World News

The high-seas arms bazaar

David Baird March 26 1979
World News

The high-seas arms bazaar

David Baird March 26 1979

The high-seas arms bazaar

France

Heading north off the French coast, the 492-ton Diek Zee looked no different from any other cargo vessel until members of the crew were observed dangling over the side busily painting a new name—Reefer Traderon the hull. The bizarre paint job aroused French marine officials’ suspicions, heightened when they discovered that the Diek Zee was carrying 321 tons of arms and explosives.

Loaded at Civitavecchia, Italy, the arms had been declared destined for the Spanish port of Cádiz. But the Diek Zee had sailed straight past the port to northern France, and last week it was in Cherbourg where the cargo was being checked against the ship’s papers.

Why the name change and where was it taking the arms? The French said the vessel had been chartered by the Spanish company Barreiros Hermanos Internacional, and though Barreiros promptly denied responsibility for the Diek Zee or its cargo, speculation continued because the company (formed by four brothers who have made fortunes manufacturing everything from munitions to furniture) has been linked to a number of unusual arms deals.

Last November, Canadian media related the odd saga of 21,624 artillery shells sold, according to the Canadian export licence, by Montreal’s Space Research Corporation to the Spanish government. Delivered to Barreiros in Barcelona, most of the shell casings were shipped out three months later. Barreiros said they had been returned to Space Research in Canada, but overwhelming evidence suggested the vessel on which they were loaded had been heading for South Africa in defiance of a UN arms embargo.

Mystery also shrouded a cargo of 2,830 rifles aboard the vessel Allul, which was seized last September by British authorities on suspicion that the rifles were intended for the IRA. When the British released the Allul, it sailed back to Belgium, where it had picked up the rifles, and unloaded them. Barreiros, the consignee, said they were not what their client had ordered. But the identity of the client and the destination of the arms—again rumored to be South Africa or South America— were never cleared up.

Though insignificant by United States standards, Spanish arms exports—$160 million worth in 1977have increased rapidly, chiefly to Third World countries. The largest exporting company, Defex, is 51-per-cent stateowned. Among the shipments which have provoked controversy have been mortars and bazookas for Chile and aircraft and light arms for Nicaragua.

Two years ago, four Spanish-made corvettes were resold by Portugal to South Africa, raising a storm of protest, and negotiations are reported in progress to manufacture frigates and aircraft carriers for Argentina, a deal calculated to incense thousands of Argentinian refugees within Spain.

Government regulations are said to be as tough as anywhere else in Europe—Barreiros points out that even though a cargo does not touch Spanish soil, the company must still obtain a licence for the commercial transaction—but checking the activities of a business where secrecy is an article of faith can baffle the most zealous investigators, as French authorities were learning last week.

It emerged that the intended ports of call of the Diek Zee (or Reefer Trader) were Mombasa, in Kenya, and Punta Arenas, in Chile. As for why it had changed its name, speculation ran that it had taken the name of a sister ship because it did not reach the minimum tonnage required for vessels carrying munitions. Is there a second, larger Reefer Trader lurking about? What is its cargo? The answers, as so often, are hidden in the murky waters of the international arms trade.

David Baird