Recent discoveries of homemade "tanks" belonging to Mexican criminal groups have caused widespread concern, but these heavily-armored trucks do not mark a change in gangs' real source of power: their ability to corrupt.
Narco-tanks do represent an increase in gangs' capacity to inflict, and, perhaps more importantly, withstand attacks. As InSight has noted, recent discoveries of tanks and armored cars represent increased technological sophistication on the part of the gangs. But, so far, these military-style vehicles do not appear to be a game-changer. There are no reports of the tanks allowing gangs to attack and overwhelm convoys of soldiers, for example. Nor have they been turned on civilian populations.
While the “narco-tanks,” as the vehicles are often called, make for great blog fodder and provide entertaining videos, seeing their rise as a significant escalation in Mexico's drug war would be wrongheaded. Unlike another recent technological innovation in criminal hardware, “narco-subs” (semi or fully submersible vessels used by Colombian traffickers to avoid maritime interdiction), these tanks don’t help their owners to carry out any task fundamental to their strength.
Their use, in fact, appears to be concentrated in one area. This is the north Mexican states of Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon, where the Gulf Cartel and their former armed wing, the Zetas -- who turned on them in force in 2010 -- are fighting for control of this lucrative strip of territory. The military approach comes, in part, from the groups' shared history. The Zetas' core is former Mexican Special Forces; the Gulf has long used current and former police to fill their ranks.
The tanks are useful in this area also because the battle-lines are different. As opposed to the fight for other cities in Mexico, specifically Juarez and Acapulco, where the battle is about controlling specific neighborhoods for small time drug-peddling, this fight is about controlling an entire trafficking corridor. This means moving groups of ten to fifteen "soldiers" at a time. To date, the traffickers have used bullet-proof SUVs, but they are obviously suffering too many casualties, and have therefore turned to the "tanks."
Still, the emphasis on military strength as we evaluate the Mexican criminal groups' power is misdirected. Mexico’s gangs may be famous for the tens of thousands of dead bodies left in their wake, but their firepower is not the source of their strength. The gangs present the threat they do because their massive profits give them the capacity to corrupt the state and overwhelm criminal justice institutions. The ability to inflict violence while avoiding arrest is merely an unpleasant byproduct of this.
While narco-subs make it easier for Colombian traffickers to send cocaine northward with little risk of capture, thus driving up their profit margins and causing the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to dub the vessels a "game changer," Mexico's armored trucks do not increase the gangs’ wealth, or their power to corrupt.
Furthermore, the novelty of the tanks is not so much in their weaponry, which is not very different to what the narcos have long had in their arsenals, but rather their armor. That is to say, insofar as they represent an improvement from armored SUVs, it is in their defense more than their attack capacity.
A focus on hardware like these trucks, which is the most visible manifestation of Mexico's drug conflict, forms part of a long-existent pattern of observers misunderstanding the nature of Mexico’s criminal groups. Among some of the most frequently repeated falsehoods: that the gangs are hierarchical organizations set up like army divisions, capable of, or interested in, overthrowing the Mexican government, who are moving to take over the streets in hundreds of U.S. cities.
These groups are more federations than vertical, military-like structures. And they are increasingly fragmented, a fact that will make the use of these "narco-tanks" obsolete, especially as smaller, more mobile units enter into more of an asymmetrical war.
In the end, the "tanks" are a sexy narrative, but these mistaken notions about the criminals' "military might" not only inflate the power of Mexico’s groups far beyond any reasonable assessment, they also obscure the problem, and its potential solutions.