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Mexican cartels now using ‘tanks’

June 7, 2011

washingtonpost

(HECTOR GUERRERO/ AFP/GETTY IMAGES ) - Mexican policemen stand guard next to an armoured car seized to alleged members of the Mexican drug cartel "Los Zetas".The armoured car called "The Z Monster" has a capacity to transport about 20 men and has a turret to place.

MEXICO CITY — For the drug cartel boss who has everything, the latest piece of military hardware is a tank.Today’s competitive crime mafias in Mexico are no longer satisfied with bazookas or rocket-propelled grenades or land mines. The Mexican military has discovered that gangsters south of the Texas border are building armored assault vehicles, with gun turrets, inch-thick armor plates, firing ports and bullet-proof glass.

More than 35,000 Mexicans have died in four years of drug violence, and in the border cities and farm towns of the northern state of Tamaulipus the fighting between the rival Gulf and Zeta cartels, and the military units that chase them, has been especially vicious. Just two days ago, another pair of mutilated bodies were hung from a pedestrian bridge in Monterrey.“Organized crime has increased its firepower to move personnel and mount counter attacks against the army,” said Alberto Islas, a security adviser in Mexico. “This is the consolidation of an urban guerrilla war scenario.”

The Mexican media and military call them “monstruos,” monster trucks. On the Internet, their appearance has gone viral here. On the front page of Reforma, a national daily newspaper, a photograph Monday of a monster truck was accompanied by the headline: “And this doesn’t look like a war?”

The Mexican army announced Sunday night that a military convoy on routine patrol raided a warehouse in Camargo, Tamaulipus, across from Rio Grande City, Tex., and seized two dump trucks that had been rigged with steel plates to carry a squad of gunmen.

The monsters look like a cross between a handmade assault vehicle used by a Somali warlord and something out of a “Mad Max” movie with Mel Gibson in a post-apocalyptic no man’s land. Complete with battering rams.

The assault vehicles have appeared in several confrontations with Mexican authorities. In the western state of Jalisco, soldiers confronted a narco tank in May and managed to disable it by shooting out its tires. So far the trucks have not been seen in the cities and remain for now mostly a chilling curiosity.

The popular and lurid “narco blog” Web site claimed the armored truck could do 60 mph and dump — James Bond style — tire-popping nails or oil slicks to slow down its pursuers.

“These behemoths indicate the ingenuity of the cartels in configuring weapons that are extremely effective in urban warfare,” said George Grayson, professor at William & Mary College and a specialist in Mexico’s drug war.

The cartels are locked in a kind of arms race of technology and techniques to keep one step ahead of authorities — and one another.

Last year authorities found one of the most elaborate tunnels ever constructed, stretching more than 2,200 feet, complete with train tracks and ventilation, to move marijuana between a house in Tijuana and a warehouse in Otay Mesa, Calif.

On the high seas, maritime forces have intercepted dozens of “narco-submarines” hauling multi-ton loads of cocaine north. The semi-submersibles travel very low in the water to avoid detection.

With growing frequency, U.S. border guards have spotted ultralight aircraft barnstorming over the fences to drop 200-pound loads of pot in fields to waiting pickup trucks that flash their high beams or create a makeshift drop zone out of light sticks. According to U.S. officials, there have been more than 300 ultralight incursion into the United States in the 18 months.

U.S. and Mexican border agents have found ramps, tunnels and even a catapult that was used to launch dope over the border fence between Mexico and Arizona.

The appearance of “narco tanks” might seem funny, in a way, but it disguises a serious and deadly arms race among cartels.

Mexican soldiers last week discovered a major arsenal of weapons and ammunition buried in an underground bunker, likely by the Zeta crime organization.

The army found 150 rifles, pistols and shotguns, 92,000 rounds of ammunition, four mortar shells and two rocket-propelled grenades. The cache was found at a ranch in the northern state Coahuila that borders the United States.

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