Belgian firearms from manufacturer FN Herstal, owned by the Walloon government, are used in the highest echelons of the Colombian drug cartels. This is evident from NarcoFiles, the largest ever leak of drug files from South America Knack and The time investigated. Walloon Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo (PS) gives ‘no comment’.
Dairon Manuel Plata Julio, nicknamed Balotelli, was for many years the main drug trafficker of the Clan del Golfo, the largest drug cartel in Colombia and the largest cocaine distributor in the world. Balotelli directed the traffic to the United States and Central America, coordinated purchases from cocaine labs and orchestrated contract killings and extortions. In the summer of 2017, Colombian police were able to arrest him with the help of the US drug enforcement agency DEA. From the leaked NarcoFiles that Knack and The time were able to inspect about this, it appears that the drug lord was carrying a Belgian-made weapon when he was arrested.
“At the time of his arrest, he had a pistol of the FN Herstal Belgium brand, caliber 5.7×28 mm, with two chargers and 21 cartridges, which only the armed forces are allowed to use,” one of the leaked Colombian court documents reads. .
If you look up bullets of this caliber on the FN Herstal website you will first get a warning: ‘The products displayed on this website as defense and law enforcement products are intended exclusively for the sale of military, law enforcement and special forces and are subject to export licenses and permits.”
The NarcoFiles contain numerous other recent drug files from the Colombian Public Prosecution Service in which FN weapons appear with references to ‘Fabrique Nationale Herstal Belgique’ or ‘Fabricacion Belgica’. The Belgian FN weapons appear to appear in all sections of the Colombian drug world, including among the paramilitary groups that profit from the cocaine traffic.
FN Herstal has been fully owned by the Walloon Region since 1997. The company employs approximately 1,500 employees and is one of the world’s top manufacturers of pistols, machine guns and automatic weapons. The umbrella Herstal Group also owns the American brands Browning and Winchester.
81 FN weapons
Followed for this NarcoFiles investigation The time and Knack in more detail the trail of 81 FN weapons that the Colombian judiciary recently seized. The majority (57) was only discovered in the past three years. This ranges from all kinds of pistols such as the Five-seveN, known in the US as the ‘cop killer’ (see photo 1 on the infographic), to an automatic FN FAL rifle.
The majority of FN weapons appearing in the Colombian drug world are hand pistols. These are traditionally more common among criminals: they are small, handy and shoot accurately. The toughest FN weapons we found in the NarcoFiles are submachine guns of the PS90 type (photo 2), which FN started developing in the 1980s as a modern defense weapon for military personnel. For example, a drug criminal was arrested in Medellin on suspicion of 28 murders for hire. During a search of his apartment, the Colombian police found two PS90s, a large amount of ammunition and 13,453 euros in cash.
For example, in August 2021, a lower-ranking member of the Clan del Golfo, nicknamed ‘Nicola’, was also arrested with a semi-automatic GP pistol from Browning, one of the two American weapon brands of FN. GP stands for ‘Grand Puissance’, the weapon is also called the Hi-Power (photo 3). The Colombians whose gun was found were found to be responsible for four murders in the port city of Santa Marta in 2021 alone. That same year, in May 2021, another Colombian with such a GP pistol was arrested after a chase that followed an assassination attempt. A member of the narco-paramilitary organization ‘GAO Caparros’, who committed extortion and murder with his associates, was captured by the Colombian army in 2020. He also appeared to be carrying a Browning pistol.
In total, at least eleven Hi-Power pistols appear in Colombian police files. They were almost certainly produced in our country. Nils Duquet, weapons expert at the Flemish Peace Institute: ‘That standard pistol was also used by the Belgian police, for example. They probably end up in Colombia through sales on the US civilian market.’
The most popular ‘Belgian weapon’ in the Colombian underworld seems to be the Browning BDA 380, with at least sixteen copies. These pistols were commissioned by FN Herstal and made by the Italian company Beretta and sold in Canada and the United States. Duquet: ‘The FN weapons found are therefore Belgian weapons in the sense that they were produced by or on behalf of FN Herstal, but they were not necessarily made on Belgian territory. In addition to those in Herstal, FN also has factories in Portugal and the US.’
In April, the company announced an investment of 31 million euros for a new weapons factory in South Carolina.
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Smuggled from the US
How did Belgian weapons reach Colombian drug criminals? We were only able to find the serial numbers for 51 of the 81 FN weapons that we examined, including through the photos included in the ballistic examination. In many cases the numbers had been erased. For example, in the file of a Venezuelan who fled without papers at a roadside checkpoint, we find photos of parts of a PS90 with the serial number FN059759. In principle, the origin of a weapon can be traced on this basis: where was it manufactured and to which authority was it sold with a Belgian export license?
But if we request a ‘tracing request’ for that serial number from the Federal Public Service Foreign Affairs, we receive no information about it. “We only submit tracing requests to the arms industry if they are formulated by international organizations, and not by private individuals or media,” Sigurd Schelstraete, Director of Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, responds by email.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs says it receives ‘relatively few such requests, about two per year’. In recent years, our Federal Public Service Foreign Affairs has not received any tracing requests from the Colombian authorities. However, most tracing requests are made in the context of international police and judicial cooperation, and this is done via the firearms contact point of the federal police.
Knack also passed on the serial number of that PS90 to FN Herstal itself, but that also refuses to provide transparency. Spokesman Henry de Harenne: ‘We only respond to tracing requests if they come from Belgian federal institutions or international institutions such as NATO or the United Nations. This has nothing to do with the respect we have for your work as a journalist or the press in general, it is about legal procedures.’ (Read FN Herstal’s extensive response to our investigation at the bottom of this article.)
“Broadly speaking, those Belgian FN weapons could have reached Colombia in three ways,” says Nils Duquet of the Flemish Peace Institute. ‘Firstly, it could concern old deliveries in the 1960s, 1970s or 1980s to South America. Weapons have a long lifespan and can become alienated from the original owner. Second, they may have been sold on the civilian market in the United States and smuggled south from there. A third option is recent deliveries to neighboring countries of Colombia.’
Recently there were no arms exports to Colombia. At the request of Knack and The time the Flemish Peace Institute looked into its database of federal export licenses up to 2000. This analysis shows that from 1970 to 2000 at least 202 licenses were issued for the export of firearms and/or ammunition from our country to Colombia. It goes without saying that during that period there was only one major firearms manufacturer and exporter in Belgium: FN Herstal. At least 600 export licenses were also issued to neighboring countries Brazil and Peru during that period.
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The Colombian Minister of Defense admitted last year that the Colombian army is conducting internal investigations into possible arms smuggling to guerrillas. Some FN weapons that appear in the NarcoFiles and that we examined, a Hi-Power and a FAL, refer to the Venezuelan army. For example, the Hi-Power contained the engraving ‘venezuelan armed forces’ and the coat of arms of the Venezuelan army.
Figures from the Flemish Peace Institute show that between 1970 and 2000 at least 57 permits were issued for the export of firearms and/or ammunition from Belgium to the Venezuelan defense or the national guard in Venezuela. If we add the deliveries to other Venezuelan services, this amounted to almost 67 million euros in deliveries in that period.
And other channels are possible. Leaked NarcoFiles indicate that it also takes barely one or two weeks before a seller on the dark web, the difficult to trace part of the internet, can send weapons from Belgium or the Netherlands from here to South America. This concerns weapons that have never before been used in criminal files, that are sold with false data and that are only paid for with bitcoin.
“In the first instance, it is of course up to the Colombian authorities to effectively investigate the weapons they confiscate,” Duquet concludes. ‘If they don’t investigate this, it is apparently not that big of a problem for them. But if they investigate, they can contact the Belgian authorities based on the serial number, who can then pass that tracing request on to FN.” That’s how it works in theory.
Knack sent questions about us NarcoFiles investigation to the Walloon government and FN Herstal.
Walloon Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo (PS), responsible for arms exports, says through its spokesperson that it will first ‘request information from the administration’. Later it is said ‘no comment, the Prime Minister is not in the habit of responding to files on arms exports’.
FN Herstal spokesperson Henry de Harenne: ‘No Walloon weapon leaves Belgian territory without an export permit from the Walloon Region. Each permit also contains an “end user certificate”. This exclusively determines who may use the military equipment in the host country. It can indeed happen that weapons end up in the hands of people or groups for whom they are not intended. The responsibility for this lies with the states. Those issues are not the responsibility of our company.
‘As far as Colombia is concerned, I invite you to consult the annual reports of the Walloon Parliament on the export of military equipment: you will not find any exports from FN Herstal in them. In the case of Colombia, we cannot respond until we have been able to inspect the weapons in question, which we will of course do if the Ministry of Foreign Affairs asks us to do so.”
This article is part of Narco Files: The New Criminal Order, an international journalistic investigation into global organized crime, its innovations, its tentacles and those who fight them. The project, led by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) in collaboration with Centro Latinoamericano de Investigación Periodística (CLIP), started with a leak of emails from the Colombian Public Prosecution Service that were shared with De Tijd and more than 40 other media around the world. Reporters researched and checked the material, along with hundreds of other documents, databases and interviews.