Makeshift bombs and grenade launchers are now being used in battles between cartels and Mexico’s security forces in an alarming escalation of firepower.
During a three-week span in February, anti-mine squads of army troops unearthed at least 250 homemade explosives in the western state of Michoacán, La Jornada reported.
The anti-mine units were sent to Michoacán after a roadside explosion destroyed an armored truck that was part of a military convoy patrolling roadways near Tepalcatepec. That blast was attributed to an improvised explosive device (IED), according to the Associated Press (AP), which reported that it was the first time an IED had been successfully deployed by cartels in Mexico.
About two weeks after the roadside blast, a farmer was killed and his son injured in an explosion while working in the municipality of Aguililla, Milenio reported. The farmer, according to the report, stepped on what was described as a homemade landmine.
Meanwhile, the Mexican military has added to its firepower in Michoacán. Troops are now wielding rocket launchers to take out trucks that have been retrofitted as armored vehicles, Milenio reported. In January, the army confiscated a truck built with metal sheeting to withstand .50-caliber bullets and eight-layer thick bulletproof windows. In February 2020, the army seized a retrofitted dump truck in Aguililla, which also had been repurposed into a “narco-tank.”
The most recent discovery of war-quality weaponry happened on March 2, when Mexican authorities in Michoacán secured a building used for the production of explosives dropped from drones. In the building, officers found more than 30 "potatoes," round bombs made from gunpowder, metal nails and other sharp objects.
Much of the escalation in firepower has been blamed on incursions by the violent and powerful Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación - CJNG). The CJNG has laid siege to the state in its effort to drive out other drug gangs, such as the Cárteles Unidos, an alliance between a number of local groups, including the Viagras and the Cartel de Tepalcatepec.
InSight Crime Analysis
Weapons that are more likely to be found in war zones are increasingly being used by cartels, and Mexico’s military is responding with overwhelming firepower.
Ten years ago, criminal groups operating in Michoacán had armed pickups, semi-automatic weapons and a limited number of explosives such as grenades. Over the past few years, groups have upgraded to massive makeshift armored vehicles, modified drones carrying explosives, and other improvised war-type weaponry. IEDs are the most recent addition to this arsenal, and their appearance in Michoacán is particularly concerning, given that they are cheap, relatively easy to make and can have devastating effects.
One of the IEDs discovered in Michoacan recently was described as a PVC pipe bomb containing gunpowder, iron for shrapnel, a battery and two connectors with cables activated on contact, according to Milienio. Authorities told the news outlet that they fear experts are advising the CJNG on creating and developing the devices.
The Mexican army has responded to the fighting in Michoacán with battle-grade force. This includes not only the use of rocket launchers but Black Hawk helicopters to patrol the region, according to a November 2021 AP report.
While local groups operating in Michoacán have also intensified their arsenals, they are keener to reach an accommodation with federal forces, as they do not have the will or the means to compete with the army in direct conflict. The well-resourced CJNG, however, has ramped up its use of violent tactics and language against the army and government. “There is always an element of negotiation when you use [violence] against the state,” Falko Ernst, a senior Mexico analyst for International Crisis Group, told InSight Crime. With the use of these new weapons, the CJNG could be trying to leverage their position with the Mexican army by “sending a message to stay clear from our territory or turf because we have a potential to escalate,” he said.