Venezuela has 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, with weapons 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.
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 that 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 that 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 were held mainly on the coast because of 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.