The scandal currently embroiling Germany's biggest small arms manufacturer is becoming more and more difficult to contain. Heckler & Koch (H&K) stands accused of illegally exporting handguns and automatic rifles to embargoed regions of Mexico in the grip of a deadly drugs war, and of deceiving the Federal Security Council, chaired by Chancellor Angela Merkel, the government committee that adjudicates sensitive export contracts.
H&K's headquarters near Stuttgart in southern Germany were searched by around 20 police officers late last month. The company vehemently denies any wrongdoing, and in a statement released on the same day as the search, said, "Heckler & Koch has for a long time and will continue to cooperate fully with state prosecutors. The company and its management are convinced that the accusations do not withstand a thorough legal examination."
The police catches up
The police investigation was triggered by a legal complaint brought back in April by Juergen Graesslin, an anti-weapons activist and spokesman for the German Peace Association (DFG-VK) who has been researching H&K for over 27 years.
The fact that the police only searched the H&K offices in December brings an amused smile from Graesslin. "I'd say they weren't overworked during those eight months," he says. Stuttgart state prosecutors apparently only began to move the investigation forward once the case was made public, primarily by news magazine Der Spiegel and state broadcaster ARD.
After ARD's broadcast on December 13, members of the German parliament demanded that state prosecutors do something. Hans-Christian Stroebele, Green party parliamentarian and one politician to raise concerns about H&K, agrees with Graesslin. "I expect the broadcast gave the state prosecutors another prod," he told Deutsche Welle.
The current investigation represents a major breakthrough for Graesslin, because for the first time his research into the company has been augmented by the written testimony of an anonymous H&K whistleblower.
Graesslin has spent the best of three decades collecting evidence of the ubiquity of H&K's guns. He believes they are everywhere. The rifle in the logo of the German 1970s terrorist organization Rote Armee Fraktion (RAF), for instance, is an H&K MP5.
H&K insists that, in accordance with German export law, it never delivers weapons to terrorist groups or to embargoed countries that abuse human rights. But it is clear that H&K weapons consistently end up in the wrong hands. Graesslin says, "There is verifiable evidence that nearly every single terrorist organization you can think of uses Heckler & Koch weapons."
"The difference is, before I was always looking from the outside and saying, 'Oh, I see that Heckler & Koch weapons are being used here,'" Graesslin told Deutsche Welle. "But I've never had anyone from inside the company telling me how it happened. Now I've got someone who can tell me about the exact number of weapons, and the exact $25 (19 euros) bribe per G36. That's sensational."
The informant's testimony allegedly points to hard evidence that H&K has been making illegal deals.
Militarizing the Mexican drug war
The current scandal concerns the sale of over 8,000 G36 rifles to the Mexican police between 2006 and 2009. Graesslin's insider says that an unknown number of these extremely accurate, state-of-the-art weapons were sold to the police in four key Mexican states - Chiapas, Chihuahua, Guerrero und Jalisco. Unlike Mexico's 27 other states, these four have been embargoed by the German government as areas where human rights abuses take place. Selling weapons to these areas therefore contravenes German export law.
For Graesslin, Germany's distinction between Mexican states is a little arbitrary. "It's absurd because the human rights situation in the other 27 states is in many cases just as bad as in the four 'crisis' ones," he says. "It's really a scandal anyway. We have political principles that forbid delivering weapons to countries that disregard human rights, so we shouldn't be exporting to Mexico at all."
The Mexican drug war has become increasingly militarized in the past few years. Since 2006, Mexican government statistics say the country's drug cartels and the police have killed over 30,000 people between them, over 12,000 in 2010 alone. Amnesty International reports consistently accuse the Mexican police of human rights abuses and corruption.
"Of course I believe in a democratic state having a police force and in arming the police," says Graesslin. "I do realize that some of the world's biggest drug wars are being fought in Mexico, and you can't just go in waving balloons. But if you export to this region and you know from Amnesty International that the police there are highly corrupt, then you know that it's just a matter of time before the drug mafia get their hands on G36's."
Graesslin's informant says that H&K's travel and hotel accounts show that their employees went to the banned states, and he says they trained policemen with the G36. The informant also says H&K paid General Aguilar, at the time responsible for the Mexican state weapons purchasing body DCAM (Direccion de Comercializacion de Armamento y Municiones), $25 for every G36 that was sold on into the illegal provinces. "That would be called corruption," says Graesslin. "According to the informant, H&K bribed him to fulfil orders in the banned regions."
These details have, Graesslin claims, already brought one scalp. Peter Beyerle, H&K's war weapons control officer resigned early last month, just before the ARD broadcast. H&K says the 70-year-old's resignation was down to his "personal life plans," but Graesslin, pointing out that he still had three years to run on his contract, is sure the growing media attention was making his position untenable.
Beyerle was at the top of the hierarchy when it came to H&K's foreign armaments trade. "The H&K informant told me Beyerle would have been informed of what they did in Mexico," says Graesslin. Unfortunately it was impossible for Deutsche Welle to reach Beyerle or H&K's press spokeswoman Martina Tydecks, despite repeated calls.
Nevertheless, Grasslin believes that once the police has concluded its initial investigations, H&K will face a criminal investigation. "This is really one of the biggest weapons industry scandals in German economic history," he says. "Not in terms of the amount of money involved, but because of the political implications. They didn't just allegedly deceive the Federal Export Office, the official regulatory authority for all exports, but the Federal Security Council, a committee chaired by Angela Merkel as chancellor and which includes eight other ministers."
The Federal Security Council apparently convened twice to deal with H&K's G3 and G36 contracts in Mexico. The first meeting rubberstamped the contract, but prohibited H&K from exporting to the four illegal states. The second dealt with an order for replacement parts for the rifles. "According to my informant, the first orders for the replacement parts came from Chiapas, one of the four banned regions. The police have used the older G3 rifles in Chiapas against demonstrating farmers for years."
The implications could reach the government itself. "Apparently we have a Federal Security Council that just waves through weapons exports, that doesn't seem to take its own political principles on exports seriously," says Graesslin.
Stroebele also believes some of the blame for the deal should fall to the government. "The government should have checked," he says. "They knew that exports to those banned states were illegal."
For the activist, there is one ultimate goal: "It would certainly be a step forward if Mexico were put on a list of embargo countries banned from weapons exports - I mean not just by Germany, but internationally," says Graesslin. "That wouldn't be a solution to the problems in Mexico itself, but at the moment we're just pouring oil in the fire."
Author: Ben Knight
Editor: Rob Mudge