Gewehre, everywhere- German weapons in Latin America

Armaments found in Latin America have troubling sources. Image (Colombia Reports)

Reading Latin American newspapers does not make for the most uplifting start of a day. Gang wars, missing or supposedly killed students, or the perpetual battle over market shares by drug cartels dominate the mostly-sensationalist news coverage on the region. Christmas, however, came early on December 17 last year for millions of Cubans and Latinos.

After a cautious handshake between Barack Obama and Raúl Castro at Nelson Mandela’s funeral in December 2013, the two presidents announced the beginning of a new era in their deadlocked diplomacy. It would appear that Obama was finally using his second term to pick up some arguments for an enduring legacy of his tenure as President of the United States. But while people in Havana were taking to the streets, cheering Que Viva Cuba Libre!, another major event flooded newspapers, triggering fears for peace in the region.

According to reports, owing to the presence of las FARC – the originally-Marxist guerrilla group that has kept Colombia in a state of conflict for the past 50 years – most Colombians have not had a single day of peace in their own country. This explains why despite previous setbacks, the group’s announcement of an indefinite unilateral ceasefire last December raised the country’s hopes. While The Economist’s observation that the FARC is “in effect negotiating the most advantageous terms for its surrender” might be a tad too optimistic, as argued earlier by InPRA´s Alex Chunet, the FARC seems to have indeed lost ground in the past decade.

Multiple policy makers and presidents in the country have, in the past, tried to defeat las FARC with generous military support from the United States (read Plan Colombia). Unsurprisingly, however, due to the remote retreat areas of the guerrillas in the Colombian jungle close to the border to Venezuela, these endeavours have proven impossible. The Colombian armed forces as well as the police were, however, not only equipped with pistols and rifles from the US, but also by one of the biggest arms manufacturers in Germany: Sig Sauer.

Is the developed world complicit in the conflicts across Latin America as a supplier?

One would be hard-pressed to imagine Germany – as Europe’s economic engine and a founding member of the Nobel Peace Prize-awarded European Union – to be involved in arms deliveries to (civil) war-torn countries. Yet, as the third biggest producer of weapons worldwide, Germany´s – and thus Europe´s – economy relies heavily on its weapon export. However, according to German legislation, it is prohibited from exporting weapons in countries with “armed internal conflict and in situations of sufficient suspicion of abuse to inner repression or enduring systematic human rights violations”.

However, according to investigative reports by leading German news agencies, including SZ, WDR and NDR, Sig Sauer circumvented this law and facilitated the deadly conflict in Colombia, which has till date caused an estimated 220,000 deaths and more than five million displacements.

Reports say that P2220 pistols or SSG 3000 sniper rifles were first sent to the partner corporation Sig Sauer Inc. in the United States with the official restraint that they would exclusively serve the domestic market. However, the Colombian armed forces and police forces relied on inter alia German arms as confirmed by officials from the Colombian Defence Ministry, thereby deliberately breaking German law.

Were German rifles involved in the disappearance of 43 Mexican students?

And this was not the only case. In 2007, the German Federal Office for Economics and Export Control (BAFA) allowed the biggest German arms producer, Heckler & Koch, to export 9,500 G36 assault rifles to Mexico. It restricted the deal to non-conflict states, thereby excluding the Mexican states of Chiapas, Chihuahua, Jalisco and Guerrero. Despite these conditions, a couple of weeks ago, the Mexican state confiscated 36 Heckler & Koch rifles in Iguala, Guerrero. Another German newspaper, Die Tageszeitung, reported that these weapons had allegedly been used in the killing of six persons on September 26th, 2014, after the local police and the Guererros Unidos (United Fighters) stopped a bus with 43 prospective teachers on their way to demonstrations.

The 43 have been missing ever since.

Following these events, 19 policemen have been detained and 228 arms seized, out of which 36 rifles carry the Heckler & Koch label, according to the Mexican prosecutor.

This report adds to the criticism which the German government has received over the past years from Human Rights groups and the opposition for its arms exports to regions with a fragile security environment.

Rethinking and employing tougher control mechanisms for one of its major industries would add to more positive reports in Latin American newspapers. If Obama and the FARC can both break decade-long traditions, Germany can do so as well.

Simon schmitz

Simon schmitz

Junior Policy Analyst at InRA
Simon Schmitz was born in Germany and lived in Bolivia, the Netherlands and Austria. After completing his BA in European Studies at Maastricht University,Simon extended his perspective beyond the European continent and focused on the interconnections between Europe and Latin America. During his Erasmus Mundus Global Studies Master at the Universities of Leipzig and Vienna, he focused on challenges of public governance. Simon joins the Latin America department of the OECD in Paris and will continue to share his viewpoints on pressing issues on the Latin American continent and come up with unorthodox topics of regional and geopolitical relevance.
Simon schmitz