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By León Castellanos-Jankiewicz, El País
July 31, 2023

Weapons made on the Old Continent are finding their way into the hands of the cartels, but victims of the violence have little leeway to demand accountability.

Since the Mexican government began its offensive against arms trafficking, little has been said about the European arms industry. Just as North American companies feed the river of steel that flows to the south, the Old Continent also contributes, albeit in a more moderate but direct way. A new study commissioned by the Office of the Legal Advisor of the Mexican Foreign Ministry and published by the University of Amsterdam concludes that the European arms industry enjoys protections that shield it from judicial claims due to negligence or criminality, to the detriment of potential victims.

This accountability deficit has significant consequences, as Europe is a “major starting point” for illicit arms flows according to the United Nations. The results of the study are also cause for concern given the size of the sector, since four of the 10 main arms-exporting countries worldwide are member states of the European Union. France ranks third, while Germany, Italy and Spain also export vast quantities. The impact of these products in the region is staggering: in some parts of Latin America, up to 40% of the weapons found at crime scenes are European.

In Mexico, these weapons have victimized civilians, journalists, and members of law enforcement. The Sinaloa Cartel is reportedly equipped with Heckler & Koch arms made in Germany. The same cartel used pistols made by Belgium’s state-owned FN Herstal in the 2019 Culiacanazo, during the failed capture of Ovidio Guzmán. In this incident, Glock and Beretta weapons, whose manufacturers are based in Austria and Italy, respectively, were also identified.

The presence of European weapons in the hands of the cartels reflects a widespread trend. Between 2010 and 2019, 1,925 Beretta pistols and 1,365 Romanian weapons were found at crime scenes in Mexican territory, some of military caliber. According to official data obtained by independent organizations, many come from the trafficking and diversion of weapons that has fed criminal networks in Mexico for several years now. These illicit patterns are predictable and contribute to the agonizing toll of victims that is increasing every year.

This predictability of arms trafficking motivated the Mexican government to file a negligence lawsuit against gun stores in U.S. courts. The same litigation strategy could be used to stop flows from Europe. But the University of Amsterdam study concludes that the opacity and lack of transparency shields the European arms industry from certain judicial processes. After analyzing the laws and jurisprudence of 11 countries, the report identifies a justice deficit caused by secrecy for licensing and export agreements, impediments for victims trying to file complaints, limited judicial oversight on weapons exports, and a lack of transparency in export orders.

Given this situation, the courts often lack jurisdiction — their hands are tied, in other words — and the victims cannot build a case or else their claims are dismissed. Taken together, these measures inhibit the right of the victims to demand accountability when gun stores or states themselves engage in negligent sales or transactions. The report also points out that the countries under analysis commit human rights violations by denying access to justice to those who have suffered at the hands of products whose trafficking could be prevented with due diligence mechanisms.

This represents an important challenge for Mexico in its fight against this scourge. It would be hardly possible, for instance, to take legal action against Beretta and Romarm for negligent trade in the courts of Italy and Romania, where they are based. However, there are successful precedents such as the German sentence condemning Heckler & Koch for illicit sales of weapons that were tragically used in [the student massacre of] Ayotzinapa.

Furthermore, the new study underscores Europeans’ lack of awareness about the dire consequences of this lethal business. It is to be hoped that this new document will open up a new discussion front on arms trafficking that is more oriented towards compensation for the victims.

Photo: Weapons confiscated during an operation in Reynosa (Mexico). ALEXANDRE MENEGHINI (AP)