CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela possesses a stockpile of 5,000 Russian-made MANPADS surface-to-air weapons, according to military documents reviewed by Reuters, the largest known cache of the weapons in Latin America and a source of concern for U.S. officials amid the country's mounting turmoil.
Venezuela's socialist government, in power since 1999 after former President Hugo Chavez won elections, has long used the threat of an "imperialist" invasion by the United States to justify an arms buildup, mainly procured from Russia.
According to a Venezuelan military presentation seen by Reuters, the South American country has 5,000 SA-24 Man-Portable Air-Defense System (MANPADS) missiles, also known as the Igla-S, which are shoulder-mounted and can be operated by one person. tmsnrt.rs/2r9FYZZ
It was the first credible information on the total size of the arms stockpile. Public weapons registries confirm the bulk of the numbers seen on the Venezuelan military document.
First deployed by the United States and Soviet Union in the 1960s, the missiles quickly became popular with insurgent groups around the world because they are portable and effective.
Military sources and weapons experts contacted by Reuters said there were growing fears the missiles could be stolen, sold or somehow channeled to the wrong hands given the growing civil unrest in the oil-producing nation.
There is no evidence the Venezuelan state has used or transferred its MANPADS missiles, but the CIA director said last week Venezuela's missiles represented an "incredibly real and serious" regional security threat.
Colombia has in the past accused Caracas of arming guerrillas there and officials in neighboring Brazil have voiced concerns local drug gangs may be acquiring military weapons from Venezuela, which has been plunged into chaos by seven weeks of anti-government protests.
On Wednesday, two military barracks were attacked during a protest in the volatile western state of Tachira near the border with Colombia.
"They wanted weapons to give to terrorists," said General Jose Morantes, referring to the opposition as terrorists, a common government accusation. He added that he was increasingly worried about weapons theft.
Venezuela has a massive black market in illegal weapons, with everything from pistols and grenades to machine guns and rifles available on the streets and in its notoriously violent prisons. There are frequent official reports of military and police officials stealing weapons.
A former senior army general and minister, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the information, told Reuters the MANPADS missiles are held mainly on the coast due to government fears of a U.S. attack.
He told Reuters that Venezuela also holds 1,500 launchers, or grip stocks, which are fundamental to the operation of the missiles.
The Venezuelan government and military did not respond to requests for comment.
The MANPADS missiles, similar to the U.S. Stinger system, were bought towards the end of Hugo Chavez's 1999-2013 rule.
The former paratrooper was briefly toppled in a 2002 coup, which he said was U.S.-backed.
"We don't want war," Chavez said on TV in 2009 as dozens of soldiers marched in front of him with the camouflaged weapons on their shoulders. "But we need our armed forces to be ever better trained and equipped to secure ... the sovereignty of this great nation."
Close ally Russia lent Venezuela $4 billion to buy weapons when Chavez visited Moscow in 2010. It is unclear if the MANPADS missiles were part of this deal.
The U.N. Register of Conventional Arms (UNROCA) and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) show the shipment of 3,800 MANPADS missiles from Russia to Venezuela over the last decade. Those records rely on voluntary reports and are often incomplete.
The head of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Mike Pompeo expressed concern about the missiles at a Senate hearing last week, though he said would only give details in a classified setting.
"This risk is incredibly real and serious ... to South America and Central America in addition to just in Venezuela," Pompeo said. "The situation in Venezuela continues to deteriorate. (President Nicolas) Maduro gets more desperate by the hour."
Back in 2009, then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asked Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to stop the sale of the MANPADS weapons to Venezuela because of concerns over the country's management of its weapons stockpiles, according to cables released by WikiLeaks.
Some intelligence experts, however, think fears are exaggerated as part of a campaign to portray Venezuela's socialist government as a security threat.
Conservative U.S. politicians have long accused Venezuela of collaboration with a wide array of global militants, including Lebanese Shi'ite group Hezbollah and Colombia's FARC rebels, who are disbanding this year.
"The whole Hezbollah line has been so distorted for political purposes by the more extreme elements of the U.S. right wing, that it's impossible to know, even from 'intelligence,' what's going on," a former C.I.A. senior official told Reuters, scoffing at the claims.
"I've heard the ... allegations that Venezuela was intending to pass them to the FARC, drug traffickers, Hezbollah, leftwing mothers-in-law, whomever we fear, many times."
In recent weeks, Maduro has returned to invoking the threat of potential U.S. invasion, accusing protesters of working with Washington to overthrow his government.
The U.S. government strongly denies that.
Venezuela's alleged support for Colombia's FARC rebels has long stirred controversy. Colombia said in 2009 that Sweden had confirmed three rocket launchers found at a guerrilla camp were made in Sweden and sold to Venezuela in the late 1980s.
Internal FARC documents seized by Colombia during a 2008 raid in Ecuador appeared to show the guerilla group was keen to obtain MANPADS missiles and entered into talks with Venezuelan officials - though there was no evidence any weapons changed hands.
The former general told Reuters that Venezuela also holds 1,500 launchers, or grip stocks, which are fundamental to the operation of the missiles.
Additional reporting by Anggo Polanco in San Cristobal; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Daniel Flynn