A German Heckler & Koch G36 assault rifle

A newspaper in Germany reported that 36 German guns were seized from the municipal police in Iguala, Mexico following the September disappearance of 43 student protesters, illustrating the deep ties of these police to the local criminal group Guerreros Unidos.

According to daily newspaper Die Tageszeitung, three dozen Heckler & Koch G36 assault rifles -- in addition to Italian and US weaponry -- were among 228 firearms Mexican prosecutors confiscated from police installations in Iguala, in the southern state of Guerrero. 

The Mexican government does not issue German weaponry to its armed forces or police. This leads to the presumption that the weapons came from the Iguala police's criminal overlords, the Guerreros Unidos

Authorities have not yet established whether the German weapons were used to attack the student protesters, who were apparently murdered by members of the Guerreros Unidos working in collaboration with municipal police, possibly on the orders of the local mayor and his wife. The whereabouts of all but one of the bodies remains unclear and debate continues over where and how the alleged murders of the students occurred. 

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Exporting German weapons to states engaged in an armed conflict or with poor human rights records is expressly prohibited. However, according to Germany's Federal Office for Economics and Export Control (BAFA), Heckler & Koch was allowed to export some 9,000 G36 assault rifles to Mexico between 2006 and 2009 with the stipulation that they not be made available in the conflict-ridden states of Guerrero, Jalisco, Chiapas and Chihuahua.

Despite this ban, a journalist with Radio Netherlands cited by Sin Embargo has reported that G36 rifles were used in a previous state police attack on student protesters in Guerrero, in 2011, and that these guns have also showed up in the hands of police in Chihuahua.

According to German peace activist Jürgen Grässlin, holes in Germany's monitoring system have helped facilitate the black market trade in weapons from this country, which is the world's third-largest arms exporter. German arms manufacturer SIG Sauer has also come under fire for illicit arms exports.

InSight Crime Analysis

The weapons are a good place to start when analyzing levels of collusion between security forces, police and organized crime. A Mexican intelligence agent, speaking on condition of anonymity, told InSight Crime that his agency counts five levels of collusion between police and criminal groups. 

Level 1: The police simply allow criminal groups to act without interfering. 

Level 2: The police accept (or demand) payment for allowing criminal groups to act without interfering. 

Level 3: The police protect criminal groups and their enterprises for a fee. 

Level 4: The police work for the criminal groups and their enterprises for a fee. 

Level 5: The criminal group runs the police as part of the criminal enterprise. 

The discovery of the German weapons appears to make for a Level 5 situation, the intelligence official said.

To be sure, the fact that the Iguala municipal police were in possession of prohibited firearms suggests that they acquired them from criminals with access to black market weaponry -- most likely the Guerreros Unidos. If this is the case, it indicates the deep integration of the Iguala police into this drug gang, which may have seen the police as their "men" who they needed to better arm. 

In some ways, this is the reverse of what is more commonly seen with arms: security force weapons falling into the hands of criminals (weapons recovered from Mexican cartels have been traced to Guatemalan and Honduran military stocks). That would be something closer to a Level 3 scenario. 

In this case, the police were the recipients, rather than the providers, of black market weapons. Mexico's municipal police forces tend to be underfunded and lack adequate equipment, which may have incentivized the illegal purchase of high-power firearms for what the criminal group considers part of their armed wing.  

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The weapons are just one piece of evidence of a Level 5 collusion. In this rather blatant case, the police are thought to have literally corralled the students and handed them to the criminal group. Normally, the evidence is not so stark; in the less obvious cases, a peek at the guns could be a good way to start figuring out who is working for whom.