‘Narco-Tanks’: Mexico’s Cartels Get Asymmetric Weapons

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The discovery of a “narco-tank” factory in north Mexico is the latest evolution in traffickers’ increasingly tactical struggle for territory. While some minimize the importance of these vehicles, they could escalate the battle, pushing Mexico to resemble conflicts such as the Iraq war.

The tanks are an example of asymmetrical weaponry. This can be defined as the use of a non-military device as a substitute for traditional means to achieve military objectives.

The latest discovery included four heavy trucks, complete with gun turrets and 2.5 centimeter steel plates that were strong enough to “resist the caliber of personal weapons the soldiers use,” a “source” told the AFP. Authorities said there were 23 more trucks ready for an assembly-line of sorts.

These vehicles are evidence of an arms race between the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas, with the Gulf Cartel now attempting to match and surpass their former enforcers, who broke from the Gulf’s grip in 2007, and have since formed their own criminal group.

The two groups are fighting for control of the lucrative strip of land along the Texas border, mostly in the states of Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon. Control of that territory gives the winner the right to tax (known as “cobrar piso” in Mexican underworld parlance) other legitimate and criminal businesses that operate within it, a major source of revenue for these organizations.

The Zetas, the core of which are defectors from Mexico’s Special Forces, likely elevated this latest arms war to asymmetrical weapons. “Narco-tanks” from this groups have been found in various parts of the country, including one dubbed “El Moustro” (Mexican for “The Monster”) for its size and look.

Escalation from conventional to asymmetrical weapons

The scramble of these groups to outgun each other dates back years. Guns have long been part of the country’s cultural fabric, but criminal organizations added thousands of military-grade and civilian semi-automatic rifles to their stocks, especially as the battle for territory heated up in the early 2000s.

This was followed by the addition of weapons such as grenades, grenade launchers, and rocket propelled grenades (RPGs), most diverted from Mexican and Guatemalan military stockpiles.

Criminal groups, in particular the Zetas and parts of the Juarez Cartel, have also moved towards bombs. This includes the systematic use of commercial blasting products, primarily the water-gel explosive, Tovex, which was placed in fixed locations beginning in 2009.

The first Mexican Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Device (VBIED), or car bomb, only appeared in late 2010, despite the fact that a VBIED is both a lethal shrapnel pack and convenient delivery mechanism for an Improvised Explosive Device (IED).

Emergence of the poor man’s mechanized infantry

Just as with conventional weapons, successful sustained employment of an asymmetrical weapon implies good tradecraft in operational security, weapons and munitions procurement, recruitment, training and operations.

ASYMMETRY’S UNEXPECTED RISKS

Asymmetrical attackers employ unexpected, non-traditional and broadly applicable methods. You, the target, should keep three equations in mind to characterize Risk, Threat and Impact:

Threat = Vulnerabilities X Intentions X Capabilities

Risk = Threat X Vulnerability X Asset Value

Impact = Resources + Unexpected Methods + (Understanding + Exploitation) Vulnerabilities + Effect Multipliers (M1+M2+M3+…Mx)

To be effective, however, you must learn to view them through the eyes of the asymmetric attacker. If you are proactive you have the chance to be at the beginning of this progression (prevent and deter):

Prevent, Deter, Prepare, Detect, Respond, Recover, Mitigate.

If you are not, you will remain at the painful end (recover and mitigate).

The increase in the number of pitched battles involving platoon or company-sized engagements attempting to take territory from a rival, for instance, demanded better mobility in moving troops. Initially, this meant armoring sedans and SUVs with ballistic glass and alloy steel, making this an established Mexican growth industry even through it has been repeatedly shown that the advantage goes to the determined attacker on offense.

(To be sure, beginning in 2000, SUVs and four-door trucks, which were primarily unarmored, had become the de facto personnel carriers for cartel foot soldiers. The demand from the cartels was so great that these vehicles were being stolen across Mexico from both Mexican and foreign nationals, despite the fact that such vehicles caught in ambush suffered withering casualties.)

Targets in an unarmored vehicle, untrained driver, or poorly trained bodyguards have a nominal one in nine chance of survival; targets in armored vehicles, with a driver trained in escape and evasion, as well as all bodyguards trained and properly armed, only see their survival rate rise to a nominal one in seven.

Thus, the emergence of “narco-tanks,” is a natural result of the desire to “up-armor” larger vehicles that could transport a squad level unit along with their weapons in order to close on their adversaries without significant attrition.

Making and Using These Vehicles

Illicit procurement of military-grade tracked or wheeled mechanized armor differs from that of conventional weapons such as assault rifles and machine guns. Mechanized armor is large, heavy, relatively costly, difficult to conceal in transit, has specialized maintenance and spare parts requirements, moves through more specialized sellers, and generally yields the element of surprise by early discovery. Its mere presence often invites immediate counterattack prior to its deployment.

Conversely, commercial medium and heavy duty trucks and tractors are readily available by purchase and theft as are parts and skilled mechanics and fabricators. Covert modification of these vehicles into asymmetrical weapons can sustain the element of surprise to the point of engagement with the enemy.

These Mexican “monsters” follow the footsteps of the “gun truck” field conversions done by United States’ forces in Vietnam from late 1967 through late 1972. Gun trucks were essential for convoy security and perimeter defense. Considered by many to be the key U.S.-wheeled vehicle of Vietnam, these armor-cladded weapons platforms were usually built on 2.5 or 5 ton 6×6 trucks. Gun trucks reappeared in Iraq in 2003 for the same convey security role. Mexico appears to be following a similar trajectory.

The first report of such vehicles came in 2010 when the Blog Del Narco reported that an armored truck belonging to the Zetas was captured after a firefight near Ciudad Mier, Tamaulipas. That model had no sloping armor and could only cruise at 40 kilometers per hour (kph), an obvious sitting duck in a firefight.

A year later, Zeta models could cruise at 110 kph, carry 12 men, and had better deflecting armor. Its Achilles heel appears to have been its exposed, unarmored tires. One assumes that protected run-flat tires will appear in succeeding models.

Interestingly, in concert with proper operational tactics, these new asymmetrical weapons platforms are not appreciably different from Mexican Federal Police vehicles such as the “rinoceronte.”

The Implications

Cartels can now produce a wide variety of cladded armor vehicles by mating commercial trucks with local materials. Mexican adversaries will continue to “up-armor” civilian trucks with better alloy steels, fiberglass, kevlar and ballistic glass, deploying them in larger numbers than would be possible with conventional mechanized armor.

While the appearance of classic gun trucks with heavy weapon turrets will require access to larger caliber weapons than what is currently fielded in Mexico, it is a given that armored trucks blending features of both tank and armored personnel carrier will have an increasing operational role. That presence will be met with opposing tanks, opponents’ procurement of RPGs and the deployment of another asymmetrical weapon, the Improvised Explosive Device or IED, not unlike the ones employed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Gordon Housworth is Managing Principal, Intellectual Capital Group LLC. Responsible for Risk Consulting & Competitive Intelligence (CI) – Geopolitical, Operational, Technology and Reputational. See his weblog here.

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