The armored cars Mexican gangs use to do battle in the contested state of Tamaulipas are increasingly technologically sophisticated, equipped with sniper platforms and James Bond-style gadgets.
A video produced by newspaper El Universal surveys vehicles that the military has seized from the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel in the northern state, which is one of the most violent in Mexico.
The cars range from crude imitations of tanks to SUVs capable of stopping rounds from M-16 and AK-47s. Gunmen are shying away from using flashy, luxury cars, El Universal reports, opting instead for steel-plated vehicles more fit for combat, in some cases, than those used by the military.
Some of the modifications made to the vehicles depicted in the video indicate how bad street warfare has got in Tamaulipas. One tank-like car comes equipped with a perch, which allows a sniper to cover a 160 degree radius. A rhino truck is fitted with two shotguns in the driver's seat, as well as steel reinforcements capable of resisting grenade attacks. Other pick-up trucks have been fitted with gadgets that spray oil and nails on the road.
The army has confiscated 100 "narco-trucks" in Tamaulipas, reports El Universal. As the video shows, these are vehicles built to withstand serious offensive warfare. Armored car sales in Mexico rose 20 percent last year, according to Reuters, as upper class families sought ways to protect themselves from kidnapping and attacks. It is possible that criminal groups also contributed to the sales boom. The fact that gangs like the Zetas are buying Level 5 bulletproof cars, then further modifying them to better accommodate snipers, is an indication of how brutal the war in Tamaulipas has become.
Criminal groups in the state also make use of imitation military trucks and uniforms, like the ones thought to have been used at the Zetas roadblock where Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent Jaime Zapata was killed in February. There is one key difference between the imitation trucks and those actually used by the military: army vehicles are often not even armored. That drug gangs like the Zetas are using military-style trucks and clothing, almost indistinguishable from the real thing except for small details, demonstrates their determination to exert territorial and social control in Tamaulipas. That the group are literally presenting themselves in state uniform in Tamaulipas lends support to those that compare them to an insurgency.
Perhaps more worrying than the evidence of advanced technical equipment is that the drug gangs are also showing increased sophistication in their use of "urban guerrilla" strategies. According to the video report, groups like the Zetas are known to travel in convoys of ten to 20 vehicles, carrying up to five gunmen each. They carry out carefully planned attacks, ambushing targets such as a military patrol, making use of side streets to encircle and trap their intended victim.
This kind of strategic advantage -- knowledge of the ground and, presumably, pointmen on the streets who can track the movements of the security forces -- will likely prove just as important for the drug gangs as sophisticated technological equipment. A decked-out truck is one thing, but knowing how to best mobilize an army of grenade-resistant vehicles is another.