By Volkmar Kabisch, Georg Mascolo, Frederik Obermaier and Bastian Obermayer
What a weapon. Black, compact and precise. A German dream gun. Miguel S., an athletic 30-year-old Colombian police officer, lays his new duty weapon on his sleeping bag in his tent and begins photographing it from every angle. A wide shot, and then an even wider shot. And one from each side. Miguel’s unit is on an exercise somewhere in the Colombian jungle but right now he’s got some free time. Miguel likes guns. And he really likes this gun. Accurate, easy to clean and quick to reload. It’s also good for shooting from the hip when under attack—part of everyday life in this section of Colombia. Miguel will publish the photos as a slideshow on YouTube. When you press pause at the right moment you can clearly read the inscription on the barrel: “Made in Germany”. The weapon is a Sig Sauer SP 2022, and it’s not actually allowed in Colombia.
For the past 50 years the Colombian government, guerrillas and paramilitaries have been fighting each other with seemingly no end in sight. For that very reason German companies such as Sig Sauer aren’t allowed to deliver arms there. And violations come with hard punishment: export bans, fines and prison sentences of up to five years.
500,00 people have died so far from small arms in guerrilla wars in Colombia
But it’s usually hard for export inspectors and prosecutors to prove illegal arms shipments. An investigation by the German public radio and television broadcasters NDR and WDR in conjunction with Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ, Germany’s leading broadsheet newspaper) proves, through internal documents and emails as well as statements from several insiders, that Sig Sauer has been intentionally been skirting regulations despite objections from within its own leadership.
But, let’s start from the beginning. In 2009 Sig Sauer’s sister company Sig Sauer Inc. in Exeter, New Hampshire won a bid from the U.S. Army worth some $300 million. Included in that contract were some 98,000 SP 2022 pistols worth around $70 million. Those weapons were ordered by the Colombian federal police. And the U.S. Sig Sauer colleagues knew it. They are, after all, the ones who shipped the guns directly to Bogotá.
The “Policia Nacional” is a valued partner for the Americans in their fight against drug traffickers and guerrillas. That’s why the U.S. Army provides trainers, money and guns. There’s just one problem. These particular Sig Sauer SP 2022s were made in Germany. But German authorities say the pistols are prohibited from ever landing in Colombia. So these must be different ones, right? But in Miguel S.’s video slideshow you can clearly read the German manufacturing serial number on his service pistol: SP0238567.
Upon request a Sig Sauer employee explained that the pistol was manufactured in Germany and had been sold from the German office to the U.S. branch on September 29, 2010—when the large contract with Colombia was already running. And internal Sig Sauer documents show that this method was part of a larger system. Guns are manufactured in northern Germany, packaged and sent to the U.S. branch in New Hampshire. Then, the American colleagues take care of everything else to make sure the weapons end up in Colombia. Over the years thousands of guns apparently took this route. But end-use certificates and freight shipping documents state the guns will remain in the U.S. civilian market. Stamped, signed and ratified by the U.S. Department of Justice. So, delivering the guns to Colombia was probably accomplished through means not requiring an export license. And that would be a criminal offense.
Over the last few years several accusations have been made. In February it was revealed that other German pistols made by the arms manufacturer Walther had surfaced in Colombia, though there was no authorization for an export. Another manufacturer, Heckler & Koch, is said to have delivered rapid-fire G36 assault rifles to troubled provinces in Mexico and hundreds of the same gun to Libya. An indictment by a determined prosecutor in Mexico has been pending since 2010 and is expected to be formally charged this year.
In January, the German police seized several documents from a Sig Sauer building which reveal the sale of some 70 guns to Kazakhstan—another country in crisis. These were apparently also made available through a U.S. detour.
In Germany, the Federal Office of Economics and Export Control (BAFA for short) and its 200 employees are trying to ensure German arms manufacturers aren’t selling guns to war zones and countries in crisis. One of the countries on their list is Colombia, where some 500,000 people died from small arms fire in the past year alone. It’s estimated that there are some three million small arms in the country. The Colombian federal police are being accused of massive human rights violations. They’re said to have murdered innocent people and dressed them up in FARC guerilla uniforms to inflate their statistics. “Falsos positivos”, as they’re called in Colombia.
For years Sig Sauer has known the weapons are used in this particularly bloody region
BAFA and the public prosecutor have become interested in the Sig Sauer Columbia connection since NDR and SZ first reported about it in May. Insiders say Sig Sauer told investigators that they trusted the Americans and have written record that the deliveries were meant only for U.S. sale. Whether the guns eventually made their way to Colombia, they don’t know. But that assertion is becoming impossible to defend, as internal documents and emails between Sig Sauer’s German and U.S. branches prove that the colleagues on both sides of the Atlantic knew exactly what the plan was. And it’s becoming clear that the intended market for thousands of German-made guns was never an American one.
Records and messages spanning from fall 2010 into spring 2011 which were shared with NDR, WDR and SZ show that both branches knew exactly where the weapons and weapon parts were ultimately headed—and where they landed. Since that period the systematic arms sales through the U.S. and into Colombia continued for weeks and months.
In a hotel in northern Germany we meet a former Sig Sauer employee who worked for the company while the orders bound for Colombia began—just as the gun running racket was being configured. “I know that we sent the guns to our sister company in the U.S. under the premise that they were to be sold in the American civilian market,” he says. On the U.S. import papers there was a check next to ‘not for military purposes’ — a false statement. “I myself saw many of these documents.” In fact, guns went through the U.S. Army to the Colombian federal police, which is supported by the Ministry of Defense. In the manufacturing plants in Germany the official line is that the guns are for the U.S. sports market. The German staff often learn that the guns are for the Colombian police as a side note. In the end, the gun business is just like any other business. And all angles are up for discussion.
In several emails in November 2010 the discussion was about the laser inscriptions on the guns, specifically which parts of the gun should carry the logo. In one widely distributed email an employee points out that it’s ultimately up to the clients “in the U.S./Colombia”.
In early 2011 an American employee complained to a German client manager that some of the pistol barrels from a particular production line had rusted before the customer had even taken them out of their packaging. In the future the Germans should pre-oil and specially package the Tacom guns. “What are Tacom guns,?” one clueless employee asked in an email to a German colleague. The response: “Tacom is the customer in Colombia.” To be exact, Tacom is short for Tank-automotive and Armaments Command and is the operation within the U.S. Army responsible for weapons acquisition. And with that comes the responsibility for arming the Colombians.
What Sig Sauer employees deal with on a daily basis remained somehow hidden to the German authorities at BAFA. A handful of employees at BAFA oversee export permits for “handheld firearms.” Their scope is limited. They check freight papers, deadlines and quantities. And of course, they check which country is listed on the form. But on Sig Sauer papers it just says “USA”. The papers BAFA reviewed in 2009 and 2010 are basically impeccable. Import licenses, end-use country—all wonderful. But whether the weapons really stay there or whether they are further processed, for example to Colombia—none of that is checked by the authorities. One can only trust that the forms don’t lie. Not exactly ideal when it comes to weapons—and millions of dollars.
The political dimension of the story boils down to this: a total failure of controls. Again and again, German weapons are found in conflict zones. And again and again the weapons manufacturers are totally surprised. Former United Nations weapons inspector Jan van Aken isn’t the only one who has criticized the system. “Every fries stand in Germany” is inspected more closely than German arms exports, he said. “In every fries stand now someone inspects whether the oil is really being changed. When it comes to arms exports, no one is looking any more.”
The German government wants to change this with an initiative put forward by the Ministry of Economy’s Sigmar Gabriel and Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Gabriel says he doesn’t want “that blood on my hands.” The initiative proposes a kind of post-shipment inspection to test, for instance, whether the guns are sold where they said they were intended to be sold.
Internal emails mention documents about “which we should know nothing”
When it comes to guns, there are often starkly contrasting attitudes: the stuff of the devil in one place is an economic commodity somewhere else. And Germany finds itself in an international balancing act, active at both ends of the gun debate. On the one hand, the Federal Foreign Office is planning an 8 million euro project that would retrieve small arms from around the world. It’s a project Germans can easily get behind. At the same time Germany is among the top five largest small arms exporters in the world, providing the very same wares that would be among those scooped up by the initiative being planned.
Military experts estimate that German small arms have killed more people around the world than were killed by the atomic bombs dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. In just the past decade small arms and ammunition exports have been approved to the tune of nearly 1 billion euro. In 2013 the German government allowed exports amounting to 135 million euro, some 43 percent more than the year prior. Of course, there’s the sporting and police side of the arms business, but you might ask, what kind of industry and what kind of companies knowingly involve themselves in such highly questionable deals?
At the German branch of Sig Sauer a number of employees are obviously aware that their exports to Colombia are punishable offenses. One German employee jokes that they should “plant one on the kisser” of an American colleague because he had passed along “customized documents (Colombian)” back to the German office. Documents, the German employee wrote, “about which we should know nothing.” It was similar knowledge that landed Sig Sauer’s export officer in hot water in 2011. Emails prove that by that time the Colombian orders had already come to German export authorities’ attention on several occasions. In addition, their U.S. counterparts had been requiring a Certificate of Conformity for the SP 2022 pistols. But for the guns to enter the country the certificate wasn’t mandatory. But export professionals and their colleagues know which countries require such a certificate. One of them is Colombia. That’s when an internal struggle at the company began, captured meticulously by a chain of emails.
The export officer had the L&O Holding company’s lawyer look into the case. He confirmed that “no deliveries should be made” if it is “already known that” the deliveries end up in Colombia. “This would otherwise be a delivery without an export license and is strictly prohibited.” On April 28, 2011 the export officer promptly stopped 1,000 pistols from being shipped to the U.S. Scandal broke out. The vice president and general counsel of Sig Sauer U.S., Steven S. was informed via email that, effective immediately, Sig Sauer Germany would not be sending any more pistols to the U.S. The reason was clear: it’s been known for some time that the final destination was Colombia. This “positive knowledge” is a punishable offense in Germany and threatens sever consequences for the entire company. The Germans wrote that they expected suggestions for a solution. It didn’t take long. After several hectic emails and phone calls it was settled: Steven S. confirmed in an email from the office in New Hampshire that the German pistols were for the U.S. consumer market only and decidedly not meant for Tacom contracts. And that was enough. The leaders at the German Sig Sauer were happy and the export officer set the delivery of pistols on its way to the U.S. the very next day.
But the export officer continued to have problems even after this supposed resolution. In an email the officer wrote that the new agreement amounts to nothing more than the old end-use certificate system—which were never respected to begin with. Fact is, the officer wrote, “that we—just as before—have positive knowledge, not only in oral contracts but also in written form as well.” Around this time, as the Colombian contracts were becoming a real problem, a series of high-level crises meetings were held in the German office, according to one former employee there.
We met him on an afternoon in June in Berlin. As bicyclists rode by towards the Reichstag building, the man explained how bit by bit he had heard more and more about where guns were being sent—particularly places they weren’t allowed to be sent. “In the end,” he said, “the word ‘Colombia’ would come in.” The meetings always took place in what they called the ‘aquarium’—the executive board’s glass-walled office. Sig Sauer’s U.S. CEO flew in for a meeting along with Michael Lüke, one of the two owners of L&O Holding. There discussion in the ‘aquarium’ got tense. At one point a shredder was brought in. From the other side of the glass the employees watched as document after document disappeared into the machine. It was so many documents that the shedder had to be emptied in a rubbish bin in the courtyard.
Requests, said the Sig Sauer press officer, usually land in the trash
Lüke, who owns L&O Holding with his partner Thomas Ortmeier, is also the owner of Sig Sauer Germany, according to the company’s website. Leafing through the company’s export papers for pistols sent to the U.S., you will find that Lüke was also the one “responsible for exports” during the period of legally dubious exports. That means he is the one who, in the end, is responsible for the goods. It seems obvious that the system—Sig Sauer USA selling guns from Sig Sauer Germany to Colombia—was rigged from very high up. One of the former Sig Sauer employees says the people from L&O Holding looked “into the books daily” and always knew exactly “what we were doing.” An initial request to pose some questions to Sig Sauer via telephone was answered rather quickly: requests at Sig Sauer usually land in the trash. In a written request we posed 36 questions, among them the most crucial: Since when has Sig Sauer Germany known about the shipment to Colombia? We only got a pat response: the management in Germany declared they had, after careful examination, found “no wrongdoing”. U.S. authorities were responsible for their U.S. branch’s exports.
Blabbermouth emails about the ‘Colombian method’
The insistent export officer supposedly left the company shortly after the disagreement. Before doing so the officer wrote a three-page memo summarizing the entire ordeal: the many people involved who knew about the “large-scale USA/Colombia contract”, the Spanish user manuals, the lack of wrong doing, the U.S. weapons numbers lasered onto the pistols made in Germany to cover up the German connection. And again: that the employees in Germany had ‘positive knowledge’ of the shipments to Colombia—a punishable crime. Near the end, the officer warns that if criminal investigators were to search the offices, “the authorities would be able to recover deleted data.” And that data could carry massive indications for the company: it could even prove Sig Sauer was gun running and that the delivery route via the U.S. was intentionally set up by the company leaders in Germany.
Those are the issues the public prosecutor is now looking into, along with figuring out what the Germany Sig Sauer and L&O Holding employees knew. They must have known about what their subsidiary was up to. Just how aware they were about the legal problems of shipping arms through the U.S. is evident in an email from the manager, Andreas W. He writes about a phone call he had with the manager of Sig Sauer USA and says he didn’t find it very “funny” that the German Sig Sauer employees were writing about the ‘Colombian method’ over email. “Email is like a newspaper,” the American told him. That is, far too public a medium for a topic about which no one is supposed to know.
(Translation by Candice Novak, photo by dpa)