Small Wars Journal

Mexican Cartel Tactical Note #14: Anti-Aircraft Mounted .50 cal. Machine Gun and Surface-to-Air Missile Recovered in 2009 (Archival)

Thu, 09/27/2012 - 5:04am

Mexican Cartel Tactical Note #14: Anti-Aircraft Mounted .50 cal. Machine Gun and Surface-to-Air Missile Recovered in 2009 (Archival)

The intent of this note is to update the Mexican cartel tactical note series with some archival information dating back to 2009. The following Mexican cartel weapons should be considered rare and have been encountered sporadically as in the case of .50 cal. machine guns and singularly (potentially) as in the case of surface-to-air missiles. The initial news links and analysis provided for these weapons are attributed to Sylvia Longmire’s Mexico’s Drug War,

Anti-Aircraft Mounted .50 cal. Machine Gun

Key Information: “Mexico police seize anti-aircraft weapon near US border.” Agence France-Presse. 4 April 2009,

MEXICO CITY - Police seized an anti-aircraft machine gun mounted on a van and other heavy weapons at a house in northern Mexico near the US border, an official said Tuesday.

The haul came two days before a visit to Mexico by US President Barack Obama in which Mexico's violent drug cartels and their mainly US-bought weapons were set to top the agenda.

The machine gun seized in Sonora state, bordering Arizona in the United States, could fire 800 shots per minute up to 1,500 meters away, said Rodolfo Cruz, from the federal public security ministry, at a news conference…

Key Information: Mail Foreign Service, “What's a nice girl like you doing with an arsenal like this? Police seize 20-year-old guarding vast weapons cache... including anti-aircraft gun.” Daily Mail. 15 April 2009,

Smirking for the camera, this is the 20-year-old woman Mexican police caught guarding an extraordinary arsenal of weapons.

Anahi Beltran Cabrera was seized during a routine patrol in Sonora state, near the U.S. border.

Officers recovered a vast cache of weapons including an anti-aircraft gun capable of firing 800 shots per minute, five rifles, a grenade and part of a grenade launcher.

They believe the haul belongs to a group allegedly linked to the powerful Belt[r]an Leyva drug cartel.

Cabrera was paraded before the media - along with the weapons she was caught guarding.

The anti-aircraft gun, capable of penetrating armour from more than 5,000ft away and found attached to the top of a SUV, was the first of its type to be seized by Mexican police…

Analyisis:  Via Sylvia Longmire’s 14 April 2009 Mexico’s Drug War entry:

…my best guess is that it was an Oerlikon GAI-BO1 model. It’s a Swiss-made air defense weapon, consisting of an Oerlikon KAB 20mm cannon on a hand-traversed and elevated mounting. It makes sense that, if true, this is the kind of anti-aircraft gun that was seized for a few reasons. First, it's the only anti-aircraft gun used by the Mexican army- or at least it was in 2006. Second, the range for the GAI-BO1 lines up with the information in the article, although the rate of fire is off. Third, it’s one of the smallest and lightest anti-aircraft guns in existence, weighing only 547 kilograms(1,203 pounds) - meaning it could ostensibly be mounted on a larger truck or van. That being said, it would be extremely obvious and unwieldy…[1]

The Longmire analysis suggests that the weapon is a Oerlikon 20mm cannon. Her blog site clearly shows a picture of such a cannon but the photo is not referenced to the weapons seizure (it may be a stock photo). The initial identification of the gun mounted weapon, however, is highly in question because a photo of it that appeared in the article “Mexique : une mitrailleuse antiaérienne saisie à la frontière américaine” of Le Monde. That weapon appears to be a heavy machine gun with a ballistic shield and links of .50 cal. ammo draped over it [2]. The photos of the weapon were forwarded to weapons expert David Kuhn. He verified that the ammo was .50 cal. M2, FMJ draped over the chicken plate (shield). He could find no evidence of tracer round linking in the belts but this could be due to poor photo quality or rough handling of the ammo belts. The weapon itself was identified as either an M2 Browning machine gun or a foreign copy [3].

The utility of such a anti-aircraft gun-truck mount for a .50 cal. M2 machine gun for the Beltrán Leyva cartel and its affiliates is that this larger caliber weapon can be effectively employed against both a) rival cartel gun-trucks and improvised armored fighting vehicles (IAFVs) and b) Mexican military helicopters.  Typically, the machine guns seized belonging to the cartels are smaller caliber such as the 7.62 mm M60 machine gun and the .30 cal. Browning machine gun.   

Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM)

Key Information: “Mexican authorities seize Soviet-era missile in Playa Bagdad.” Valley Central. 15 May 2009,

Mexican authorities are investigating the discovery of a Soviet-era anti-aircraft missile south of where the Rio Grande empties into the Gulf [o]f Mexico.

The El Universal newspaper reported that a hotel employee from the beach resort community of Playa Bagdad made the discovery on Thursday night.

The newspaper reported that the discovery prompted the mobilization of the Mexican navy, soldiers and police.

Authorities seized the missile and searched the area for other explosives but did not find any. 

El Universal reported that the type of missile seized is fired from a shoulder launcher and has a range of a little over two miles.

The newspaper reported that the seized weapon is a first-generation Soviet military heat-seeking missile.

Mexican authorities are continuing to investigate how the missile go[t] to Playa Bagdad [4].

Analyisis: Via Sylvia Longmire’s 16 May 2009 Mexico’s Drug War entry:

It's still too early for me to be able to do more than speculate on the origins of this missile, but I'll do just that. The Spanish El Universal article has a few more specifics on the missile capabilities, and I wish the Mexican authorities would have just come out and said the make and model. From what very little I can gather (and again, the better info is in El Universal, if you read Spanish), there’s a chance the missile might be an old Soviet SA-7…[5]

The original El Universal Spanish article confirms, as Longmire suggests, that the missile recovered is likely that of an SA-7. Mention of the infrared (heat seeking) guidance system also being recovered was noted in the article. Apparently a hotel employee found the missile, which contained its explosive warhead, on a local beach.  No other information has appeared concerning this incident. No photos of the recovered missile have been identified. The area of Baghdad Beach (Playa Bagdad) is located in Matamoros, Tamaulipas in the area of influence of the Gulf and Los Zetas cartels— the incident took place prior to their later split. While no links to these cartels have been mentioned, it would have been virtually impossible to illicitly transport the suspected SA-7 missile into that city without the permission of those cartels. The proximity of the recovered missile to the US southern border is also of concern. The circumstances behind the transport of the missile and its subsequent abandonment remain a mystery.

Of interest is that 2 years after this incident, in March 2011, a story broke in which Sinaloa cartel operatives were indicted on weapons charges pertaining to a undercover operation in which they were arrested while attempting to acquire military grade weapons in the US which were to be shipped back to Mexico. These weapons included a US Stinger surface-to-air missile and various anti-tank systems such as the Dragon, AT4, and LAW. The basis of this conspiracy goes back to November 2009, about 6 months after the Playa Bagdad SA-7 incident (6). A conviction leading to a 25-year prison sentence was later obtained in this case (7).

Significance: Cartel Weapons, Surface-to-Air Missile


1. See

2. See the photos at “Mexique : une mitrailleuse antiaérienne saisie à la frontière américaine.” Le Monde.14 April 2009,

3. Email correspondence with David Kuhn on 25 September 2012.

4. The original Spanish article is Julio Manuel L. Guzmán, “Localizan misil antiaéreo abandonado en playa de Tamaulipas: Estaba en la orilla de la playa de Bagdad frente a la zona comercial y hotelera.” El Universal. Tamps Jueves 14 De Mayo De 2009,

5. See

6. Dennis Wagner, “3 accused of plotting to give military weapons to Mexican cartel.”  USA Today.  18 March 2011,

7. Robert Tilford, “Sinaloa drug cartel member tried to buy Stinger missile, CNN reports.” 24 August 2012,

Categories: El Centro - Tactical Note