drugs, Guns and Rebellion: A Comparative Analysis of the Arms Procurement of Insurgent Groups in Colombia and Myanmar. Eur J Crim Policy Res 20, 307–321 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10610-013-9228-0

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  • Arms procurement
  • Civil war
  • Colombia
  • Drug trafficking
  • Myanmar
  • Political economy
  • Rebellion