by Ed Beakley
By Ken Ellingwood and Tracy Wilkinson Los Angeles Times March 15, 2009
Narcotics traffickers are acquiring firepower more appropriate to an
army — including grenade launchers and anti-tank rockets — and the police
are feeling outgunned.
Reporting from Zihuatanejo, Mexico, and Mexico City — It was a
brazen assault, not just because it targeted the city’s police station, but
for the choice of weapon: grenades.
The Feb. 21 attack on police headquarters in coastal Zihuatanejo,
which injured four people, fit a disturbing trend of Mexico’s drug wars.
Traffickers have escalated their arms race, acquiring military-grade
weapons, including hand grenades, grenade launchers, armor-piercing
munitions and antitank rockets with firepower far beyond the assault rifles
and pistols that have dominated their arsenals.
Most of these weapons are being smuggled from Central American
countries or by sea, eluding U.S.. and Mexican monitors who are focused on
the smuggling of semiauto- matic and conventional weapons purchased from
dealers in the U..S. border states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and
The proliferation of heavier armaments points to a menacing new
stage in the Mexican government’s 2-year-old war against drug organizations,
which are evolving into a more militarized force prepared to take on Mexican
army troops, deployed by the thousands, as well as to attack each other.
These groups appear to be taking advantage of a robust global black
market and porous borders, especially between Mexico and Guatemala. Some of
the weapons are left over from the wars that the United States helped fight
in Central America, U.S. officials said.
“There is an arms race between the cartels,” said Alberto Islas, a
security consultant who advises the Mexican government. “One group gets
rocket-propelled grenades, the other has to have them.”
There are even more ominous developments: Authorities reported three
thefts of several hundred pounds of blasting material from industrial
explosives plants in Durango during a four-day period last month.
Authorities believe the material may have been destined for car bombs or
remotely detonated roadside devices, which have been used with devastating
effect in Iraq, killing more than 1,822 members of U.S.-led forces since the
war there began nearly six years ago. The Mexican army has recovered most of
the material, and there has been no reported use of such devices.
Grenades or military-grade weapons have been reported in at least 10
Mexican states during the last six months, used against police headquarters,
city halls, a U.S. consulate, TV stations and senior Mexican officials. In a
three-week period ended March 6, five grenade attacks were launched on
police patrols and stations and the home of a commander in the south-central
state of Michoacan. Other such attacks occurred in five other states during
the same period.
At least one grenade attack north of the border, at a Texas
nightclub frequented by U.S. police officers, has been tied to Mexican
How many weapons have been smuggled into Mexico from Central America
is not known, and the military-grade munitions are still a small fraction of
the larger arsenal in the hands of narcotics traffickers. Mexican officials
continue to push Washington to stem the well-documented flow of conventional
weapons from the United States, as Congress holds hearings on the role those
smuggled guns play in arming Mexican drug cartels.
There is no comprehensive data on how many people have been killed
by heavier weapons. But four days after the assault on the Zihuatanejo police station, four of the city’s officers were slain in a highway ambush six miles from
town on the road to Acapulco. In addition to the standard AK-47 and AR-15
assault rifles, the attackers fired at least six .50-caliber shells into the
officers’ pickup. The vehicle blew up when hit by what experts believe was a
grenade or explosive projectile. The officers’ bodies were charred.
“These are really weapons of war,” said Alberto Fernandez, spokesman
for the Zihuatanejo city government. “We only know these devices from war
U.S. law enforcement officials say they detected the smuggling of
grenades and other military-grade equipment into Mexico about a year and a
half ago, and observed a sharp uptick in the use of the weapons about six
months ago. The Mexican government said it has seized 2,239 grenades in the last two years, in contrast to 59 seized over the previous two years.
The enhanced weaponry represents a wide sampling from the
international arms bazaar, with grenades and launchers produced by U.S.,
South Korean, Israeli, Spanish or former Soviet bloc manufacturers. Many had
been sold legally to governments, including Mexico’s, and then were diverted
onto the black market. Some may be sold directly to the traffickers by
corrupt elements of national armies, authorities and experts say.
The single deadliest attack on civilians by drug traffickers in
Mexico took place Sept. 15 at an Independence Day celebration in the central
plaza of Morelia, hometown of President Felipe Calderon and capital of
Michoacan. Attackers hurled fragmentation grenades at the celebrating crowd,
killing eight people and wounding dozens more.
Amid the recent spate of attacks in Michoacan, federal police on
Feb. 20 announced the discovery of 66 fragmentation grenades in the fake
bottom of a truck intercepted in southern Mexico, just over the border from
Guatemala. The two men arrested with the cargo told police they were
transporting the grenades to Morelia.
Grenades used in three attacks in Monterrey and Texas were linked to
a single Monterrey warehouse, packed with explosives and high-caliber guns,
reportedly belonging to the Gulf cartel. Mexican authorities raided the
warehouse in October and seized the cache, which contained South
Korean-manufactured grenades similar to the American M67 fragmentation
Grenades from the same lot were used in a Jan. 6 attack on the
Televisa television station in Monterrey, which caused damage but no
injuries, and during an Oct. 12 attack against the U.S. Consulate in
Monterrey. The device at the consulate did not detonate.
Late on the night of Jan. 31, a Saturday, a man tossed a grenade
into the El Booty Lounge in Pharr, Texas. Three off-duty Texas police
officers were there, though authorities would not say whether they were the
target. The explosive, which did not detonate, was traced to the Monterrey
Traffickers using M203 40-millimeter grenade launchers last year
attacked and killed eight Mexican federal police officers in Culiacan, the
capital of Sinaloa state. In the northern border city of Nogales, the Sonora
state police commander was killed Nov. 2 in an ambush by purported
traffickers firing AK-47s and lobbing grenades. He had been returning from a
meeting with U.S. authorities in Arizona to discuss gun smuggling.
In the western state of Durango, three people, including a
3-year-old child, were killed in a grenade attack in January.
The firepower has gone beyond grenades. Armed with light antitank
weapons, would-be assassins went after the nation’s top counternarcotics
prosecutor in December 2007. The assailants were intercepted before they
reached Jose Luis Santiago Vasconcelos, who was not hurt. The weapons seized were linked to the notorious Sinaloa cartel.
“They were betting on being able to escalate with a spectacular
strike precisely to terrify society,” Santiago Vasconcelos said at the time.
(He was killed in November in a plane crash.)
Beyond the weaponry, drug gangs for several years have demonstrated
the ability to form squads and employ military tactics, including the use of
assault rifles, hand grenades, grenade launchers and fully automatic weapons
to pin down army forces. This has enabled them to attack army patrols
frontally, as they did with lethal results Feb. 7 in the central state of
Zacatecas, killing one sergeant and critically wounding a colonel.
“At this stage, the drug cartels are using basic infantry weaponry
to counter government forces,” a U.S. government official in Mexico said.
“Encountering criminals with this kind of weaponry is a horse of a different
color,” the official said. “It’s not your typical patrol stop, where someone
pulls a gun. This has all the makings of an infantry squad, or guerrilla
The fear of guerrilla warfare was compounded in February when 270
pounds of dynamite and several hundred electric detonators were stolen from
a U.S. firm in the state of Durango. On Valentine’s Day, about 20 masked
gunmen, led by a heavyset man wearing gold rings and chains, stormed the
warehouse of a subsidiary of Austin Powder Co., an industrial explosives
manufacturer, according to official accounts. They overpowered guards and
emptied the warehouse. Two similar thefts were reported within four days in
the same area.
Although the Mexican army recovered most of the dynamite, the
incident augurs an even bloodier trend, officials said. ”There is only one reason to have bulk explosives,” said Thomas G. Mangan, spokesman in Phoenix for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. “An improvised explosive device. A car bomb.”
In addition to grenades, high-powered guns such as the .50-caliber
Barrett sniper rifle have become a weapon of choice in narcotics
traffickers’ arsenals, Mangan said. Unlike grenades and anti-tank weapons,
the .50-caliber guns can be obtained by ordinary citizens in the U.S. and
smuggled easily into Mexico, like the tons of assault rifles and automatic
Mexican law enforcement, such as the police in Zihuatanejo, is
grossly outgunned. Officers have protested, seeking better protective gear,
weaponry and pay.
Shortly after the Zihuatanejo attacks, police officers staged a
brief work stoppage outside their headquarters, where scars from the grenade
attack were still visible. One of the blasts left a cereal bowl-shaped divot
in the stone pavement and pockmarks on the front of the police building. It
went off 100 feet from the nearest street, prompting some officers to
suspect that the assailants employed a grenade launcher.
Police have piled sandbags 4 feet high around the compound and
security is tight. Commanders have bought 10 bulletproof vests, but say they
need at least 280 to equip the city’s 343 officers.
The police commander, Pablo Rodriguez, said his officers are
terrified. They are armed with semiautomatic .223-caliber rifles made in
Italy, Germany and Mexico. The rifles, with folding stocks, are snazzy, but
they are no match for the weapons being stockpiled by the drug cartels.
“They are good weapons, but to counteract the types of weapons
they’re using against us, they’re not equal,” Rodriguez said.
His officers know they don’t stand a chance. Not five days after the
highway attack that blew up the police truck, Rodriguez had jobs to fill.
Twenty-two of his cops had abruptly quit.