Small Wars Journal

Mexican Cartel Tactical Note # 3: Narco Armored Vehicle Threats and Countermeasures

Mon, 08/29/2011 - 12:39pm

Mexican Cartel Tactical Note # 3: Narco Armored Vehicle Threats and Countermeasures

Robert J. Bunker

Who: Mexican Cartels (Lev III/IAFV; primarily Zetas & Gulf Cartel) 

What: The deployment of narco armored cars and improvised armored fighting vehicles (IAFVs) in Mexico as a byproduct of the criminal insurgencies taking place.

When: I&W (indications & warnings) traced back to at least 1979 to the Dadeland Mall shooting in Florida tied to a Colombian cartel assassination team using improvised ballistic protection in a delivery truck (historical). Mexican cartel deployment of armored SUVs begins by the late 1990s and has greatly increased over time. A firebreak was crossed with the initial deployment of improvised armored fighting vehicles (IAFVs) in 2010.

Where: Threat Level I- sporadic at best in Mexico; Threat Level II- throughout cartel areas of operations in Mexico; Threat Level III- primarily in North-Eastern and Central Mexico, with vehicles recovered in the states of Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nayarit, Nuevo Leon and Tamaulipas.

Why: For well over a decade now, a deadly arms race has been taking place in Mexico between the various warring cartels and their gang and mercenary auxiliary forces. Weaponry has been shifting from civilian arms to law enforcement arms and then to infantry combat small arms. The introduction of cartel enforcers with former military and special forces backgrounds has resulted in the fielding of cartel units that have been increasingly professionalized. A component of this process is the deployment of armored SUVs and improvised armored fighting vehicles (IAFVs).

Synopsis of Narco Armored Vehicle Threats

Threat Level




I (Defensive)

Vehicle with Improvised/Hasty Ballistic Protection 

‘War wagon’ at Dadeland Mall, Florida (1979); sporadic/hasty use in Mexico (current)

Ballistic vests hanging inside a delivery truck to provide protection to Colombian cartel assassination team (historical); vests, sand bags, and/or steel plates for basic ballistic protection  

II (Defensive)

Professionally Armored SUV

Throughout Mexico (Increasingly since the late 1990s)

Internal armor kits, ballistic glass, run flat tires

III- Early (Offensive)

Improvised Pill Box/Firing Position on Bed of Truck [see Gerardo for evolutionary examples]

Primarily North-Eastern and Central Mexico (~2009-2010); typically superceded by more mature variant

Work trucks with soft cabs; armored screens/box with firing ports for gunmen in bed

III- Mature (Offensive)

Improvised Armored Fighting Vehicle (IAFV) [aka “narco-tanks” (narcotanques), “Rhino trucks,” and “monster trucks” (monstruos); [Sullivan/Elkus]

Primarily North-Eastern and Central Mexico (since 2010)/td>

Platforms used are typically  work trucks/ heavy equipment. Exterior armor plating (.5 to 2.5 cm), gunports, and air conditioning for mounted troops; external gun mounts, turret firing ports, breaching rams

IV (Offensive)

IAFV with organic tank-like gun

Predicted Evolution 

Level III with organic anti-vehicular main gun

Tactical Analysis

Narco armored vehicles come in defensive (Lev I-II) and offensive (Lev III) variants. While Lev II vehicles were superior in defensive armor to early Lev III vehicles (which did not have protected cabs/driver compartments), the early Lev III vehicles utilized gun ports as an offensive innovation. This allows for mounted infantry tactics to be conducted much like those undertaken by military units.

Defensive Vehicles

 Threat Level I: Hasty/improvised ballistic protection utilized in otherwise soft vehicle. Countermeasures: Utilize shredder/hardened projectiles (via shotgun) and higher velocity AP rounds (via semi-auto rifles) for anti-personnel use and to target tires and engines (radiator) for mobility kills, establish perimeter to allow for more specialized SWAT response.

Threat Level II: Professionally armored SUVs can be encountered alone or in “commando units” of up to dozens of vehicles in Mexico. These threats can also be interspersed with soft (unarmored) vehicles. Since firing ports are atypical, cartel gunmen lose primary defensive advantage when dismounting to engage other forces, still, the armored doors/vehicle body can be used for ballistic shielding purposes. Countermeasures: Attempt mobility kills against tires and engines (radiator), target dismounted gunmen with small arms fire, establish perimeter to allow for more specialized SWAT response. The deployment of spike strips and/or commandeering trucks/big rigs to isolate avenues of approach/contain in urban choke points may be warranted.

Offensive Vehicles

Threat Level III- Early: Armored fighting position/pill box placed on the truck bed. Countermeasures: Target driver in soft cab, engine (radiator), and/or tires for a mobility kill. Maintain standoff ranges/establish perimeter to allow for more specialized SWAT/military resources to engage armored position/pillbox.

Threat Level III- Mature: An improvised armored fighting vehicle (IAFV) with full body protection, gun ports, and an air conditioning unit carrying between 5-20 cartel gunmen. Variants may include breaching rams, turreted gun ports, cell boosters (for communications), and other innovations. Sizes range primarily from work trucks through dump truck size vehicles. They are somewhat like the Mexican Federal police vehicle El “rinoceronte” but cruder in appearance. Tires may be exposed or protected by armor—no “run flat” tire usage evident to date. These vehicles have only been seen individually or in small numbers operating together though dozens of these vehicles (possibly more than 100) have now been built. The attachment of a few of these vehicles to provided security to a narco armored SUV convoy (Level II threat) must now be a consideration. Note— cartel gunmen riding in these vehicles may be carrying RPGs (Rocket Propelled Grenades) or tube launched anti-tank weapons that allow them to target and knock out opposing cartel IAFVs. This represents an additional concern in addition to military small arms (assault rifles, launchers, and grenades) being carried by these mobile infantry forces. This threat is beyond most Mexican state and federal law enforcement response capabilities. Countermeasures: Military medium and heavy tanks and other anti-armor systems; in dire situations can target tires for mobility kill, utilize spike strips, and/or commandeer trucks/big rigs to isolate avenues of approach/contain in urban choke points while awaiting military support.

Threat Level IV (Predicted Evolution): Linear projection of the Level III Threat into the future. Superior anti-vehicular offensive capabilities of such an organic (main) gun added to IAFVs would generate a threat way beyond Mexican state and federal law enforcement response capabilities. Probable 50 Cal. initial machine gun system usage with an eventual increase into smaller 20-40 mm cannon sizes derived from AA (anti-aircraft) guns. Countermeasures: Same as Level III- Mature; responding to this threat would basically turn this into a conventional military AFV engagement. Utilizing attack helicopters with anti-armor systems against these vehicles would be warranted.

No expectation exists for US law enforcement inside US territory to encounter a narco improvised armored fighting vehicle (IAFV) [Level III Threat]. While such a vehicle, in an overwatch position in Mexico, could conceivably cover a drug load going into the US, such a scenario presently appears unlikely—though co-opted personnel in Mexican military vehicles in years past have been involved in such incidents. Far more likely scenarios for US law enforcement on the US side of the border are sporadic/potential encounters with Mexican cartel operatives in defensive oriented Level I and Level II threat vehicles. [Note- some instances of cartel vehicles containing caltrop and oil slick dropping compartments have been reported. The effectiveness of such systems will vary].

*Countermeasures guidance underwent a basic tactical review by retired law enforcement and military personnel with extensive special operations field experience.  

Significance: Cartel Tactics; Cartel Weaponry; Law Enforcement Countermeasures/Response; Officer Safety Issues


Mexican Cartels now using ‘tanks’”- William Booth, Washington Post, June 7, 2011.

Narco Motor Trend”- Gerardo, Borderland Beat, June 19, 2011. [See source for extensive collection of vehicular pictures].

Monster Trucks in Mexico: The Zetas Armor Up”- STRATFOR, July 4, 2011.

Narco-Armor in Mexico”- John P. Sullivan and Adam Elkus, Small Wars Journal, July 14, 2011.

'Narco-Tanks': Mexico's Cartels Get Asymmetric Weapons”- Gordon Housworth, In Sight, July, 2011.

Also see the numerous English and Spanish video clips of these vehicles.