Six former employees of gunmaker Heckler & Koch went to trial in Germany on charges of illegally exporting assault rifles to strife-torn regions of Mexico. The guns were used in numerous civilian murders, including the 43 high school students in Iguala who were kidnapped in 2014 and presumably murdered by drug gangs.
The trial is unprecedented in Germany, which discreetly exports hundreds of thousands of firearms each year to armies and police forces, but also to civilians. While the charges hinge on the technicalities of export licenses, there is a pronounced political component as well because of the civilian deaths. Protesters holding photos of the murdered high school students displayed machine guns on sheets smeared with fake blood outside the courthouse in Stuttgart.
The trial involves two former executives and four former sales personnel at the gunmaker. One of the ex-managers is a 78-year-old former judge at a state court in southwestern Germany. Another defendant – a sales manager in Mexico – will be tried separately after he said his health prevented him from traveling to Germany for the trial.
The trial involves 4,700 G36 assault rifles manufactured by Heckler & Koch and exported to Mexico in the period from 2006 to 2009 for €4.1 million ($4.9 million). Although Mexico was deemed largely unfit for arms exports because of the drug wars, an export license was granted on the condition that the guns not go to the four provinces with the most strife – Chiapas, Chihuaha, Jalisco and Guerrero. So-called “end-user certification” was supposed to ensure the guns went only where permitted.
However, all weapons imports for police are handled by a central authority in Mexico, which apparently distributed them without regard for the banned provinces. The question at the trial is to what extent the former Heckler & Koch employees were complicit in this violation of the export license.
Critics have contended that the German export authorities themselves should be in the dock for granting a license on conditions that were scarcely enforceable. Stuttgart prosecutors briefly followed this line of investigation but quickly gave it up.
The controversial exports first came to light when anti-gun activist Jürgen Grässlin filed a criminal complaint in 2010 on a tip from an H&K whistleblower. Even though the role of the H&K guns in the high school kidnapping was proven by 2015, it has still taken years to bring the suspects to trial.
Mr. Grässlin and fellow activist Holger Rothbauer, a lawyer, are concerned the Stuttgart judge might be bending over backwards on behalf of his former colleague. For instance, a star witness who was an H&K arms dealer in Mexico at the time and who could describe things in detail won’t be appearing in the trial. “This is all about saving an honorable member of the bench,” said Mr. Rothbauer.
Martin-Werner Buchenau is a Stuttgart correspondent for Handelsblatt. Lars-Marten Nagel is an investigative reporter. Darrell Delamaide, a Washington, DC-based editor for Handelsblatt Global, adapted this story into English. To contact the authors: [email protected] and [email protected].