By Juan O. Tamayo | Miami Herald
Venezuela's recent purchase of the most lethal shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles in the Russian arsenal is sharpening U.S. concerns that parts of President Hugo Chávez's massive weapons buildup could wind up in the hands of terrorists or guerrillas in neighboring Colombia.
Washington's unease is well-founded, U.S. government officials say, because of credible evidence that three top Venezuelan officials offered Colombia's FARC rebels weapons, money and contacts to buy anti-aircraft missiles in 2007.
Such missiles in the hands of the FARC would mark a steep escalation of the 45-year-old conflict in Colombia, where government forces in recent years have deployed a fleet of slow-moving ground-attack warplanes and U.S.-built helicopters to deal devastating blows to rebel jungle camps.
''We are concerned about Venezuelan arms purchases that exceed its needs and are therefore potentially destabilizing,'' State Department spokeswoman Sara Mangiaracina said. ``The Man-Portable Air Defense Systems Venezuela have purchased from Russia are sophisticated weapons systems. It is important that these weapons systems be appropriately controlled to avoid the possibility of diversion.''
Financed by high oil prices, Chávez has been on a weapons-buying binge since 2006, purchasing more than $4 billion worth of Russian Sukhoi jets, Mi helicopters and 100,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles for what he says is the professionalization of his 62,000-member armed forces and the defense of his ''socialist revolution'' from U.S. aggression.
U.S. officials have long voiced concerns about the weapons buildup. ''I can't imagine what's going to happen to those 100,000 [Kalashnikovs] and I can't imagine that if it did happen, that it would be good for the hemisphere,'' then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said in 2005.
But the purchase of the SA-24 man-portable missiles -- the most sophisticated version manufactured in Russia -- spiked U.S. anxiety.
The missile and launcher weigh just 42 pounds, can hit targets flying at up to 19,500 feet, employ a ''fire and forget'' system that is highly resistant to countermeasures, has night-vision capability and is easy to maintain, U.S. military experts said. Previously, Venezuela only had pedestal-mounted Swedish RBS-70 and French Mistral surface-to-air missiles.