MEXICO CITY — Mexico's rival crime gangs are in an arms race, and the latest sign of that are the homemade "Mad Max" type heavily armored vehicles they deploy to withstand fierce clashes with each other.
The army found two more "narco tanks" over the weekend in Ciudad Camargo in Tamaulipas state along the border with Texas.
In earlier discoveries in April and May, armored vehicles found by authorities contained swiveling turrets, snipers' peepholes and gadgets to dump oil and scatter tire-puncturing nails on roadways.
The latest discovery showed that the gangs are upping their game. The two armored vehicles were cloaked in inch-thick steel plating. Built on a three-axle truck bed with a heavily armored cabin, the latest "narco tanks" are far larger than previous versions.
"You can easily fit 20 armed people in here," an unidentified army officer told El Porvenir TV as he showed the inside of one of the vehicles.
The officer said the vehicles could withstand fire from 50-caliber mounted weapons and grenade blasts, and contained a vicious pointed steel battering ram.
An army patrol found the tanks after soldiers spotted two armed men along a road on the highway from Nuevo Laredo to Reynosa, just outside Camargo, authorities said. The men ran into a warehouse. Inside, soldiers found the two armored trucks and a workshop to fabricate more. Two more trucks were in the process of being fitted with steel armor.
Each of the armored trucks had special synthetic insulation to deaden the sound of incoming rounds and air conditioning for the compartment.
Mexican media have dubbed the homemade armored vehicles "Los Monstruos," or The Monsters, while security consultants label the cumbersome vehicles "rhino trucks." None have been used in confrontations with Mexico's army.
"It is believed that they are manufactured to try to intimidate rival groups," said an army PowerPoint presentation sent to McClatchy in May after a previous seizure of a homemade tank.
On April 16, an army patrol heard blasts around Ciudad Mier, which also is in Tamaulipas state, and discovered the burnt hulk of another "narco tank." That vehicle was painted military green and had two turrets on top and six lateral firing ports. It had capacity for 12 combatants.
The vehicle, the army said, was heavy, large and "not very maneuverable in urban areas or on soft or sandy ground."
While the army claimed the vehicles are a "desperate attempt" by drug cartels "to protect their people from the occasional casualties from military personnel," the reality appears that they're used for clashes with rival gangs.
Los Zetas and the Gulf Cartel, two drug gangs, are locked in brutal warfare in Tamaulipas state for control of a key drug smuggling route into Texas.
In mid-May, police found an abandoned "Monstruo" on a highway near Mezquitic in Jalisco state. Five dead bodies lay nearby. The slope-sided, armored vehicle was built on the chassis of a Ford 2011 F-Series Super Duty pickup truck. It also contained a swiveling pop-up turret.
The "narco tanks" are only the latest of a constant effort by drug gangs in Colombia and Mexico to improve their arsenals and find better smuggling methods.
In recent years, cartels have built homemade submarines to bring cocaine north from the Andean region. Some of these submarines are over 100-feet long, can travel as deep as 25 feet below the ocean's surface and carry loads of up to eight tons of narcotics.
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