The power of informal rules: Heckler & Koch’s arms exports to Mexico

Dominik Dauner
Max-Weber-Institute of Sociology Heidelberg University

Violations of rules and laws are often explained by individual motives and gains. In the case of Heckler & Koch’s arms exports to Mexico, however, intentions of individual enrichment on part of those involved were insignificant, not unlike the Siemens corruption case or the VW emissions scandal. Approaches from organizational sociology can help explain such cases of rule-violation by pointing to the effectiveness of three factors: hierarchical pressure, rationalization, and socialization.

Picture source: Wikimedia Commons

During demonstrations in Iguala in the Mexican state Guerrero, six unarmed people were shot to death by local police officers on September 26, 2014. In addition, 43 students were kidnapped (see the blog post “A System of Torture? The Case of the Mexican Police and Investigation Authorities” ( The case became even more explosive when it was revealed that the Mexican security forces were using rifles from the German arms company Heckler & Koch – rifles that should not have been in Guerrero at all, since the German government had not issued the necessary license for arms exports to this region. Suspicions arose that Heckler & Koch had supplied G36 rifles to Guerrero without official approval.

The Trial at Stuttgart District Court

In 2010, a whistleblower who instructed the police in Guerrero in G36 rifles informed the public prosecutor’s office about these weapons. After a lengthy investigation by the Stuttgart public prosecutor’s office, the Stuttgart District Court dealt with Heckler & Koch’s arms exports to Mexico between 2018 and 2019. The trial focused on the so-called End-user certificates (EUCs). These serve to control arms exports in that the recipient country assures the German government that it will not sell the acquired armaments to third parties and will only deliver them to predefined regions. Heckler & Koch had obtained these EUCs from the Mexican authorities and attached them to its own export applications. So how did the G36 rifles end up in Guerrero, a region that was excluded from export according to the EUC? Initially, an impression emerged that only the Mexican Ministry of Defense, which was the recipient of the rifles, had violated its own assurances about the final destination of the weapons. However, as the process progressed, it became clear that Heckler & Koch employees were actively involved in adapting the EUCs issued by the Mexican authorities.

During the trial, it became known that the German Federal Foreign Office had rejected an earlier export application by Heckler & Koch in 2005 due to the poor human rights situation in certain federal states of Mexico. The Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs then forwarded this internal information to Heckler & Koch. In addition, the ministry indicated that an export application could be approved if the problematic states were excluded from the export. A group within Heckler & Koch including sales manager Ingo S., team leader Axel H., sales representative Markus B. and clerical worker Marianne B. then informed the Mexican authorities to remove the problematic federal states from the EUC, in order for the German authorities to approve the export. A revised EUC was sent to Heckler & Koch and the export application was approved.

At the same time, the members of this group knew that the rifles would also be distributed to federal states not listed in the EUC – including Guerrero. Together with the Mexican authorities, the falsified EUC had been created to ensure that the arms exports were approved by the German licensing authorities. At no time did the actual distribution of G36 rifles in Mexico match the formal assurances in the EUC. Nevertheless, according to the Stuttgart District Court’s concluding press release, members of the group continued to submit End-user certificates from the Mexican authorities that were recognized as unreliable (Stuttgart District Court 2019) from 2006 to 2009. During the same period, a total of 4219 rifles reached the critical states of Chiapas, Chihuahua, Guerrero, and Jalisco.

As a result of this export of armaments based on fraudulent licenses, the sales manager Ingo S. received a one year and ten months suspended sentence with probation. The clerk Marianne B. received a one year and five months suspended sentence with probation. The team leader Axel H. had already died before the start of the trial. The sales representative Markus B., who lives in Mexico, did not appear at the Stuttgart District Court because he was unable to travel due to illness. The trial against him was already severed on the first day of the court proceedings.

Picture source: Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung

No Personal Enrichment of Those Involved

But how can this manipulative practice be explained? The most obvious answer seems to be that Heckler & Koch employees benefitted from the manipulations personally. However, the proceedings at Stuttgart District Court revealed that there were no indications of personal enrichment on the part of any of the employees. Thus, these were not employees pursuing fraudulent interests with the aim of maximizing individual profits. It was Heckler & Koch as a company that profited from this manipulative practice: On the one hand, weapons worth about 3.7 million euros were delivered to the federal states of Chiapas, Chihuahua, Guerrero, and Jalisco. On the other hand, it offered Heckler & Koch a unique opportunity to enter the Mexican market, which was mainly dominated by the United States and Spain at that time.

From a sociological point of view, the indications speak against a case of individual deviance, in which motives of personal enrichment explain the use of irregular practices. Rather, the evidence suggests that his was a case of organizational deviance, i.e. deviant behavior that primarily serves the benefit of the organization and is legitimized by informal rules of interpretation and action.

The Institutionalization of Unwritten Rules

But how could such unwritten rules gain legitimacy among employees and seemingly override the formal rules of Heckler & Koch? With the mechanisms of hierarchical pressure, rationalization and socialization, the theory of organizational deviance offers possible explanations for the institutionalization of unwritten rules.

Rule-violating practices are often acknowledged and reproduced by means of hierarchical pressure: Management-level personnel participates in such practices either by directly instructing staff to act in violation of rules, or by knowingly tolerating such practices. Within Heckler & Koch, the deal with Mexico was considered a major project, which is why sales manager Ingo S. wrote in an email that it would be a “catastrophe” (van Aken 2018b, own translation) if the project failed. As a result, the persons involved came up with the plan to attach EUCs to the export application that had been recognized as incorrect, thus enabling the deliveries of the weapons (Federal Court of Justice 2021: 7f.). Ingo S. had been aware of this since April 26, 2006. Nevertheless, according to the German Federal Court of Justice, the sales manager, who was Axel H.’s superior, covered up the exports in spite of knowing that the submitted End-user certificates were incorrect, and deliberately failed to intervene, in breach of his duties (Federal Court of Justice 2021: 9). In the same judgment, it was stated that the clerk Marianne B. did not make any decisions on her own regarding the manipulations of the EUCs but acted according to the instructions of her superior. Although Marianne B. had also been aware of the incorrectness of the EUCs since January 09, 2007, she approved the submission of the documents. In her defense in court, she justified her involvement in the manipulative practices by her obligation to follow the instructions of her superiors (van Aken 2019a).

It had already become apparent that Marianne B. was trying to rationalize her actions. Rationalizations of irregular practices often take place through the rejection of responsibility. As a clerk, she simply carried out orders and did not take responsibility for the instructions of her superior. At the same time, sales manager Ingo S. pleaded that in his position he was not concerned with details and unable to intervene against the irregular practices because he was not aware of the deviations committed by his employees (van Aken 2019b). Regardless of their respective positions in Heckler & Koch’s formal hierarchy, those involved denied their own responsibility through rationalization strategies. This allowed the potential conflict between formal rules of the organization, informal rules of the group and formal legal norms to be cognitively resolved.

Finally, we can assume that the legitimization of non-compliant practices within the group was established on a permanent basis via socialization processes by means of repetition and an increase in the intensity of the manipulations. The employees had realized that they could influence the content of the EUCs. According to the German Federal Court of Justice, they tacitly agreed to carry out an unspecified number of similar exports to Mexico based on fraudulent licenses (Federal Court of Justice 2021: 8). Influence on the wording of the EUCs went so far that the employees made suggestions to the Mexican contractual partner as to which states should be named in the EUCs so that the German authorities would approve the export applications (Federal Court of Justice 2021: 9f.; van Aken 2019c).

These mechanisms of hierarchical pressure, rationalization, and socialization explain how formal rules of the organization can be substituted by informal rules that legitimize the manipulations of the EUCs. Thus, this non-compliant activity became normalized and was perpetuated for years.

Picture source: Wikimedia Commons

Open Questions and Many Speculations

Both before and after the trial at Stuttgart District Court, there was a great amount of public interest in Heckler & Koch’s arms exports to Mexico: While the German public broadcaster SWR’s documentary “Tödliche Exporte – Wie das G36 nach Mexiko kam” (Deadly Exports – How the G36 Got to Mexico) from 2015 introduced the case to a broader audience for the first time, another SWR documentary entitled “Tödliche Exporte 2 – Rüstungsmanager vor Gericht” (Deadly Exports 2 – Managers of Armaments Companies on Trial) in 2020 dealt with the trial at Stuttgart District Court. Regardless of the legal and journalistic reviews of the case, some questions have not been conclusively clarified until today: Which specific relationships existed between the employees of the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Heckler & Koch? Were other employees of the armaments company involved in the manipulations of the EUCs or did they knowingly tolerate this practice? Which role did the organizational culture within Heckler & Koch play? Since the Mexico business was carried out a long time ago, these aspects can probably no longer be clarified. Thus, the Heckler & Koch case continues to provide room for speculation.


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van Aken, Jan (2018b). Heckler & Koch – Prozesstag 4: «Soll der Guerrero nicht erwähnt werden?» ( Accessed on 05/01/2022.

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Sources and further literature:

SWR-Dokumentation (2015): Tödliche Exporte – Wie das G36 nach Mexiko kam ( Zugegriffen am 05.01.2022.

SWR-Dokumentation (2020): Tödliche Exporte 2 – Rüstungsmanager vor Gericht ( Zugegriffen am 05.01.2022.      

Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Markus Pohlmann (2023, 10. März). The power of informal rules: Heckler & Koch’s arms exports to Mexico. Organizational Crime Stories. Abgerufen am 25. Februar 2024, von

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