Militarized cartels pose growing threat to LatAm forces


A Barrett .50 cal vehicular mount found in a cartel truck. Source: Social Media/Rogan Board

A rise in the use of military-grade weaponry among criminal organisations in Latin America is forcing authorities to rethink their defence procurment needs. 

In recent years, the emergence of ‘narco tanks’ in Mexico – improvised armoured vehicles used by narcotraffickers – had drawn international attention, sparking fears that intense conflict could break out regularly on city streets. 

But this trend appears to have waned, falling out of favour because use of the vehicles pressed the Mexican military to begin taking part in police operations. The bigger problem now is in the use of advanced firearms and other personnel equipment typically used by soldiers. 

“Mexican cartel militarisation has resulted in narco commandos having a range of firepower capability, spanning fire team and squad level elements through to motorised company level equivalent units,” says Dr. Robert J. Bunker, Adjunct Research Professor at the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute. 

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“Uniforms and body armour may be worn by more sophisticated cartel personnel who may also have highly specialised military or law enforcement training, while assault rifles and various forms of grenades – both thrown and launched – are quite common.” 

Bunker also cites the use of heavy machine guns and anti-materiel rifles, specifically the .50 Cal Barrett, as being present within some cartel units, alongside rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) that typically use older warhead variants. 

The likes of anti-personnel and anti-tank mines and car bombs (VBIEDs) have not yet been recorded in Mexico (as they have in Colombia). Nor are sniping techniques considered to be well developed in spite of scopes and night-vision optics being employed. 


Cartels have reduced the use of 'narco tanks' since attracting the attention of military forces. Source: Porvenirtv

Commander Victor Hugo Ibañez Valencia, EXO at the Peruvian Marine Corps’ Engineer Battalion, believes the threat varies depending on the type of criminal organisation in question, noting that not all are drug traffickers or militants. Instead, many can simply fit the mould of ‘Violent Extremist Organisations’ (VEOs). 

“There is a thin red line in the need of classifying groups,” he explains. “What a country can do, especially in Latin America, is to be prepared to serve as quick response to all of these threats. We can find still elements operating in alliance with drug warlords and cartels. The ideals of these groups may still be there, but what they care the most about is profit obtained from the activities related to drug traffic.” 

Concern exists however that in some regions, gangs and other organised criminals are slowly evolving in sophistication, having been directly influenced by cartel and guerrilla personnel deployed within their locales. 

On top of militarisation concerns, the rise of ‘hyper-urbanisation’ throughout Latin America is also set to have ramifications on armoured vehicle use and selection.  

“Urban zones rapidly degrade the qualitative military advantages that one force possesses over another,” says Bunker. “Armoured vehicles in urban – and even more so in hyper-urban – terrain require dismounted infantry to be deployed with those systems in a combined arms manner so as to protect them from dismounted opposing force hunter-killer teams.” 

In response to this, automated-close in protective systems are becoming sought for use within hyper-urban terrain alongside the use of obscurants – visible and IR – to screen movement and provide target acquisition.  

The expectation is that manned armoured vehicles will be increasingly supported by slaved, semi-autonomous, and eventually autonomous armoured vehicles and robotic infantry units.