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The German arms company Heckler & Koch is accused of illegally shipping G36 firearms to Mexico. Those rifles, once considered elite, were used by the Iguala police the night the 43 students disappeared. Six former H&K employees are facing charges. More important, stronger export rules for small firearms may be coming to Germany.
Checking out Jürgen Grässlin’s website, it’s easy to dismiss him as a peacenik and leftist nerd. It’s an odd mix of press photos, family pictures, media articles, and citations, emphasized by a variety of colors, styles and sizes. This emphatic guy sure seems to have a lot to tell the world.
As a matter of fact, he does.
His website may seem like a journey back in time, but Grässlin’s work is always up-to-date and Germany’s most prominent anti-arms activist is in it for the long haul. He just celebrated an important victory. On Nov. 5, six former employees of the German arms company Heckler & Koch (H&K) were charged with breaching the War Weapons Control Act by participating in the illegal shipments of German G36 firearms to Mexico from 2006 to 2009.
“There wouldn’t be any charges against anybody if it hadn’t been for the help of the media,” says Grässlin’s lawyer, Holger Rothbauer.
Some German media outlets have been following the case for years now. As far back as 2013 they reported how G36 rifles were allegedly used by the Mexican police during the blockade of a highway by Ayotzinapa students in the state of Guerrero, leaving two dead in 2011. However, it wasn’t until September 2014 that the case gained momentum.
The news of the forced disappearance of 43 Ayotzinapa teachers college students made headlines around the world. Shortly afterward, it emerged that the local police wielded German G36 firearms the night of the disappearances.
On a visit to Mexico in spring 2015, Christoph Strässer, the commissioner for human rights policy and humanitarian aid of the German government, apologized to the families of the victims for the apparent use of German firearms in the crime. In October of 2015, German public television broadcast for an entire night documentaries and a well-received docudrama on H&K’s fraudulent arms deal. The program was called “Deadly Exports.”
Now there are charges against six former H&K employees.
Grässlin had been waiting for this day for more than five years. In April 2010, he filed charges against H&K for illegal shipments of G36 firearms from Germany to Mexico. The year before, a whistleblower had approached him to tell him about the alleged illegal shipments.
After finding out about these irregularities, the whistleblower working for H&K quit. Grässlin was skeptical at first: “I had to be cautious,” he says. “It could well have been an attempt by H&K to spy on me.”
What might seem like a paranoia can be better understood in the light of Grässlin’s long record of fighting against different German arms companies, one of them being H&K. During 30 years as an anti-arms activist, he has written several books and countless articles about the German arms industry.
Right now, Grässlin is proceeding with seven different charges he has filed against different German arms producers and German authorities. He and the whistleblower met several times, and finally he was convinced.
“The man seemed to have a remarkable memory, his information was very precise,” Grässlin recalls.
He filed the charges, and the whistleblower who approached him in 2009 will be a key witness in the trial.
However, the case is not just about illegal shipments of German firearms to Mexico. It’s much more complicated than that – and it’s an example of German love for rules and decrees, and of its bureaucratic understanding of the world.
In the early 2000s, H&K had made a deal with a sub-agency of the Mexican Defense Secretariat, called the DCAM (Dirección de Comercialización de Armamento y Municiones). The DCAM coordinates the acquisition of all arms and ammunition used by different bodies of the Army and the police nationwide. DCAM was impressed by H&K’s G36 rifle, with its reputation as a masterpiece of German engineering and precision. They decided to order the weapon.
H&K applied for the export permit for the first shipment of 2,020 G36 firearms to Mexico in 2005. Despite the Foreign Office’s concerns about human rights violations by authorities in Mexico, the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy approved H&K’s request.
A compromise was struck: The export permit was approved as long as four Mexican states were excluded from receiving them. These four were Chiapas, Guerrero, Jalisco, and Chihuahua. H&K presented the necessary End-Use-Certificates (EUC) to the Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy. The EUC certified that the weapons were to be exported to all Mexican states but those four.
However, the whistleblower told Jürgen Grässlin a different story. In a book published by Grässlin and two co-authors, the whistleblower claims that DCAM was sending the weapons to state police forces in the whole country – and that H&K knew about it.
So in 2011, Wolf-Dieter Vogel, a German journalist who has covered the G36-deal with Mexico for the German daily Die Tageszeitung made an inquiry to the Mexican National Institute of Transparency, Access to Information and Protection of Personal Data (INAI). Vogel received a list with the final destinations of the weapons shipment, which confirmed what the whistleblower had told Grässlin. According to the information from the INAI, half of the overall shipment of G36 rifles went to police forces in the four forbidden Mexican states.
To Vogel, the End-Use-Certificates don’t make any sense.
“It went totally out of control,” says the journalist. “Even if the weapons had been delivered to Mexican states included in the export permit, they might end up in the hands of organized crime.”
Says Vogel, “Excluding only four Mexican states for their poor human rights record is a strange and arbitrary thing to do. What happens to other states like Sinaloa or Oaxaca that were heavily affected by the war on drugs, too?”
The journalist also investigated which arms were used in the police attacks of Ayotzinapa students during a highway blockade in 2011, as well as in Iguala in September 2014. In addition to the 43 disappeared that night, three other students and three bystanders were shot and killed.
“In both cases, the police forces involved were wearing G36 rifles,” says Vogel. “That is 100 percent confirmed. What we don’t know for sure is whether or not these arms were used to shoot the students.”
To Mathias John, a weapons expert for the human rights NGO Amnesty International, whether these students were shot with G36 rifles is “irrelevant.”
The real problem, he says, is the deal itself.
“H&K did business with Mexico, a country notorious for its human rights violations, and the German government was perfectly fine with that,” says John. “The German authorities knew about the human rights situation in Mexico, and they knew that the End-Use-Certificates were not worth the paper they were written on.”
When it became clear that German authorities had turned a blind eye to what was happening with the rifles they sold to Mexico, Grasslin’s lawyer Holger Rothbauer also filed charges in November 2012 against the Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs and Energy and its sub-agency, the Federal Office for Economic Affairs and Export Control.
While former H&K employees will most likely be put on trial for the illegal shipments, it is highly unlikely that the German authorities will be held accountable for their actions.
“There are no preliminary proceedings against German authorities due to a lack of probable cause,” says Claudia Krauth, a spokeswoman in the prosecutor’s office of Stuttgart where Rothbauer filed the charges.
In the face of increased media coverage and subsequent public pressure, a change was seen in March 2015. The German federal government adopted a more restrictive policy called the “Smalls Arms Principles” that regulates the issuance of licenses for the export of small and light weapons, related ammunition and corresponding manufacturing equipment to third countries that are not members of either the EU or NATO.
“The Federal government has adopted the most restrictive export control regulations it has ever had,” a spokesman of the Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs and Energy in Berlin says.
The most important improvement, however, may be the introduction of Post-Shipment-Controls. They task German authorities with controlling the compliance of recipient states to End-Use-Certificates. This compliance will be tracked by on-site controls with the help of German embassies.
In the case of the G36 shipments, for example, according to this new regulation, the German government would have been able to officially control the end use of the weapons.
“Among other reasons, these new and more restrictive regulations are a consequence of the scandals of the past,” says the ministry spokesman. This achievement was accomplished in the wake of the 2010 ban of small weapons exports to Mexico.
Yet skepticism remains. Jan van Aken, member of Parliament in Berlin and spokesman for external affairs for the left-wing party Die Linke, is not convinced by the new regulations of the German federal government.
“It’s the right approach, but at the same time they’re creating new loopholes,” says van Aken. “What we need is a general ban for the export of arms, and we should start with small arms.”
The German MP is confident that his plan will eventually come true. “There is no rational argument whatsoever in favor of the export of small arms,” says van Aken. Right now, public pressure and the media are on his side.
An argument that may be even more appealing to all German parliamentary parties is that the export of small arms has little economic impact on the German economy. However, this is not how individual companies see it.
“Germany does not lose anything by prohibiting the export of small arms,” says Christine Hoffmann, spokeswoman for Aktion Aufschrei, a German campaign to stop the arms trade, “but for each company, there’s a lot at stake.”
Meanwhile, it’s not just the trial and a possible conviction of its former employees that Heckler & Koch is facing. Far worse, the rifle itself, once the masterpiece of German engineering, has fallen from grace with the German army. According to classified tests presented to the German defense minister, when the G36 overheats, its precision and accuracy suffer. As a result, the Federal Ministry of Defense is looking for a new rifle with which to equip its army.
At the end of the day, not only did the Heckler & Koch deal backfire, but Mexican police authorities are left with a gun that cannot live up to its reputation of tenacity and precision.