Since the 1990s, German authorities had concerns that German small arms could be used to commit human rights violations in Mexico. As one of the world’s leading small arms manufacturers, however, Heckler & Koch (H&K) had a different fear: falling behind its American competitors in the Mexican market. To square this circle, H&K coached the Mexican procurement agency to eliminate from its end-user certifications references to certain federal states in Mexico where the risk of human rights violations were particularly high and to promise not to transfer German rifles into those states, according to witnesses. A whistleblower brought this plan to the attention of prosecutors, but also made a more incendiary accusation: that the company had bribed German politicians and Mexican officials in order to smooth the way for the rifle exports. German prosecutors have declined to bring charges associated with domestic bribery, while the investigation into foreign bribery continues. In 2014, a number of H&K rifles were discovered and associated with the kidnapping and assassination of 43 students in Iguala, a town in Guerrero state—one of the four which Mexican officials had promised would not receive H&K weapons.
Seller: Heckler & Koch (Germany)
Year of Deals: 2006 to 2009
Equipment Sold: 4,500 G-36 rifles
Value of Deals: EUR 4.1 million
Sum involved in corruption allegations:
EUR 20,000 to German politicians
Unknown amount to Mexican officials
Peter Beyerle – CEO of H&K during the alleged arms export violations, previously a career judge of a regional court; on trial for arms export violations.
Markus Bantle – H&K’s sales agent in Mexico and key player in the suspected bribery and arms export violations; remains in Mexico despite standing trial alongside Beyerle.
Humberto Alfonso Guillermo Aguilar – retired major general in the Mexican army and former senior defense official; named as a suspected bribe recipient by German investigators.
The Arms Deal
The accusations against H&K pertain to sixteen shipments of G-36 rifles sold to the Mexican government between 2006 and 2009, totaling around 4,500 rifles. It is unclear how many of these rifles were re-transferred to the four states of human rights concern. A leaked 2014 report by the Customs Criminal Office in Cologne found separately that of 9,472 total rifles sold by H&K to Mexico between 2003 and 2011, 4,767 had been transferred to the four states—namely Chiapas, Chihuahua, Guerrero, and Jalisco. The report estimated that H&K earned about EUR 3 million in revenue from the diverted guns. The G-36 is a light assault rifle used by the Germany army as its standard infantry weapon. It has received criticism for performing inaccurately under hot weather conditions—including in Afghanistan where it served German troops poorly in several extended firefights—but is nonetheless used by militaries ranging “from Spain to Brazil and Indonesia.”
The Corruption Allegations
The investigations were prompted by an H&K whistleblower who approached peace activist Jürgen Grässlin with accusations against the firm. A lawyer representing Grässlin and the whistleblower filed a criminal complaint in April 2010.
While the main focus of prosecutions in Germany has been on whether H&K violated arms exports regulations, the investigation by the Stuttgart prosecutor was originally also interested in H&K donations to two German political parties, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Free Democratic Party (FDP). At the time, the CDU (along with its Bavarian sister-party, the Christian Social Union, or CSU) ruled Germany in a coalition with the FDP as its junior partner. In spring 2010, H&K made donations of EUR 5,000 to two FDP parliamentarians, Ernst Burgbacher and Elke Hoff, as well as EUR 10,000 to the CDU politician Volker Kauder. Burgbacher was a junior minister (parliamentary deputy secretary, or Parlamentarischer Staatssekretär) at the Economy Ministry, which had responsibility for issuing export licenses and Hoff was the FDP’s defense policy spokesperson. Volker Kauder, in addition to representing H&K’s home electoral district of Rottweil-Tuttlingen, was also the leader of the CDU/CSU parliamentary faction in the Bundestag.
The Stuttgart prosecutor’s office has also named a retired Mexican officer, General de División (Major General) Humberto Alfonso Guillermo Aguilar, as a suspected bribe recipient. Aguilar, who reached his highest position as the sub-secretary of the Office for National Defense, allegedly received a bribe of USD 25 per rifle and USD 20 per pistol sold to Mexico while he was the head of the national agency in charge of procuring and distributing firearms. It is unknown if Mexican authorities have initiated an investigation into Aguilar.
The Investigation and Outcomes
H&K was raided by German customs officials in December 2010, leading to the confiscation of company files related to the whistleblower’s allegations. The customs investigation produced a report which was sent on to prosecutors’ office in Stuttgart in August 2014, recommending that H&K be charged for arms export violations. The accusations of bribery were also boosted by the discovery of internal H&K communications in which the company’s CEO in 2010, Peter Beyerle, emphasized the “political route” before asking H&K’s advisory council to make the donations. Prosecutors decided in January 2017 not to charge H&K employees with domestic bribery on the grounds that the arms export violations were a more serious charge and should receive priority. They also noted that investigators lacked any evidence to charge politicians with corruption offences. This decision, along with the choice not to pursue an investigation of government officials who issued the licenses, has come under criticism from Grässlin, the peace activist. A German investigation continues, however, into whether H&K executives committed foreign bribery in Mexico.
Six H&K officials, including former CEO Peter Beyerle, were placed on trial in May 2018. They face between one and ten years in jail for each count of violating arms export regulations between 2006 and 2009, and H&K faces a fine as well. One of the defendants, Markus Bantle, H&K’s sales representative in Mexico, has not returned to face trial. The prosecutors have called officials at the foreign ministry, responsible for reviewing and approving the licenses, and the economics ministry, responsible for issuing the licenses, as witnesses. The witnesses suggest that H&K instructed Mexican officials to edit their license applications in order to remove references to the four Mexican states of concern, knowing that this would trigger delays or a rejection from the foreign ministry. The defendants have argued that the final licenses did not straightforwardly prohibit the transfer of weapons to the four states; they have also tried to shift blame to Axel Haas, an H&K sales executive who died in 2015. The trial is likely to run through September 2018.
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