Mexican authorities have destroyed almost two dozen so-called "narco-tanks" in another sign of how the country's well-financed and powerful criminal organizations are evolving.
The Attorney General’s Office (Fiscalía General de la República - FGR) crushed a total of 23 armored vehicles allegedly used by organized crime groups, according to a statement released July 24. The demolition took place at an FGR compound in Reynosa, a city disputed by drug gangs in the northeastern border state of Tamaulipas.
Photos released by authorities showed heavily modified pick-up trucks fitted with armored plating, bullet-proof glass, and machine gun turrets, among other military-style features. These trucks are commonly referred to as narco-tanks or monstruos (monsters).
The Attorney General's Office did not name the cartels to which the vehicles formerly belonged. But the logos on some bore resemblance to the Northeast Cartel (Cartel del Noreste - CDN), according to online news platform, Borderland Beat. The CDN is violently battling other drug groups in Tamaulipas, as well as other northern and central areas.
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The 23 narco-tanks represent just a handful of the 630 armored vehicles confiscated by the National Ministry of Defense (Secretaría de Defensa Nacional - SEDENA) from the start of 2018 to date, Milenio reported. Tamaulipas accounts for more than a third of those seizures; authorities confiscated 231 armored vehicles in the state, with 42 considered narco-tanks.
In a July statement, the Tamaulipas State Attorney’s Office (Fiscalía General de Justicia del Estado de Tamaulipas - FGJ) said it had confiscated and destroyed 257 vehicles belonging to cartels from 2019 to date. Of those, 163 were narco-tanks.
There was no indication if the figures provided by SEDENA and the FGJ overlapped.
Narco-tanks first appeared in Mexico around 2010, with the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas pioneering the development of the modified vehicles. The trucks are typically fitted with full armor protection designed to withstand attacks from other drug groups.
Drug traffickers use clandestine workshops to construct the vehicles; they are built mainly by modifying pick-up trucks and SUVs such as the Ford F-350, the Dodge RAM, and Chevrolet Tahoe. The cartels also shield the automobiles with bullet-proof steel made by Swedish manufacturers, Proceso reported.
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The sheer number of narco-tanks seized by Mexican authorities not only demonstrates the financial muscle of the country's cartels, it also shows how important these vehicles are to inflicting damage on rival groups.
The use of armed vehicles to patrol drug production was widespread when cartels relied on marijuana farms that were hundreds of acres in size. Still, many major cartels have entered the era of synthetic drugs, and the need for transport on production sites has lessened.
Synthetic drugs such as fentanyl can be produced in the center of major cities, requiring far less space than drugs like marijuana. The cartels also fabricate methamphetamine, which likewise can be produced in urban labs.
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But shipping these drugs – among others, notably cocaine – out of Mexico requires control of highly-contested supply routes dotted throughout the country. Here, narco-trucks are invaluable to outgunning the competition and stewarding these territories.
The armored vehicles are often found in areas rocked by cartel violence. Tamaulipas and the western state of Michoacán – both fiercely contested by multiple cartels – ranked first and second for narco-tank seizures respectively, according to Milenio.
In these states, shifting alliances and the splintering of drug groups have led to spiraling violence. Besides narco-tanks, drones capable of dropping explosives and grenade launchers are now common features of the battlefield.