November 10, 2023
Firearms from manufacturer FN Herstal, which is owned by the Walloon government, reach the highest echelons of the Colombian drug cartels. This is evident from the NarcoFiles, the largest ever leak of drug files from Latin America.
Dairon Manuel Plata Julio, nicknamed Balotelli, was for many years the main drug trafficker of the Clan del Golfo. With thousands of members, it is the largest cartel in Colombia and the largest cocaine distributor in the world. Balotelli directed the traffic to the US and Central America, coordinated purchases from cocaine labs and directed assassinations and extortions. But in the summer of 2017, Colombian police were able to arrest him with the help of the US drug enforcement agency DEA. The NarcoFiles, millions of leaked court documents from the Colombian Public Prosecution Service that De Tijd and Knack were able to view, show that the drug lord was carrying a Belgian-made weapon when he was arrested in Arboletes, a coastal municipality in northern Colombia.
This article is part of NarcoFiles : The New Criminal Order, an international journalistic investigation into the global cocaine traffic from Latin America. The project, led by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) in collaboration with Centro Latinoamericano de Investigación Periodística (CLIP), began with a leak of more than 7 million emails from the Colombian Public Prosecutor’s Office. These were shared with De Tijd and more than 40 other media around the world. This week De Tijd published several articles about the Belgian tracks in the NarcoFiles. You can read them at www.tijd.be/dossiers/narcofiles.html.
“At the time of his arrest, he had a pistol of the FN Herstal Belgium brand, caliber 5.7 x 28 mm, with two chargers and 21 cartridges that only the armed forces are allowed to use,” one of the leaked Colombian court documents reads. If you look up this type of bullets, which have recently been recognized as NATO caliber, on the FN Herstal website you will first receive a warning: ‘The products displayed on this website as defense and law enforcement products are intended for sale only of military, law enforcement and special forces and are subject to export licenses and permits.”
‘País de origen: Belgica’
The NarcoFiles contain numerous other, even more recent drug files from the Colombian Public Prosecution Service in which firearms appear with references to, for example, ‘Fabrique Nationale Herstal Belgique’, ‘Fabricación Bélgica’ or ‘País de origen: Belgica’. The weapons of the Walloon FN group appear to appear in all sections of the Colombian drug world, including among paramilitary groups that benefit from the cocaine traffic.
FN Herstal has been fully owned by the Walloon Region since 1997, through its private equity company Sogepa. The group has 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.
Based on the NarcoFiles, De Tijd and Knack examined a sample of 81 FN weapons that the Colombian judiciary recently seized. The majority – 57 weapons – have only been discovered in the past three years. This ranges from pistols, such as the FN Five-seveN (known in the US as ‘cop killer’), to automatic rifles, such as the FN FAL.
At FN Herstal, no one doubts that the Colombian drug world obtained those Belgian weapons illegally. “It can indeed happen that weapons end up in the hands of people or groups for whom they are not intended,” responds Henry de Harenne, spokesperson for the Herstal Group. ‘For example, after weapons are recovered from a battlefield or stolen from a national institution and then illegally exported by criminal networks. First and foremost, this is the responsibility of states: they must respect international law when using their weapons.’
“But in general, this rarely happens with FN Herstal weapons, nor with Belgian military equipment in general, thanks to our strict legislation,” the FN spokesperson claims. ‘The Belgian and Dutch judicial authorities can also confirm this to you when it comes to the weapons that circulate illegally in Belgium and the Netherlands, especially in the drug environment here. In the case of Colombia, we can only respond after we have been able to inspect the weapons in question – which we will of course do if the Foreign Office asks us to do so.’
At least 202 permits
A large portion of the weapons probably came via the American market and then smuggled south.
Weapons expert Flemish Peace Institute
‘Broadly speaking, these Belgian FN weapons could have reached Colombia in three ways. Either they got there in the 60s, 70s or 80s, or more recently through the legal civilian market in the US, or through leaks from the armies of neighboring countries,” analyzes Nils Duquet, weapons expert at the Flemish Peace Institute. ‘I suspect that a large part came via the American market and was then smuggled south. That does not alter the fact that there could also have been a number of official deliveries to South America, as early as the 1980s for example, and that those weapons then disappeared there.’
Some FN weapons that appear in the NarcoFiles explicitly refer to the Venezuelan army. A seized GP 35 pistol contained the engraving ‘Venezuelan Armed Forces’ and the shield of the ‘Fuerza Armada Nacional Bolivariana’. Between 1970 and 2000, at least 57 licenses were issued in our country for the export of firearms and/or ammunition to the Venezuelan defense or national guard. This is evident from the federal data available up to the year 2000 that the Flemish Peace Institute collected and analyzed for us. During that period there was only one major firearms manufacturer and exporter in our country: FN Herstal.
The Colombian army is also conducting internal investigations into weapons that may have leaked to the guerrillas. Some NarcoFiles with FN weapons also mention the name of Indumil, a manufacturer of military weapons run by the Colombian government. But according to FN, his weapons cannot have ended up in the illegal circuit via the Colombian authorities. “Because in the annual reports of the Walloon Parliament you will not find any exports by FN Herstal of military material to Colombia,” it reads. But from 1970 to 2000 – before the regionalization of arms exports in 2003 – at least 202 export licenses were issued in our country for firearms and/or ammunition to Colombia.
There are other shortcuts. Some NarcoFiles show that a seller on the dark web can send weapons from Belgium or the Netherlands to South America in one or two weeks. The sellers promote them as weapons that have never before appeared in criminal files and that come with false data. You can only buy them with bitcoins so that no money trail is left behind.
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 well. The coolest FN weapons we found in the NarcoFiles are PS90 submachine guns, which FN started developing in the 1980s as a modern defense weapon for military personnel. For example, a drug criminal was arrested in Medellín on suspicion of 28 murders for hire. The Colombian police found 13,453 euros in cash, a lot of ammunition and two PS90s in his apartment.
The Foreign Affairs and FN refuse to trace weapons for us
Based on the serial numbers we found for 51 of the 81 FN weapons examined in the NarcoFiles, we tried to find out how they ended up in the Colombian drug world. Such as a PS90 submachine gun with the serial number FN059759. However, the Federal Public Service Foreign Affairs refused to carry out such a trace for us. FN initially wanted to do this, but then backed down because the company was legally only allowed to do this for official institutions.
In August 2021, a lower-ranking member of the Clan del Golfo was arrested with a semi-automatic GP 35 pistol – where the ‘GP’ stands for ‘Grande Puissance’ – from Browning, an American weapon brand of FN. The Colombians whose gun was found are believed to be behind four murders in 2021 alone. While in May 2021, another Colombian with about GP 35 was arrested after an assassination attempt. A member of the narco-paramilitary organization GAO Caparros, which committed extortion and murder, also carried a Browning pistol. There is a good chance that those GP 35s were produced in our country, says Duquet of the Flemish Peace Institute. “But they probably reached Colombia through sales on the US civilian market.”
The Browning BDA 380 also appears in the Colombian underworld. That pistol is made on behalf of FN Herstal by the Italian company Beretta and sold in Canada and the United States. Duquet: ‘The FN weapons found are Belgian weapons in the sense that they were produced by or on behalf of FN Herstal. It does not necessarily mean that they were also made on Belgian soil. In addition to Herstal, FN has factories in Portugal and the US.’
Walloon Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo (PS) does not want to comment ‘on issues related to arms exports’.