Mexican police might have thought they’d struck gold when a routine patrol back in October unearthed Ovidio Guzmán López, son of jailed drug kingpin El Chapo.
Instead, López’s arrest sparked one of the most audacious displays of narco firepower in recent months. Sinaloa cartel sicarios unleashed chaos on the streets of Culiacán, overwhelming security forces in a ferocious running battle which left eight dead and 20 wounded. Spectacularly outgunned, pinned down by .50-calibre sniper fire and with the wreckage of burning, bullet-ridden vehicles littering a city paralyzed by fear, humiliated authorities were cowed into releasing their quarry.
It’s a well-worn story that such decisive, military-scale cartel action is largely equipped by the seemingly endless iron river of blackmarket firearms trafficked illegally from the United States. But the traditional narrative of American guns flowing south to fuel the cartel wars, which last year contributed to 35,000 homicides, is only part of the picture.
A closer look at munitions intelligence from Armament Research Services (ARES), which analyzed the weapons used by cartel soldiers in Culiacán, points to some of that iron river’s myriad tributaries springing from sources thousands of miles away, far from the massacres, mass graves, and disappearances that punctuate years of narco conflict in Mexico. ARES identified Romanian-made AKs at the Battle of Culiacán, and said an FN Herstal MINIMI light machine gun (Belgian), plus handguns from Beretta (Italian) and Glock (Austrian) were also spotted during the series of firefights that day.
From the safety of gleaming mansions in the foothills of the Italian Alps, government-owned munitions factories in Romania and Belgium, and boardrooms in Austria, Spain, Serbia, and the UK, Europe’s gun makers are reaping the bloody spoils of a catastrophic war on drugs, their weapons arming Mexican soldiers, cops and cartels alike.
Mexico’s Secretariat of National Defence (SEDENA) estimates almost a third of the two million firearms smuggled into the country in the last decade come from Europe. Some begin the journey as licensed exports from the E.U. to the U.S. where, with the help of ‘straw purchasers’ buying guns legally and feeding them to traffickers, they join the 200,000-guns-a-year torrent smuggled south.
Over the course of eight months shopping in a handful of Tucson, Arizona, gun stores and pawn shops, Michael Huynh and girlfriend Katie O’Brien bought enough hardware to tool up a small army.
Their haul of 16 AK-type and two .50-calibre rifles—plus a tripod-mounted machine gun—set them back over $30,000, and they traded the lot with Huynh’s heroin dealer for cash and drugs, who in turn had the guns trafficked to an organized crime gang in Mexico.
Among their stash were three WASR 10 assault rifles built by Romania’s state-owned arms factory, Romarm. This long-standing cartel staple—with its distinctive maplewood hand guard and stock—is regularly imported into the States by Century Arms, one of America’s largest and most controversial gun dealers. Century ignored repeated requests from VICE for comment.
Huynh and O’Brien’s contribution to the violence earned them five years in prison: gun trafficking in the States is not a federal crime, and while straw purchasing is, it tends to attract low sentences. While there’s no telling yet precisely where their guns ended up, the evidence from the Battle of Culiacán shows the significant role European brands play in Mexico’s drug wars.
Of course, European gun manufacturers eyeing up Mexico aren’t solely reliant on jonesing straw purchasers swapping guns with border smuggling rackets in exchange for drugs.
In 2018 alone, E.U. member states licensed €105m of arms exports to Mexico, according to the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). In the UK, £4.6m-worth have been green-lit since 2018, including licenses for small arms valued at £2.8m. While licensed exports might be perfectly legal, the dearth of end user controls means it’s impossible to say how many find their way into cartel armories.
“The European Union may talk tough on arms sales, but its member states have consistently put arms company profits ahead of human rights,” said CAAT’s Andrew Smith. “We’d welcome the introduction of post-delivery checks. If it’s proven that you keep losing guns, it makes it much harder to get new ones.”
United Nations Comtrade data shows Italy persistently exporting more handguns to Mexico than the U.S.; it sent three times as many in 2018. And SEDENA data compiled by John Lindsay-Poland of Stop U.S. Arms to Mexico shows that of 116,560 firearms recovered between 2010-2018, five European brands feature among the top 20 identifiable manufacturers, with Beretta leading the list of E.U. makes, though SEDENA's figures don't differentiate between guns entering via the States or direct from Europe.
Whichever route they take to Mexico—which ironically has one of the most restrictive gun policies in the world—we can be sure that European firms are profiting from the carnage.
Campaigner Carlo Tombola collaborated with Lindsay-Poland to expose the scale of Italy’s arms deals with Mexico, and said the social climate of the Val Trompia region, seat of Beretta’s HQ and home to the Beretta family’s imposing stone villa, is an "arrogant exhibition of power and wealth."
"The family has interests in banking and they put on public shows of benevolence by funding art events and even a cancer charity,” he said. “Meanwhile Italian weapons exports and the lack of
end use controls are pouring fuel on the fire of violence in Mexico.”
VICE tried to speak with Beretta representatives for this story but was unsuccessful, as we were with a variety of other gun manufacturers. Just in case you think we didn't try:
Beretta’s communications manager promised a reply to our questions, but has not been forthcoming. We phoned Century Arms several times, leaving voicemails for its head of marketing, emailing him twice. We even messaged the firm via their Facebook feed. Romarm was emailed at two addresses on the advice of staff, but has remained silent.
In Belgium, the number for FN Herstal’s HQ rings with no answer. Staff at the British division in Kent claim not to have a press office or hold any contact information for their parent company’s comms department. They told us to ring Belgium, where no one answers. We tracked down the firm’s marketing head on LinkedIn. He told us to call the UK office.
Glock were approached by email, its press office was contacted twice but did not engage. And Sig Sauer’s U.S. press officer ignored both our email and a nudge on Twitter.
Neither the Arms Trade Treaty—the international agreement disavowed last year by President Trump—nor the E.U.’s equally toothless Common Position seem to have much impact on Europe’s determination to cash in on the chaos, despite requirements to assess arms exports against likely human rights violations, their contribution to internal unrest, or the chance of them falling into the wrong hands.
“That includes the risk not only of, say, wholesale diversion of a shipping container full of weapons, but also the porosity of security forces over a period of time,” said ARES intelligence specialist N.R. Jenzen-Jones. “We have seen European weapons being diverted from Mexican security forces. They have a byzantine structure with lots of avenues for the potential diversion of small arms. If you’re exporting to a country where you expect a certain percentage of weapons to be lost or sold by armed services, then obviously that’s a concern.”
SEDENA admitted in 2018 that almost 5,000 guns were lost by or stolen from Mexican police in the preceding five years. Bram Vranken, an anti-arms campaigner with Belgian-based Vredesactie, pointed to FN Herstal, owned by the regional government of Wallonia in Belgium. The Herstal Group equipped Mexican special forces and the presidential guard with its FN P90 submachine gun, and also exported its notorious FN Five-Seven pistol, dubbed ‘the cop killer’ for its ability to fire armor-piercing ammunition. Campaign group EU Arms said both weapons have featured in confiscations from cartels.
There is hope that the tide is turning.
In October, in direct response to the Sinaloa cartel’s deployment of armor-piercing .50 calibre rifles in Culiacán, Mexico’s foreign minister Marcelo Ebrard announced a new joint initiative with the U.S., Operation Frozen, “to freeze the traffic of arms that is killing people in Mexico.” A senior Mexican government source told VICE, “Something similar is probably going to be launched in the future with the EU."
Mexican officials and EU delegates together with Europol are exploring ways to share intelligence on arms trafficking. The talks have yet to bear fruit, but John Lindsay-Poland believes Mexico’s plight is beginning to prick the consciences of European state authorities and their public.
Last year, in a prosecution brought by peace activist Jürgen Grässlin, Heckler & Koch (H&K) was fined €3.7m for breaching Germany’s War Weapons Control Act when 4600 G36 assault rifles were illegally diverted to the violence-ridden states of Chiapas, Chihuahua, Jalisco and Guerrero.
Human rights activists discovered at least 59 of those H&K rifles found their way to police in Iguala, and seven were used by corrupt cops—also armed with Berettas—in the 2014 kidnap of 43 students at the behest of the Guerreros Unidos cartel. Their bodies—feared torched on a garbage dump —have never been found.
H&K is reportedly in dire financial straits and will be appealing its fine, in a hearing due to be heard in Germany’s Supreme Court later this year.
“German guilt is a real thing,” said Lindsay-Poland. “The German history of genocide is a very deep lesson and the outcome is that you have strong citizen and media participation in exposing the human impact of weapons exports.
“Grass roots and court processes like this which hold gun companies to account are important precedents, and an example for other countries.”
Dr. Carlos A. Pérez Ricart, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Oxford and an expert in drugs trafficking and Mexican border violence, added, “It’s important to offer more space for reporting victims. Public exposure of antipersonnel mine victims was essential in achieving an almost global ban on their use, but testimonies of small and light weapons victims have barely received attention.”
Jenzen-Jones, too, said he's caught a whiff of change in the air.
“The provision and implementation of post-delivery controls is increasingly common amongst the arms exporting nations of Europe,” he said. “Some verification programs of this type have been operated with success in Iraq and Syria, particularly as relates to the provision of weapons to Kurdish forces fighting against the so-called Islamic State.
"There have been ongoing, high-level discussions within Europe as to whether similar programs will be expanded to include more typical recipient states.”
Doubtless, Europe’s gunsmiths will find a way to continue plying their trade beyond the scrutiny and clamor of a woke home public.
Some already have a head start with U.S. subsidiaries tapping into both legal exports and the trafficking free-for-all from the States.
Glock’s plant in Cobb County, Georgia, largely assembles pistols from components imported from its HQ in Austria, which also provides all the materials, tooling and machinery. Beretta relocated its U.S. headquarters from Maryland to a new factory in Tennessee in 2016 in a move personally overseen by members of the Italian Gussalli Beretta dynasty. SEDENA seized over 3000 illegal Glocks and Berettas between 2010-2018.
And it’s worth noting that while Germany banned arms exports to Mexico in the wake of the H&K scandal, U.S.-based Sig Sauer, owned by the German holding company Lüke & Ortmeier (L&O), has a $265 million license to sell pistols and machine guns in kit form to the Mexican Navy until 2024. Corrupt naval Marines carrying Sig Sauers are said to be behind scores of disappearances in Nuevo Laredo, a Los Zetas cartel stronghold. In 2008, a Zetas hitman armed with a Sig Sauer pistol trafficked from the US murdered human rights campaigner Marisela Escobedo. The same gun was linked to 11 more killings, although its origin is unclear.
Meanwhile, the top two brands sold by SEDENA—Mexico’s only licensed firearms dealer and also the body responsible for selling guns to the police and military—between 2007-2017 were Glock and Beretta. These two European brands alone accounted for over 188,000 guns—almost double the number of all American brands combined.
“Arms manufacturers really don’t care where their guns end up or how they’re used, as long as they fill out the paperwork,” said Lindsay-Poland.
“The stories of people who are losing family members, or who are maimed or recovering from the trauma of gun violence are not part of the arms industry’s calculus, and that’s why it’s so important for civil society to be stepping in.”
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