Heckler & Koch’s G-36 Rifles in Mexico


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Introduction
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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. 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. German prosecutors have declined to bring charges associated with domestic bribery, while the investigation into foreign bribery continues. In early 2019, a Stuttgart court fined H&K EUR 3.7 million for violating arms export laws while acquitting senior executives of individual responsibility.


Case details
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Seller country: Germany
Seller company: Heckler & Koch
Buyer country: Mexico
Goods category: Small Arms & Light Weapons
Equipment sold: 4,500 G-36 rifles
Deal value: EUR 4.1 million
Start year: 2006
End year: 2019
Outcome status: Mixed

Dramatis Personae
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  • Peter Beyerle – CEO of H&K during the alleged arms export violations, previously a career judge of a regional court; tried for arms export violations and acquitted.

  • 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.


Summary of Corruption Allegations
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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.


Timeline
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  • 2006

    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.


Investigation Outcomes
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  • Apr 2010

    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. 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.

  • Dec 2010

    H&K was raided by German customs officials, leading to the confiscation of company files related to the whistleblower’s allegations.

  • Aug 2014

    The customs investigation produced a report which was sent on to prosecutors’ office in Stuttgart in, 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.

  • Jan 2017

    Prosecutors decidednot 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.

  • May 2018

    Six H&K officials, including former CEO Peter Beyerle, were placed on trial for violations of arms export laws. One of the defendants, Markus Bantle, H&K’s sales representative in Mexico, did not return to Germany to face judgment. In the course of the trial, prosecutors called as witnesses 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.

  • Feb 2019

    The Stuttgart court fined H&K EUR 3.7 million for arms export violations, while handing down suspended sentences to two administrators at H&K. Beyerle and the other co-defendents were acquitted. Prosecutors were unsuccessful in convincing the judge that Beyerle had directed one of the convicted administrators to write a post-it note instructing that “Guerrero has to be taken out” of an end-user certificate.


References
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  • World Peace Foundation - Compendium of Arms Trade Corruption, https://sites.tufts.edu/corruptarmsdeals/heckler-kochs-g-36-rifles-in-mexico/

  • Jürgen Grässlin and María-Eugenia L. Valencia, “The Illegal Mexico-Deal – The Export of Thousands of G36-Assaultrifles by Heckler & Koch into Mexican Regions of Conflict,” Global Net, website, n.d., https://www.gn-stat.org/english/cases/mexiko-kf-eng/.

  • Achim Reinhardt and Thomas Reutter, “Wie Heckler & Koch politische Landschaftspflege betreibt,” Report Mainz (online), Dec. 13, 2011, https://www.swr.de/report/wie-heckler-koch-politische-landschaftspflege-betreibt-waffengeschaefte-fuer-parteispenden/-/id=233454/did=8940914/nid=233454/h1vrtk/index.html.

  • Gabriel Borrud, “Heckler & Koch G36: the rifle held in all the wrong places,” Deutsche Welle (online), Apr. 23, 2015, https://www.dw.com/en/heckler-koch-g36-the-rifle-held-in-all-the-wrong-places/a-18402772.

  • “H&K metió ilegalmente 4,767 armas a Guerrero, Chihuahua, Jalisco y Chiapas: informe final,” Sin Embargo (online), May 7, 2015, http://www.sinembargo.mx/07-05-2015/1338030.