German Gun Maker Under Fire for Illegal Rifle Shipments to Mexico

North America

While U.S. firearms trafficked into Mexico have fueled bloodshed, it seems that German rifles are also reaching Mexico illegally and playing a destructive role. According to an official report, a German gun company has been illegally transferring thousands of G36 rifles to four prohibited states in Mexico.

A recent German Customs Office report found Heckler & Koch (H&K), one of the largest small-arms producers in the world, to be in violation of German export laws. In 2005, the German government approved an export license allowing H&K to export rifles to Mexico, but specifically restricted any firearms going to four Mexican states – Guerrero, Jalisco, Chihuahua and Chiapas – where corruption blurs the line between police officers, government officials and cartel leaders.

People protesting in front of the Heckler and Koch HeadquatersOf the total 9,472 G36 rifles exported to Mexico from 2003 to 2011, H&K was responsible for “bringing about, encouraging or at least approving the export” of nearly 5,000 rifles to the prohibited Mexican states, according to the German Customs Office.

Following the apparent use of German firearms in the disappearance of 43 students last September in Mexico, Germany’s federal commissioner for human rights policy, Christoph Straesser, traveled to Iguala in the Mexican state of Guerrero to apologize to the victims’ families. The German paper Deutsche Welle later reported that 36 H&K G36 rifles were found in Iguala, Guerrero after the disappearance. 

For some German civil society members, the news of H&K’s illegal exports to Mexico was not surprising. In 2010, peace activist and publicist Jürgen Grässlin filed charges against H&K after finding evidence the company had participated in police and army training programs in the prohibited areas of Mexico, including pictures and thank you notes.

H&K responded to Grässlin’s allegations by firing two of their employees and establishing an external commission to review its practices. Based on this review, the company has claimed there is no need to react to the Custom Office Report findings.

The German Customs Office report determined that the transfers of nearly 5,000 rifles violate German law and recommended that the government file charges against current and former employees of H&K directly involved with supplying the G36 rifles to the prohibited states. It also demanded Heckler and Koch pay a fine of three million euros, the profit the company made in Mexico throughout the last years. State prosecutors have yet to press charges against H&K, but they are expected to make a decision regarding the new findings this summer.

This revelation may have implications beyond this case. German minister for economic affairs, Sigmar Gabriel, announced plans to change the current practice of controlling the end-use of Germany's arms exports. After German arms have been shipped to a country abroad, for instance, German embassy employees in countries outside of the European Union and NATO would verify whether the arms are in the hands of the intended end-user.  However, it’s unclear when the plan would be implemented.

While H&K’s exports to Mexico may have sparked changes to German arms export policy, it is unclear whether the apparent scandal and use of the German rifles in the disappearance of the 43 students has led to changes or reviews in other countries gun export polices. According to the Norwegian Initiative for Small Arms Transfers (NISAT) database, the United States, Israel and Belgium have ranked first, second and third in exports of small arms to Mexico by dollar value from 2011 to 2013. In FY 2014, the United States also reportedly exported more than 28,000 firearms to Mexico at a value of $21.6 million.

Given the clear risk of firearms exported to Mexican security forces falling into the hands of criminal networks or being misused by security forces, perhaps it is time for the United States to review its polices and practices on firearms exports to Mexico.

Lisa Mueller-Dormann is a guest blogger for the Security Assistance Monitor from Germany. Colby Goodman is a Senior Research Associate for the Security Assistance Monitor and covers a range of U.S. military and police aid and arms sales issues.