Pubdate: Sun, 15 Mar 2009
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Page: Front
Copyright: 2009 Los Angeles Times
Authors: Ken Ellingwood and Tracy Wilkinson
Bookmark: Mexico Under Siege (Series)

Mexico Under Siege


Narcotics traffickers are acquiring firepower more appropriate to an 
army -- including grenade launchers and antitank rockets -- and the 
police are feeling outgunned.

Reporting from Zihuatanejo, Mexico, and Mexico City -- It was a 
brazen assault, not just because it targeted the city's police 
station, but for the choice of weapon: grenades.

The Feb. 21 attack on police headquarters in coastal Zihuatanejo, 
which injured four people, fit a disturbing trend of Mexico's drug 
wars. Traffickers have escalated their arms race, acquiring 
military-grade weapons, including hand grenades, grenade launchers, 
armor-piercing munitions and antitank rockets with firepower far 
beyond the assault rifles and pistols that have dominated their arsenals.

Most of these weapons are being smuggled from Central American 
countries or by sea, eluding U.S. and Mexican monitors who are 
focused on the smuggling of semiauto-matic and conventional weapons 
purchased from dealers in the U.S. border states of Texas, New 
Mexico, Arizona and California.

The proliferation of heavier armaments points to a menacing new stage 
in the Mexican government's 2-year-old war against drug 
organizations, which are evolving into a more militarized force 
prepared to take on Mexican army troops, deployed by the thousands, 
as well as to attack each other.

These groups appear to be taking advantage of a robust global black 
market and porous borders, especially between Mexico and Guatemala. 
Some of the weapons are left over from the wars that the United 
States helped fight in Central America, U.S. officials said.

"There is an arms race between the cartels," said Alberto Islas, a 
security consultant who advises the Mexican government.

"One group gets rocket-propelled grenades, the other has to have them."

There are even more ominous developments: Authorities reported three 
thefts of several hundred pounds of blasting material from industrial 
explosives plants in Durango during a four-day period last month. 
Authorities believe the material may have been destined for car bombs 
or remotely detonated roadside devices, which have been used with 
devastating effect in Iraq, killing more than 1,822 members of 
U.S.-led forces since the war there began nearly six years ago.

The Mexican army has recovered most of the material, and there has 
been no reported use of such devices.

Grenades or military-grade weapons have been reported in at least 10 
Mexican states during the last six months, used against police 
headquarters, city halls, a U.S. consulate, TV stations and senior 
Mexican officials. In a three-week period ended March 6, five grenade 
attacks were launched on police patrols and stations and the home of 
a commander in the south-central state of Michoacan. Other such 
attacks occurred in five other states during the same period.

At least one grenade attack north of the border, at a Texas nightclub 
frequented by U.S. police officers, has been tied to Mexican traffickers.

How many weapons have been smuggled into Mexico from Central America 
is not known, and the military-grade munitions are still a small 
fraction of the larger arsenal in the hands of narcotics traffickers. 
Mexican officials continue to push Washington to stem the 
well-documented flow of conventional weapons from the United States, 
as Congress holds hearings on the role those smuggled guns play in 
arming Mexican drug cartels.

There is no comprehensive data on how many people have been killed by 
heavier weapons.

But four days after the assault on the Zihuatanejo police station, 
four of the city's officers were slain in a highway ambush six miles 
from town on the road to Acapulco. In addition to the standard AK-47 
and AR-15 assault rifles, the attackers fired at least six 
.50-caliber shells into the officers' pickup. The vehicle blew up 
when hit by what experts believe was a grenade or explosive 
projectile. The bodies of the officers were charred.

"These are really weapons of war," said Alberto Fernandez, spokesman 
for the Zihuatanejo city government. "We only know these devices from 
war movies."

U.S. law enforcement officials say they detected the smuggling of 
grenades and other military-grade equipment into Mexico about a year 
and a half ago, and observed a sharp uptick in the use of the weapons 
about six months ago.

The Mexican government said it has seized 2,239 grenades in the last 
two years, in contrast to 59 seized over the previous two years.

The enhanced weaponry represents a wide sampling from the 
international arms bazaar, with grenades and launchers produced by 
U.S., South Korean, Israeli, Spanish or former Soviet bloc 
manufacturers. Many had been sold legally to governments, including 
Mexico's, and then were diverted onto the black market. Some may be 
sold directly to the traffickers by corrupt elements of national 
armies, authorities and experts say.

The single deadliest attack on civilians by drug traffickers in 
Mexico took place Sept. 15 at an Independence Day celebration in the 
central plaza of Morelia, hometown of President Felipe Calderon and 
capital of Michoacan. Attackers hurled fragmentation grenades at the 
celebrating crowd, killing eight people and wounding dozens more.

Amid the recent spate of attacks in Michoacan, federal police on Feb. 
20 announced the discovery of 66 fragmentation grenades in the fake 
bottom of a truck intercepted in southern Mexico, just over the 
border from Guatemala. The two men arrested with the cargo told 
police they were transporting the grenades to Morelia.

Grenades used in three attacks in Monterrey and Texas were linked to 
a single Monterrey warehouse, packed with explosives and high-caliber 
guns, reportedly belonging to the Gulf cartel. Mexican authorities 
raided the warehouse in October and seized the cache, which contained 
South Korean-manufactured grenades similar to the American M67 
fragmentation grenade.

Grenades from the same lot were used in a Jan. 6 attack on the 
Televisa television station in Monterrey, which caused damage but no 
injuries, and during an Oct. 12 attack against the U.S. Consulate in 
Monterrey. The device at the consulate did not detonate.

Late on the night of Jan. 31, a Saturday, a man tossed a grenade into 
the El Booty Lounge in Pharr, Texas. Three off-duty Texas police 
officers were there, though authorities would not say whether they 
were the target. The explosive, which did not detonate, was traced to 
the Monterrey warehouse.

Traffickers using M203 40-millimeter grenade launchers last year 
attacked and killed eight Mexican federal police officers in 
Culiacan, the capital of Sinaloa state. In the northern border city 
of Nogales, the Sonora state police commander was killed Nov. 2 in an 
ambush by purported traffickers firing AK-47s and lobbing grenades. 
He had been returning from a meeting with U.S. authorities in Arizona 
to discuss gun smuggling.

In the western state of Durango, three people, including a 3-year-old 
child, were killed in a grenade attack in January.

The firepower has gone beyond grenades. Armed with light antitank 
weapons, would-be assassins went after the nation's top 
counternarcotics prosecutor in December 2007. The assailants were 
intercepted before they reached Jose Luis Santiago Vasconcelos, who 
was not hurt. The weapons seized were linked to the notorious Sinaloa cartel.

"They were betting on being able to escalate with a spectacular 
strike precisely to terrify society," Santiago Vasconcelos said at 
the time. (He was killed in November in a plane crash.)

Beyond the weaponry, drug gangs for several years have demonstrated 
the ability to form squads and employ military tactics, including the 
use of assault rifles, hand grenades, grenade launchers and fully 
automatic weapons to pin down army forces. This has enabled them to 
attack army patrols frontally, as they did with lethal results Feb. 7 
in the central state of Zacatecas, killing one sergeant and 
critically wounding a colonel.

"At this stage, the drug cartels are using basic infantry weaponry to 
counter government forces," a U.S. government official in Mexico 
said. "Encountering criminals with this kind of weaponry is a horse 
of a different color," the official said.

"It's not your typical patrol stop, where someone pulls a gun. This 
has all the makings of an infantry squad, or guerrilla fighting."

The fear of guerrilla warfare was compounded in February when 270 
pounds of dynamite and several hundred electric detonators were 
stolen from a U.S. firm in the state of Durango. On Valentine's Day, 
about 20 masked gunmen, led by a heavyset man wearing gold rings and 
chains, stormed the warehouse of a subsidiary of Austin Powder Co., 
an industrial explosives manufacturer, according to official 
accounts. They overpowered guards and emptied the warehouse. Two 
similar thefts were reported within four days in the same area.

Although the Mexican army recovered most of the dynamite, the 
incident augurs an even bloodier trend, officials said.

"There is only one reason to have bulk explosives," said Thomas G. 
Mangan, spokesman in Phoenix for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, 
Firearms and Explosives. "An improvised explosive device. A car bomb."

In addition to grenades, high-powered guns such as the .50-caliber 
Barrett sniper rifle have become a weapon of choice in narcotics 
traffickers' arsenals, Mangan said. Unlike grenades and antitank 
weapons, the .50-caliber guns can be obtained by ordinary citizens in 
the U.S. and smuggled easily into Mexico, like the tons of assault 
rifles and automatic pistols.

Mexican law enforcement, such as the police in Zihuatanejo, is 
grossly outgunned. Officers have protested, seeking better protective 
gear, weaponry and pay.

Shortly after the Zihuatanejo attacks, police officers staged a brief 
work stoppage outside their headquarters, where scars from the 
grenade attack were still visible. One of the blasts left a cereal 
bowl-shaped divot in the stone pavement and pockmarks on the front of 
the police building. It went off 100 feet from the nearest street, 
prompting some officers to suspect that the assailants employed a 
grenade launcher.

Police have piled sandbags 4 feet high around the compound and 
security is tight. Commanders have bought 10 bulletproof vests, but 
say they need at least 280 to equip the city's 343 officers.

The police commander, Pablo Rodriguez, said his officers are 
terrified. They are armed with semiautomatic .223-caliber rifles made 
in Italy, Germany and Mexico. The rifles, with folding stocks, are 
snazzy, but they are no match for the weapons being stockpiled by the 
drug cartels.

"They are good weapons, but to counteract the types of weapons 
they're using against us, they're not equal," Rodriguez said.

His officers know they don't stand a chance. Not five days after the 
highway attack that blew up the police truck, Rodriguez had jobs to 
fill. Twenty-two of his cops had abruptly quit.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom