Mexico’s Drug Lords Ramp Up Their Arsenals With RPGs
When a Mexican SWAT team stopped a stolen Cadillac van in the border city of Piedras Negras, it was not a surprise when they were greeted by a tirade of bullets as the criminals blasted and ran. But after they kicked open the trunk, the officers realized they could have been victims of more catastrophic firepower. The gunmen had been in possession of an arsenal of weapons that included three Soviet-made antitank rockets complete with an RPG-7 shoulder-fired launcher. If the criminals had got a rocket off, they could easily have blown the SWAT vehicle to pieces. RPG-7s can also take out helicopters and were used in the Black Hawk Down episode in Somalia in 1993.
The rockets, found on Saturday, are part of an increasingly destructive array of weaponry wielded by Mexican drug cartels, like the feared Zetas, in reaction to attacks on them by police and soldiers. While security forces have taken down several key cartel bosses this year, gunmen have struck back, setting off five car bombs, hundreds of fragmentation grenades and several shoulder-fired rockets. Soldiers even seized one homemade three-ton tank with a revolving gun turret. When Mexican marines on Oct. 7 claimed to have killed Zetas leader Heriberto Lazcano, he was also alleged to be found with an RPG-7. (Lazcano’s corpse was stolen from the morgue, and the Zetas are now believed to be led by his No. 2, Miguel Treviño.)
The shoulder-fired rockets cause particular worry because of their range and explosive power. Mexican dignitaries often move in helicopters with the army flying Black Hawks supplied by the U.S. under the Mérida Initiative. “The RPG-7 is a weapon that causes incredible devastation from Iraq to Afghanistan,” says Rachel Stohl, an expert on arms proliferation at the Stimson Center in Washington. “When they fall into the hands of criminal groups, it changes the dynamics and escalates the conflict. Instead of just a gunfight on a street, you have military firepower.”