Former employees from German gun company Heckler and Koch face charges in German court for illegal deals with Mexico. But were government officials complicit?
BERLIN — On Sept. 26, 2014, about 10,000 kilometers west of Germany, one of the most heinous crimes in memory was committed. Police in the Mexican university town of Ayotzinapa, in the southwestern state of Guerrero, shot dead six people, and kidnapped 43 others. Those 43 students remain missing to this day, and are widely believed to have been handed over to one of the Mexican drug cartels, and murdered.
At first glance, it may not be immediately clear how these events, which took place in a Latin American country ravaged by drug wars, are related to peacetime Germany. But they are. The Mexican police in Ayotzinapa had used G36 rifles, which are manufactured by Heckler & Koch in Germany.
These arms, produced in the southern German town of Oberndorf am Neckar, should have never even been exported to Mexico in the first place. Although Heckler & Koch was permitted to supply rifles to Mexico since 2006, it was prohibited from selling them to areas most affected by that country's ongoing drug wars, where even police officers collude with the Mexican mob. Places such as Guerrero.
Since 2010, German investigators have probed arms deals that took place with Mexico between 2006 and 2009. Up until last October, the district attorney in Stuttgart led the investigation into six employees of Heckler & Koch for allegedly breaching German arms exporting laws. A court last month ruled that the case could proceed.
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HK G36 — Photo: Sonaz
This could be a fascinating case because it involves highly explosive and politically charged topics. How much responsibility does the federal government bear for this illegal weapons trade? Did employees of the economics and foreign ministry help Heckler & Koch circumvent regulation?
In 2012, Holger Rothbauer, a Tübingen-based lawyer, brought criminal charges against civil servants involved in the case, arguing that not only were the suppliers liable but so were the people who allowed the exports to take place. But back then, when Rothbauer's charges were first filed, even the preliminary proceedings in the case against Heckler & Koch had not begun.
Rothbauer says he expects Heckler & Koch to blame the government as part of their legal defense strategy. "Everything will be brought to light then," he said. "It is simply not possible for Heckler & Koch to have hid the actual destination of the weapons by itself. They must have had help from civil servants."
Hans-Christian Ströbele, a Green party lawmaker, says he is surprised that people involved in the deals, who work in the Foreign Office and other ministries, have not been charged. As for the former Heckler & Koch employees, it took six years to bring about a lawsuit since the charges were filed. "I was counsel for the defense for 30 years and have never experienced such a delay in proceedings," said Ströbele. "And this makes me very, very suspicious."
Did authorities deliberately drag out proceedings so that the crimes would become immune to prosecution by the statute of limitations? Ströbele thinks ties between the arms manufacturers and local politicians in southern Germany could be an explanation.
At the same time, criminal charges were filed in April against critics of the arms manufacturer. Jürgen Grässlin, Daniel Harrich and Danuta Harrich-Zandberg, authors of the book "Network of Death," which probes Heckler & Koch, are accused of revealing secret information from the investigation.
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Heckler & Koch facilities in Oberndorf am Neckar. — Photo: Aspiriniks
In the indictment, which Die Welt has read, the six former Heckler & Koch employees are accused of having intentionally exported weapons including 4,702 G36 rifles worth 4.1 million euros to the provinces of Guerrero, Jalisco, Chiapas and Chihuahua, without the necessary permits.
Heckler & Koch declined to comment and has, so far, denied any wrongdoing.
The arms manufacturer, no doubt, is in a precarious position going forward. Die Welt has found that critics want Heckler & Koch to be graded as an untrustworthy exporter by the Federal Office for Economic Affairs and Export Control because of the legal proceedings taking place. If that attempt is successful, Heckler & Koch's global business would be paralysed.
In the worst case scenario for Heckler & Koch, federal agencies would reject all their export applications as was the case in 2014 with competitor Sig Sauer, a handgun company that was also accused of exporting illegal weapons. Such a move could be disastrous for Heckler & Koch.