Mexico’s Drug Lords Ramp Up Their Arsenals with RPGs

Cartel warriors now carry shoulder-fired launchers that can take down helicopters — and reach across the U.S. border. Should they be redefined as terrorists and rebels instead of just gangsters?

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David Martinez Pelcastre / Reuters

A federal police officer stands guard atop a vehicle as members of the investigative police team take genetic material from the parents of slain drug kingpin Heriberto Lazcano, outside a cemetery in Pachuca on Oct. 22, 2012.

When a Mexican SWAT team stopped a stolen Cadillac van in the border city of Piedras Negras, it was not a surprise when they were greeted by a tirade of bullets as the criminals blasted and ran. But after they kicked open the trunk, the officers realized they could have been victims of more catastrophic firepower. The gunmen had been in possession of an arsenal of weapons that included three Soviet-made antitank rockets complete with an RPG-7 shoulder-fired launcher. If the criminals had got a rocket off, they could easily have blown the SWAT vehicle to pieces. RPG-7s can also take out helicopters and were used in the Black Hawk Down episode in Somalia in 1993.

The rockets, found on Saturday, are part of an increasingly destructive array of weaponry wielded by Mexican drug cartels, like the feared Zetas, in reaction to attacks on them by police and soldiers. While security forces have taken down several key cartel bosses this year, gunmen have struck back, setting off five car bombs, hundreds of fragmentation grenades and several shoulder-fired rockets. Soldiers even seized one homemade three-ton tank with a revolving gun turret. When Mexican marines on Oct. 7 claimed to have killed Zetas leader Heriberto Lazcano, he was also alleged to be found with an RPG-7. (Lazcano’s corpse was stolen from the morgue, and the Zetas are now believed to be led by his No. 2, Miguel Treviño.)

The shoulder-fired rockets cause particular worry because of their range and explosive power. Mexican dignitaries often move in helicopters with the army flying Black Hawks supplied by the U.S. under the Mérida Initiative. “The RPG-7 is a weapon that causes incredible devastation from Iraq to Afghanistan,” says Rachel Stohl, an expert on arms proliferation at the Stimson Center in Washington. “When they fall into the hands of criminal groups, it changes the dynamics and escalates the conflict. Instead of just a gunfight on a street, you have military firepower.”

Combatants normally use RPG-7 rockets to target nearby vehicles, but they can reach up to 3,000 ft. (900 m) and are sometimes wielded as a form of artillery, scattering shrapnel at anyone close by. Those fearing spillover were quick to note that gunmen in Piedras Negras could potentially fire a rocket over the Rio Grande into the neighboring U.S. city of Eagle Pass. There have been sporadic gunfights across the river over the years, with gunmen recently firing at U.S. Border Patrol agents near the Texas town of Los Ebanos. (More often, Mexicans have been the victims, like when Border Patrol agents shot dead a 16-year-old boy in Sonora state this month.)

The gun trade has been a long-running bone of contention over the Rio Grande, with Mexico complaining that most of the firearms used by cartel assassins are purchased from U.S. stores. Of almost 100,000 guns seized at Mexican crime scenes since 2007, 68% have been traced to the U.S. The U.S. gun lobby argues that heavier weapons such as the Soviet rockets and fragmentation grenades come from the other direction, smuggled from Central America. Thousands of RPG-7s were used by all sides in the region’s Cold War conflicts in the 1980s. Since then, gangs have stolen many from lingering stockpiles in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Honduras to sell them on the black market. The Honduran government reports that it lost 22 RPG-7s and several rockets in a single 2010 theft. On a visit to Honduras earlier this year, a senior police officer said he had intelligence of Zeta operatives going to the capital, Tegucigalpa, to buy hardware.

When groups like the Zetas wield rockets and tanks, some pundits question whether they should continue to be labeled as drug traffickers — or need a more martial description. The cartel was founded in 1998 by 14 Mexican army defectors, and they carried their battle tactics into the crime world. “The Zetas are a criminal paramilitary organization that is spreading through Mexico and Central America like the bubonic plague,” says Mike Vigil, former head of international operations for the Drug Enforcement Administration.

The Zetas have used their firepower to make their stronghold in northeast Mexico, by the Rio Grande Valley, the country’s most violent corner. While other regions, like the area around Ciudad Juárez, have seen significant decreases in murders since 2010, Coahuila state, home to Piedras Negras, has witnessed its bloodiest year on record, with more than 640 gangland killings; neighboring Nuevo León has recorded over 1,000 such deaths since January. In total, almost 60,000 people have fallen in drug-related violence since President Felipe Calderón took power in 2006 and declared a military offensive on cartels. In the same period, 25 of Mexico’s 37 most wanted cartel bosses have been killed or arrested.

The buildup of cartel weaponry could also be a problem for incoming President Enrique Peña Nieto when he takes office in December. Peña Nieto, who returns the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, to power after 12 years in the wilderness, has promised to halve the number of homicides in Mexico in his first year. While all applaud the target, Peña Nieto has given little concrete information about how he will achieve the goal. When Zeta squads roam the countryside with RPG-7s, some say Peña Nieto could be forced to continue a military line similar to Calderón’s. “There will probably be a change in rhetoric,” says political analyst Jorge Chabat, “but there is a little room for maneuver in tactics.”

10 comments
TerryClifton
TerryClifton

"The build-up of cartel weaponry could also be a problem for incoming president Enrique Peña Nieto when he takes office in December."

You're welcome, Barack Obama

paloverde1
paloverde1

The fomenting of a civil war in Mexico. It's already been in the works under cover of 'the war on drugs'. New World Order agenda breaks down countries from within. 

meddevguy
meddevguy

And the Obama Administration makes sure the President of Mexico gave a speech before a joint session of Congress where the Mexican President scolded the legislators for not knowing how to run a government because they won't let his citizens stream across the border and  send money back to his country. Mexico has a drug army that is a well armed as the Mexican military -- the incompetent Mexican government has as much clue how to defeat these armies as our President does how to cure the economy or form a foreign policy that does not involved murdered ambassadors!

johnadamschwartz
johnadamschwartz like.author.displayName 1 Like

Are we still going to blame this on the Second Amendment?

If Americans really want to help Mexico, we need to end the war on drugs, not start a war on guns.

hanrod1
hanrod1

...further, this is the kind of demand we should have issued to the governments of Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, right after 9-11.

hanrod1
hanrod1 like.author.displayName 1 Like

Of course, this IS A WAR. Eventually we will have to acknowledge that; and then should give the government of Mexico three choices: (1) the Mexican government is to destroy the cartels, literally, along with any supporters and enablers, within a specified period;or, (2) sign an agreement enabling the U.S. government to do so, in the interest of protecting our own country as well as Mexico, or (3) in the event of any major Mexican cartel action on U.S. soil resulting in U.S. deaths, particularly civilian deaths, CONSIDER THAT A DECLARATION OF WAR AGAINST MEXICO HAS BEEN ISSUED, subject only to confirmation by Congress -- and get ready to learn what war really can be.

HectorGA
HectorGA

@hanrod1 Well, about point number one , Mexico would has to invade US and destroy the american pot smokers and cocaine sniffers, because they are the main supporters of the cartels. The other two points just reveals your obsession to attack Mexico. If you want to go to war without the minimal danger of being defeated just tell that.

Cobra6
Cobra6 like.author.displayName 1 Like

The big news is actually that cartels like Los Zetas are apparently just now getting RPG-7's.  RPG-7's are VERY familiar to anyone who has served in any conflict pretty much anywhere on Earth since the 1960's.  They're incredibly common, very unsophisticated, innacurate in the hands of almost anyone, and are NOT a great choice for shooting down helicopters (yes they have done so a few times in the past, as the article notes, but so have small arms.)  Every penny-ante militia and terrorist group in the world has these things, and it's news that one launcher and three rockets were found in the trunk of a car in gangland Mexico?  In Iraq, when we found 1 launcher and 3 rockets in a cache, we were kind of disappointed, it wasn't a big deal.  I'll start to worry about Mexican helicopters when they get sophisticated sufrace-to-air missiles, and I'll worry about Los Zetas shelling Eagle Pass (for what possible purpose?) when they start rolling around with Katyushas or IRAMs.

HectorGA
HectorGA

@Cobra6 Very accurate. That's why the narcozetas don't use this stuff.