Small Wars Journal

Narco-Armor in Mexico

Thu, 07/14/2011 - 9:10am

Narco-Armor in Mexico


by John P. Sullivan and Adam Elkus

Download the Full Article: Narco-Armor in Mexico

Known alternatively as "narco-tanks" (narcotanques), "Rhino trucks," and "monster trucks"(monstruos), the crude armored vehicles emerging in Mexico's cartel war are evidence of a changing tactical logic on the ground. "Narco-tanks" are better characterized as improvised armored fighting vehicles (IAFVs)—portending a shift in the infantry-centric nature of the cartel battlespace.

Narco-tactics have been, for the most part, infantry-centric—consisting of small raids, blockades, and gun battles. The use of armored sport utility vehicles for transportation, raids, and tactical in-battle maneuver is largely an extension of the small unit infantry operations that characterize the tactical logic of the cartel war. The presence of armored vehicles ups the ante.

Download the Full Article: Narco-Armor in Mexico

John P. Sullivan is a career police officer. He currently serves as a lieutenant with the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department. He is also a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies on Terrorism (CAST). He is co-editor of Countering Terrorism and WMD: Creating a Global Counter-Terrorism Network (Routledge, 2006) and Global Biosecurity: Threats and Responses (Routledge, 2010). His current research focus is the impact of transnational organized crime on sovereignty in Mexico and elsewhere.

Adam Elkus is an analyst specializing in foreign policy and security. He is Associate Editor at Red Team Journal. He is a frequent contributor to Small Wars Journal and has published at numerous venues including The Atlantic, Defense Concepts, West Point CTC Sentinel, Infinity Journal, and other publications. He blogs at Rethinking Security.

Categories: El Centro

About the Author(s)


slapout9 (not verified)

Sun, 07/24/2011 - 3:05am

You guys may want to take a look at what happens at chop shops. Glad to see the subject come up, It may have been on another thread but I have been concerned about this for awhile, also goes to Outlaw Motor-cycle gangs IMO.

motorfirebox (not verified)

Sat, 07/23/2011 - 11:36pm

I'd be interested in learning more about domestic homemade armored vehicles. I haven't been able to find anything about any signs of proliferation, which is why I still think this is currently more of a strategic issue than a tactical one for the US.

Anonymous (not verified)

Sat, 07/23/2011 - 1:27pm

law dawg, those aren't home made vehicles, they're too expensive for most criminals and want to be terrorists to purchase and they're not fighting vehicles. The vehicles you describe are not what is being discussed.

law dawg (not verified)

Sat, 07/23/2011 - 7:24am

The armored vehicles used by the majority of the cartel heirarchy is already in the U.S. They are the commercially supplied armored luxury cars and SUV's that you don't see unless you look. The companies producing the armored vehicles are primarily U.S. companies. So they are here, you just have to look a little harder to find them.


The threat to the U.S. isn't the narco terrorists in Mexico using the home made armored vehicles, but rather the idea of homemade armor vehicles proliferating to groups within the U.S. already. This is a tactical issue, not a strategic one. It is just as stupid to confuse tactical with strategic as the other way around. Despite some folks hopes to identify a one size fits all strategic overview for COIN and irregular warfare, etc. the reality remains that we have tactical problems that also need to be addressed and not simply wished away. Every Soldier and Marine on the front line knows this, but it appears some of us have forgotten it.

motorfirebox (not verified)

Fri, 07/22/2011 - 1:43pm

Narco-tanks are worth keeping an eye on, but not currently worth more preparation than that. Bob is right; the quickest way to deal with homebrew LAVs in the US is to make sure they don't proliferate in the first place, on the principle that a threat that never emerges doesn't take much time to deal with.

slapout9 (not verified)

Fri, 07/22/2011 - 8:57am

Jesus was also a Systems Thinker (not kidding about this) perhaps he was the original one. People take what he says to literally as opposed to metaphorically as he meant it to be.

Bob's World

Fri, 07/22/2011 - 7:39am

Insurgents and former insurgents are alway far more savvy on COIN than those who have not walked the walk.

Just ask the framers of the US Constitution or Jesus himself. Those are sources one can hang their hat on.

slapout9 (not verified)

Fri, 07/22/2011 - 1:24am

Man, that Plank Warfare is some wicked stuff.


Fri, 07/22/2011 - 1:15am

Someone once said that 'tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.'

How much friction, inefficiency, and economic disruption can be attributed to the narco-trade with respect to the 2010 metrics for US-Mexico trade? How much friction, inefficiency, and economic disruption would result from military intervention? Which is more costly? Can economic disruption be fully contained within the borders of a single nation state? If not, how far could it spread? How long would it last?

What are the potential political implications of military intervention in Mexico upon the US election cycle?

What are the potential political implications of military intervention in Mexico upon the Mexican election cycle?,_2012

What impact would military intervention have upon the Mexican institutions which provide for rule of law? How long would this impact last?


No one on this particular thread is addressing overall strategic issues, simply a modified vehicle that the narco terrorists are employing that will no doubt be used by others. My comments were specifically focused on the modified vehicle and the implied requirement for our law enforcement to be able to defend/react against this type of threat when it shows up in the U.S..

As for addressing the underlying issue of drug abuse and its power to corrupt societies (beyond the users due to the amount of money involved) I agree that the strategic target is demand. Legalizing it may reduce the criminal trade associated with illegal drug smuggling and the profits that allow criminal organizations to challenge state security forces, but it probably won't reduce the corrosive effect of drugs on our society. In the long run we need a policy of "National Happiness" like Bhutan. We need to do a much better job of teaching our youth the difference between true hapiness and the endless pursuit of pleasurable moments that are often obtained via drugs, video games, prostitution, porn, buying toys (like fast cars), to eating cheap foods and drinking soda until you're a fat pig. Stop focusing education simply on kid's grades, future jobs (competiveness), political correctness and identifying things as simply bad or good, and teach kids about the meaning of life and responsibility, how to establish meaningful goals and the joy of pursuing them, etc., then over time we would begin to reform our society, and actually make it one that people overseas truly envy and desire to be like. A lot of people hate us now not because we're rich, but because our society is ill and we're trying to push our norms upon them. Greatness is about more than being wealthy. We may have a huge plank in our eye, and it is past time we hold a mirror and exam ourselves before we seek to change the world.

However, in the meantime we need to defend ourselves against those field expedient armor vehicles.

I'm not advocating helping the Gov of Mexico more than we're doing so now. We don't have a very good track record when we get heavily involved. We are obligated to study the situation though to see how the threats are evolving.

Bob's World

Thu, 07/21/2011 - 6:57pm


So, "destroy the village to save the village"? I don't buy it, be it hearding the citizens of Jolo into a volcanic crater to machine gun down, or zippo lighters in Nam, or Clear-Hold-Build in Afghanistan; or whatever you imagine we might do physically in Mexico. How many times do we have to prove the falacy of those problem suppression/population control tactics?

I agree that Mexico is in a close knife fight today. We can jump in and help them fight with one hand while the rest of our body contributes to the problem of illegality and demand (illegality being the bigger problem of the two). Doesn't make much sense.

Better we pit our full effort into our end of the causation of the problem, allowing it to quickly reside to a level within Mexican capacity to address. Similar thinking is what we need for our little "war against al Qaeda" as well.

We must evolve in how we think about these problems, and stop being so quick to flail away at the obvious symptomes among others while we ignore massive asspect of the root problem that belong to us.

Someone else said it better than I though:

""Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brothers eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 4 How can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye, when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brothers eye." Matthew 7: 3-5

We need to stop agonizing over other people's sawdust.


Come on, first while we must address the demand issue, that won't/can't happen quickly. This is like saying if a guy is shooting at me, the "quickest" way of dealing with it is to address is anger issues :-).

Second, this a capability that in addition to narco criminals other criminals and terrorists "will" employ in the future, probably within the U.S., so addressing the huge issue of demand will not address the tactical problems that this capability presents to our law enforcement.

Bob's World

Thu, 07/21/2011 - 8:32am

So, finally a threat we could actually employ MRAPs against? Or perhaps we are looking for a market to sell slightly used MRAPs to? :-)

Fastest way to defeat this new armored threat is to seriously take on the issue of demand and legalization on the US side of the border that fuels this chaos in Mexico. At some point we have to move past debating the symptoms, what they might mean, and how to best mitigate them.


Dr. Robert J. Bunker (not verified)

Wed, 07/20/2011 - 7:41pm

Great piece-- we are definitely seeing evolution of design. I'm trying to get a tactical note going re this topic but have been swamped. When I do get to this I'll draw upon this essay, STRATFOR analysis, etc. Has anyone seen any video re cartel armored cars fighting each other or the use of RPGs against them?

As the threat posed from the "narco-groups" grows both in Mexico and here in the US (particularly in the Southwest), and given the information in the article, should the US begin to seriously consider the establishment of something akin to a federal police force (assuming we're not already doing this)? I think it may be time to do so.


Sat, 07/16/2011 - 12:36am

Interesting how many people have been saying for years that the US would be facing a "hybrid threat" and that the hybrid threat was the only enemy combatant of the future. But, here we see these drug cartels doing operations and adopting platforms that are more closely aligned with conventional forces and conventional doctrine, than anything I've seen expressed for hybrid threat forces.

Perhaps at least one element of Clausewitz' trinity (violence) is still relevant - for those that say he's obsolete. Seems even the cartels understand the value of maximizing their abilities to bring violence to the objective and upon their enemies.

Hope to see more articles like this in the future. It is a refreshing and needed break from the endless discussions on strategy and OEF-A/OIF, and it refocuses the SWJ and irregular warfare communities of interest on tactical problems that irregular warfare will present our troops and police on the front lines regardless of the strategy issues or particular threat group.

From a U.S. domestic perspective, I wonder if our police in large metro areas (much less mid to small metro areas) would have the means to deal with an expedient armored truck that was built in a garage and then rolled out to conduct a criminal or terrorist attack? How should our police prepare/equip to deal with this potential threat?

JC988 (not verified)

Thu, 07/14/2011 - 7:56pm

On a similar combined arms note - Has anyone seen any additional reporting concerning the simultaneous assaults/narco blockades in Michoacan on July 7th that were accompanied the hacking of government websites in that area? (I noticed a comment about it on the 11 July 2011 Mexico Newsbriefs from FMSO.)…

Mark Pyruz

Thu, 07/14/2011 - 12:24pm

Actually, some of the armor types during Guderian's stint in the Reichswehr correspond to Narco-armor in the 21st century, so at a certain point in his career I doubt he'd scoff.