Controversial Guilty Verdict for Weapons Trafficking to Mexico Upheld by Top German Court

MEXICO CITY – Germany has upheld a decision that found employees of a gun manufacturer guilty of falsifying information for licenses to export assault rifles to Mexico. Those weapons were subsequently used by police in one of the country’s worst recent human rights atrocities – the forced disappearance of 43 teaching students in the state of Guerrero in 2014. 

The 2019 guilty verdict was upheld on March 30 after being appealed by the defense attorneys and the prosecution.

A decade-long investigation by German authorities found that Heckler & Koch employees wilfully ignored federal restrictions prohibiting the company’s guns from reaching the Mexican states of Guerrero, Chiapas, Chihuahua and Jalisco because of reported human rights violations there. A Mexico-based human rights organization alleges the military got hush money to look the other way for the guns to enter Mexico smoothly. A top company executive attempted to bribe German lawmakers to expedite its Mexico export permits, it has also emerged. 

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The still-unsolved forced disappearances of 43 teaching students in Mexico’s Guerrero state was condemned both at home and abroad, as was the Mexican’s government’s investigation into it. The incident also put Heckler & Koch in the spotlight when it emerged that local law enforcement reportedly used the company’s G36 assault rifles, which it sold to Mexico’s Ministry of Defense despite Germany’s government restrictions. Between 2006 and 2009, some 4,200 G36 assault rifles were exported to Mexico by the manufacturer.

That wasn’t the first time Heckler & Koch’s firearms surfaced in controversial crackdowns at the hands of Mexican law enforcement.

Before that, in December 2011, federal, state and municipal police ambushed a protest headed by students from the same teaching school in Ayotzinapa, this time on the Mexico-Acapulco highway, which left two teenagers dead. At the crime scene, investigators found rounds of another one of Heckler & Koch’s assault rifles, the G3, which Mexico currently imports and also manufactured locally at least until 1998 thanks to a licensed production agreement with the German arms manufacturer.

The case highlights how although some 70 percent of guns seized in Mexico can be traced to the U.S., arms from other countries are also ending up in the hands of the country’s armed actors – both state agents and organized crime.

John Lindsay-Poland, coordinator at Stop US Arms to Mexico, says many foreign arms manufacturers establish operations in the U.S. because they can license their exports with more lax requirements.

“SEDENA [the Mexican Ministry of Defense] is not telling the exporter governments where the actual end users are – it is only telling the exporting companies,” he says.

Mexico’s military holds a monopoly over firearms, according to Lindsay-Poland. SEDENA imports, produces, seizes and sells practically every weapon in the country to police and private security while it also controls the arms registry and issues carry licenses, which are very hard to get for an average Mexican.

Weapons from the Mexican military bleed into the hands of the police as well as organized crime, be they firearms that were imported or seized guns that are resold onto the black market, Lindsay-Poland says. Local police corruption and collusion with organized crime, as well as the military’s lack of transparency regarding military-grade weapons, is a reality.

“[Exporting countries] really need to have some kind of end use system and standards of certification,” Lindsay-Poland says. “‘We’re not going to sell weapons to Al-Qaeda, we’re not going to sell weapons to Isis, we’re not going to sell weapons to the cartel nor to organizations that are collaborating with them’. There has to be some kind of mechanism to implement that standard.”

Local human rights organizations want stricter import controls but also more internal scrutiny of the Mexican army’s weapons manufacturing and sales to local law enforcement.

“We’ve had these conversations with SEDENA before where we’re like ‘you keep selling the weapons to the SSP [state security forces] in Guerrero, who are clearly in bed with organized crime’. And they’re like ‘well, yeah, but we really can’t suspend these weapons from them’,” Lindsay-Poland said. “SEDENA is not going to tell a [municipal, state] police force they can’t buy weapons.”

Last year, the most commonly seized weapon from criminal groups operating in Mexico by SEDENA was the Barrett .50. The army is looking to manufacture a .50 analog locally, threatening to worsen this trend. In October 2019, Sinaloa cartel henchmen wielded Barrett’s undeterred in Culiacan’s streets, and repelled efforts by the Mexican government to detain one of the sons of Joaquín “el Chapo” Guzmán.  

Activists have criticized Mexico President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s reliance on Mexico’s military. They are concerned that his militarized police force, the National Guard, has access to the army’s arsenal. There are also legitimate worries that López Obrador is not going to question the military’s lack of transparency in light of the recent case of former General Salvador Cienfuegos, who headed the Ministry of Defense during the Ayotzinapa massacre. 

After being arrested on drug trafficking charges in the U.S, Cienfuegos was returned to Mexico on the agreement that he would be investigated. But he was cleared of all potential wrongdoing within weeks. 

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