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“Las Bestias” : The Armoured Vehicles of the Mexican Drug War

An improvised armoured vehicle used by cartels. Source: Diario de Narco

In mid-June of this year, Mexican armed forces destroyed 14 armoured vehicles belonging to drug trafficking groups. These armoured vehicles, known as cartel ‘monsters,’ were seized in the Northeastern border state of Tamaulipas where there is regular ongoing violence between drug trafficking groups and state forces. 

In a video released by the Mexican Attorney General’s office, seized monsters are dismantled, showcasing the battering rams, reinforced bullet-stopping armour, and machine gun turrets that adorn them. Another video showed their interior: a dark interior, with all but streams of light blocked by armour plating the outside of the vehicle. Drivers sometimes use a live video feed for the outside to see and navigate their environment.  

The cartel monsters began appearing in 2010 and were strongly associated with the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas (a criminal group which splintered from the Gulf Cartel in 2010). Although first seen in Northern Mexico, they are increasingly spread across Mexico, becoming a frequent tool in organised crime group’s arsenal. Videos constantly surface online of armoured vehicles on patrols, most commonly with groups associated with the Sinaloa Cartel (CDS) and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG).

There are numerous types of monsters, with diversity in both the type of the vehicles and the armoured modifications. The type of vehicles ranges from delivery trucks, SUVs, and work trucks. The diverse types of modification broadly fall into two categories: defensive and offensive. Defensive modifications are more common, and found in most armoured vehicles. They usually are simply armoured plates which cover the door and windows to stop bullets. Offensive modifications can range from gun turrets to battering rams. Here you can see monsters from opposing cartels battling each other on the highway, demonstrating their versatility in action.

While the Mexican army relies on high-tech factories or American imports to build their armoured vehicles, cartel monsters are created in Mad-Max style ‘monster’ factories, junkyards welding thick metal sheets onto stolen or revived cars and trucks, with closed-circuit cameras used to provide external vision. Both factories produce a similar outcome: a powerful vehicle with serious stopping power.


The rampant violence of the drug war

The cartel monsters are just another tool in the increasingly violent and militarised Mexican drug war. Prior to the 1990s, Mexico’s drug trade was not particularly violent: this was partly driven by what Ioan Grillo, author of El Narco and Blood, Guns, and Money,described as “organised corruption”. Drug trafficking groups paid massive bribes to key politicians and bureaucrats in state institutions to ensure their operations ran smoothly, went by undetected, or were warned of incoming enforcement. Mexican criminal organisations paid an estimated $500 million per year in the 1990s, which was double the budget of the Attorney General’s budget at the time.

This fairly stable environment was disrupted in the late 1990s to mid-2000s due to the American emphasis on suppressing Caribbean Sea cocaine trade routes, increasing the importance (and profitability) of Mexican trafficking routes. Mexican cartels grew in power and began to purchase cocaine directly from Latin American producing regions, and to traffic the drug themselves. In 1998, 57% of cocaine entered North America through Central America; by 2010, this increased to 90%. The profit and power of Mexican criminal groups quickly grew.

With more money, came more violence: the growing profitability of the cocaine industry, and a fragmented power landscape. Throughout the 2000s until today, there has been an exponential growth in Mexican organised criminal groups. This was catalysed by a crackdown on Mexican state corruption beginning in 2006, which meant the old system of briberies were no longer as effective. Market control was enforced through violence; and as one cartel was subdued, other more powerful and violent ones would appear to replace it.  

As Grillo described, “without a single clear central power overseeing the drug trade, but a fragmented corruption system, the cartels used the power of arms to fight over these trafficking plazas.”

The Mexican state is also responsible for catalysing the violence of the drug war: the most consequential example of this is Los Zetas. Los Zetas initially began as a military arm of the Gulf Cartel, then one of the largest cartels in the country holding prominent territory and drug trafficking routes in the Northeast of Mexico, particularly the state of Tamaulipas. Los Zetas, however, was made up of defectors from GAFE, a group of elite trained fighters by the Mexican state. They used their expertise in urban combat to become one of the largest criminal groups in the country. They were described by the DEA in 2007 as the most “technologically advanced, sophisticated, and violent” group in Mexico.

Los Zetas’ violent tactics and military sophistication was copied by several other Mexican criminal groups. This was done extremely effectively by CJNG, regarded today as one of the most powerful criminal organisations in Mexico; they were originally named the “Zetas Killers” to showcase their ambitions.

The abundance of weapons also helped crank up the firepower of cartels – and the need to defend against it. Violence between cartels was particularly enabled by the 2004 US gun ban, which accelerated Mexican access to powerful semi-automatic weapons. It is estimated that 200,000 semi-automatic weapons, mainly AK-47s and AR-15s, are smuggled from the US into Mexico each year. Simple modification can convert these semi-automatic weapons into fully automatic, which are then used not only on other criminal groups, but also state forces. 

Cartel monsters emerged out of this abundance in weapons: as the state has tanks, so too do the cartels require mobile protection for their people and goods.

In essence, then, the cartel monsters are simply a smaller part of the continual militarisation, or para-militarisation, of criminal groups in Mexico. Their makeshift yet powerful nature demonstrates the deadly fusion between high-calibre weapons and power hunger. The ease of creating these vehicles also means they are fairly cheap.

Photos of a cartel’s monster factory. Source: Procuraduría General de la República.

Hence, the armoured vehicles, as is often the case in war, will likely continue to be part of Mexico’s continual violence. Grillo described this process as a “vicious circle” in which cartels are “getting more guns and getting more heavily armoured in response to the fact that you have the military fighting against them” but also the military pursues this conflict with the cartels “because the cartels are so heavily armed.”

The monsters are yet another tool in the ever-spiralling violent climate of Mexico, a weapon used to fight the militarised state forces and other militarised criminal groups. Not only does this increase the violence around the drug trade, it exponentially raises the risk for those simply existing in Mexico.

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