Heckler & Koch Fined for Illegal Arms Sales in Mexico

Mexican Navy soldiers use Heckler & Koch during a training drill with the U.S. Navy. (U.S. Navy Communications)

Mexican Navy soldiers use Heckler & Koch during a training drill with the U.S. Navy. (U.S. Navy Communications)

German gun manufacturer Heckler & Koch (H&K) was fined $4.2 million on February 21 after being found guilty of exporting assault rifles to Mexican states experiencing cartel violence. Though the court acquitted the two CEOs heading the company at the time of the illegal sales, the fine could exacerbate the financial troubles of Germany’s largest gunmaker.

The allegations against H&K, admired by armies and police forces worldwide due to the quality of their products, were originally uncovered by the whistleblower Global Net – Stop the Arms Trade in 2010, then published in the German periodical Süddeutsche Zeitung. The manufacturer exported over 4,700 G36 assault rifles – valued at about $4.2 million – and almost 2,000 accessories to the states of Jalisco, Chiapas, Chihuahua, and Guerrero between the years 2006 and 2009.

German arms manufacturers are banned from distributing weapons in these areas due to intense drug cartel violence and corrupt police forces, yet it appears that the Mexican Defense Ministry was not made aware of this violation of the ban because these states were omitted in the end-use declaration. It is suspected that a batch of the arms were used in the 2014 massacre of 43 students in Iguala, Guerrero, though families of the victims were blocked from testifying in the trial.  

Global Net and anti-arms trade activist Jürgen Grässlin, who initially pressed charges, sought prison sentences for two of the five charged defendants, who were implicated by an email showing attempts to influence the end-use declaration. Grässlin also sought to expose the loopholes and irregularities in German arms export laws, remarking that “it [has become] frighteningly clear that the arms export control regime in Germany is not worth the paper it is written on.”

The trial demonstrated that H&K did not request that the Mexican Defense Ministry guarantee the destination of the sold arms not be the four states banned under German law and that H&K knew the answers offered by the Mexican authorities were not reliable.

The Stuttgart court found sales department manager Ingo S. and clerical worker Marianne B. guilty and sentenced them to abbreviated prison sentences, but acquitted Peter B., a former CEO, whose relationship with the government export authority “[not] leave a paper trail” according to former Left party MP Jan van Aken. Officials in the Economic Affairs Ministry admitted to working to protect H&K, as they “deemed protecting H&K to be in the government’s interest” as the company supplies the German military with arms.

The Stuttgart court narrowed the scope of the trial by eliminating the use of the arms of in Mexico from the legal focus, earning strong rebuke from the prosecutors. Grässlin lamented that “the disregard of victims has shaped the trial.” Irrespective of this disregard, the verdict – a fine equivalent to the value of all items sold to Mexico, not just of profits – is being lauded as a rare win against a powerful weapons company.