Venezuela has the largest supply of missiles in Latin America, possessing 5,000 Russian MANPADS surface-to-air weapons, according to a military document seen by Reuters.
The shoulder-mounted SA-24 Man-Portable Air-Defense System (MANPADS), which can be operated by one person, pose a serious threat to commercial and military aircraft, according to weapons experts who fear that they will fall into the wrong hands as the socialist government teeters on the brink of collapse.
Political turmoil has gripped the country in recent months. 48 people have been killed during anti-government protests since the beginning of April. Protesters are demanding President Nicolas Maduro resign and calling for a national election to be held.
Most of the MANPADS missiles were obtained from Russia towards the end of late President Hugo Chavez's rule in 2009. Chavez continuously warned Venezuelans about the threat of US aggression before his death in 2013.
"We don't want war," the socialist politician said in a television address in 2009 while he was shown standing behind dozens of troops marching with MANPADS missiles mounted on their shoulders.
"But we need our armed forces to be ever better trained and equipped to secure ... the sovereignty of this great nation," he said.
A former senior Venezuelan military adviser told Reuters that most of the MANPAD missiles are positioned on the coast due to government fears of a US attack. The Venezuelan government has long used the threat of a US "imperialist invasion" to justify its large arsenal. Washington has always denied any intention to meddle in Venezuelan politics.
The US started funding efforts to destroy MANPADS arsenals in unstable regions almost two decades ago following mounting concern that the weapons could fall into the hands of militant groups.
Earlier this month, CIA Director Mike Pompeo expressed concern about the Venezuelan missiles at a senate hearing.
"This risk is incredibly real and serious ... to South America and Central America in addition to just in Venezuela," he said. "The situation in Venezuela continues to deteriorate. Maduro gets more desperate by the hour."
There are frequent reports of police and military officials stealing weapons, according to Reuters. Pistols, rifles and even grenades are widely available on the black market and circulate in the country's violent prisons.