Rise to Peace blog

A Growing and Changing Threat: The Evolution of Narco-Warfare in Mexico

The levels of violence associated with drug trafficking in Mexico are critical. The country has several security challenges due to the presence, activities, and strengthening of drug cartels. These illegal organizations continually seek to innovate their methods to ship drug shipments around the world, expand throughout the country and the region, and contest control of illicit markets against other criminal groups.

However, one factor relevant to drug cartel violence Mexican security forces must address is the modernization of cartel equipment, vehicles, and weapons. The evolution of narco-warfare in Mexico is extremely threatening as it exponentially increases the firepower of these illegal organizations, their warfare, and their defenses.

Drug Trafficking Violence in Mexico

Mexico is currently experiencing one of its most violent periods. Drug cartels have intensified violence in the country, either through confrontation against other illegal organizations or against State forces.  In fact, it has been reported that in 2021 Mexico registered 33,315 homicides after the two most violent years in its history, under Andrés Manuel López Obrador, with 34,690 murder victims in 2019 and 34,554 in 2020.

Drug cartels are perhaps the biggest threat to the country’s security and stability.  Presently, 16 cartels are vying for control of the country; and the criminal organizations with the largest presence are the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG), which has a presence in 24 states, and the Gulf Cartel, which has a presence in nine states. There are also other cartels with a large presence in the country, such as the Sinaloa Cartel or the Northeast Cartel, who have allied with the Zetas. Other criminal organizations with a presence in the country are Los Beltrán Leyva, La Familia Michoacana, Los Caballeros Templarios, Juarez Cartel, Arellano Felix Cartel, Tlahuac Cartel, Unión Tepito, Guerreros Unidos, Los Rojos, Los Viagras, and Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel.

Drug trafficking is the main source of financing for these groups and fuels the violence in the country.  According to the annual report of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Mexican criminal organizations continue to control much of the import of cocaine into the United States and wholesale cocaine trafficking within the country. They rely heavily on local criminal groups and street gangs for retail distribution.

According to U.S. authorities, Mexican criminal groups often procure multi-ton shipments of cocaine from drug traffickers in South America. The report also notes that according to U.S. authorities, the main cocaine trafficking routes, the eastern Pacific route and the western Caribbean route converge in Mexico, from where the drug enters the United States, mostly by land across the country’s south-western border.

However, Mexican drug cartels also engage in other types of illegal activities beyond drug trafficking to finance and fortify themselves. Some of these include human trafficking, migrant smuggling, extortion, kidnapping, piracy, fuel theft, vehicle theft on federal highways, illegal logging, extortion of mining companies, water trafficking, trafficking of medical equipment and medicines, including unregistered and counterfeit products, and loans.

Evolution of Narco-Warfare: An Emerging Threat

The millions in revenue from drug trafficking and other illegal activities have allowed Mexican cartels to modernize their equipment and weaponry, leading to increased firepower and warfare capabilities. This is a significant risk factor for Mexico’s stability and security, as the trend indicates that the cartels will seek to strengthen themselves.

In 2011, Mexican authorities in the state of Tamaulipas found two dump trucks, such as those commonly used for transporting goods, converted into tanks with armor up to 2.5 centimeters thick.  The “narco-tanks” have continued to be used ever since, and with their use among drug cartels appearing to be increasingly common. In 2021, in the state of Tamaulipas there was a confrontation between two narco-tanks of the Gulf Cartel and the Northeast Cartel, both of which were also equipped with high-caliber weapons. In March of the same year, the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) exhibited two of its narco-tanks on the streets of Michoacán, which were two large trucks armored from the wheels to the roof with iron plates, transformed into homemade tanks.

The drug cartels’ new capabilities are not limited to the creation of narco-tanks but are also reflected in the acquisition of better weaponry. During the failed operation to capture Ovidio Guzmán López, son of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, it became evident through videos that the Sinaloa Cartel was in possession of weapons such as machine guns, assault rifles, grenades, pistols, and mortars. The gunmen were further known to be in possession of the fearsome Barrett M82 rifle, which is known as “the weapon of choice of the narcos terrorizing Mexico.”  As for the acquisition of these weapons, Mexican authorities found that seven out of every ten weapons seized from criminals are of U.S. manufacture, with many manufactured in Arizona and Texas gun shops.

There have also been innovations in the use of technology and explosives. In 2022, alleged members of the CJNG used drones to drop explosives in Michoacán. The cartel members dropped explosives and are likely to employ this technique again in the future as drones are capable of autonomous flight, are lightweight, and cheaper than traditional aircraft.

Mexican cartels have also improved their human talent and the quality of their troops. For example, a few years ago it became known that the Los Zetas cartel offered huge sums of money to former members of the Mexican Special Forces (GAFES), an elite military special mission corps created by the National Defense Secretariat and trained abroad to confront rival cartels and law enforcement agencies.

Other cartels across the country have replicated this practice. In 2020, the Mexican Army dismantled an alleged Sinaloa Cartel training camp in which five alleged former Mexican Army soldiers were training the cartel’s new recruits.  The training camps have also been used by other cartels and have been described as places where new cartel members are taught to “handle long and short weapons, to set ambushes, to respect the rules, not to be a gossip and also to kill.”

The cartels themselves have also shared the evolution of narco-warfare through online videos. In 2020, the CJNG shared a video showing more than 80 people carrying different caliber weapons, anti-aircraft weapons, military equipment, and several armored cars. The individuals in this video shouted slogans in support of the cartel’s leader, alias “Mencho,” and claimed to be members of the organization’s elite group.

Present and Future Implications

Improvements in the capabilities of Mexican cartels demonstrate that the risk posed by these organizations has increased exponentially, which is likely to further increase levels of violence throughout Mexico.

The cartels’ technological, warfare, and tactical advances indicate a high capacity for innovation. They have large sources of financial resources to fund such advances, have infiltrated Mexican security agencies, and will use their improvements to increase their profits, zones of influence, and power within the Mexican state.

The cartels’ equipment, weapons, vehicles, and fighters will make it more difficult for the Mexican security forces to operate since they will have to use more resources to combat illegal organizations, which are no longer simple criminal groups. Instead, they are organized groups with the ability to carry out large-scale terrorist attacks, mobilize large numbers of men and resources, and confront state forces with large-caliber weapons.

Therefore, despite the fact that today there is no clear solution to end the war on drug trafficking, it is necessary for the Mexican government to propose effective strategies to dismantle drug cartels, tracing high-caliber weapons, monitoring retired soldiers, and anti-drone and anti-armored vehicle capabilities. The risk that the cartels continue to improve their equipment and weapons is latent, so effective measures need to be taken as soon as possible to mitigate this risk and prevent the cartels from reaching the military capabilities of a conventional army.


Daniel Felipe Ruiz Rozo, Counter-Terrorism Research Fellow

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