Mexico Police Unprepared for New Military Tactics From Cartels

May 6, 2015 Updated: May 6, 2015

Members of a Mexican drug cartel fired rocket-propelled grenade launchers (RPGs) at two military helicopters last week, destroying one of them. The incident follows a string of military-style attacks, and emerging details show a shift in cartel tactics that police are not ready for.

The Mexican military helicopter “crashed in flames” on May 1, after it was hit by two rockets according to new details from Mexican national security chief Monte Alejandro Rubido, Borderland Beat reported. They fired at a second aircraft too, but missed.

Soldiers on the surviving aircraft allegedly saw a convoy of trucks stop, according to Borderland Beat. Armed men then stepped out of the vehicles, and prepared for the attack.

Mexican authorities arrested nine individuals for the attack, and found the convoy of narco vehicles. Two of them were armored and one had a machine gun mounted on top. Inside were the Russian-made weapons they used, an RPG7 and an RPG22.

What was likely of even greater concern than the weapons, was that they found camouflage uniforms inside the vehicles, with emblems reading “CJNG High Command Special Forces.”

CJNG is an acronym for “Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generación,” or in English, the Jalisco New Generation cartel. The finding ties the attacks to a new and growing conflict, and the Special Forces label shows an even more serious development.

Mexican soldiers look into a car at a checkpoint in a highway of Villa Purificacion, Jalisco State, Mexico on May 2. The cartel allegedly behind the attack has launched a spree of ambushes on the Mexican military and police. (YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
Mexican soldiers look into a car at a checkpoint in a highway of Villa Purificacion, Jalisco State, Mexico, on May 2. The cartel allegedly behind the attack has launched a spree of ambushes on the Mexican military and police. (YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

The attacks took place in Jalisco State, in southwest Mexico, where the rising Jalisco New Generation cartel is believed to be behind several recent military-style ambushes.

The latest attacks are likely in retaliation after the Mexican government began going after the cartel’s leaders, according to Dr. Robert J. Bunker, adjunct research professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College.

A spree of attacks started after Mexican authorities arrested several members of the Jalisco New Generation cartel.

On April 7, suspected gunmen with the cartel ambushed a police convoy, killing 15 and injuring 5. Just prior to the ambush, members of the Jalisco New Generation are believed to have carried out a string of smaller attacks that included a failed attempt to kill Security Commissioner Alejandro Solorio.

After the incident on April 7, the U.S. Department of Treasury sanctioned the Jalisco New Generation cartel and one of its leaders, Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes.

The organization has expanded its “criminal empire in recent years through the use of violence and corruption,” and it now ranks “among the most powerful drug trafficking organizations in Mexico,” said John E. Smith, acting director of the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, in a press release.

After the alleged cartel members shot down the military helicopter on May 1, the Mexican government responded by declaring an all-out offensive against the Jalisco New Generation cartel.

Military Training

The attacks are a sobering reminder that some of the Mexican cartels were created by former members of the Mexican military, and many new recruits are given military-style training.

According to Bunker, the first-generation members of the Los Zetas cartel were former Mexican military. While in the military, some of them are alleged to have received commando and urban warfare training from U.S. and Israeli special operations forces.

The second-generation members of Los Zetas were less skilled. Bunker said they “went through Zetas training camps and were rushed into the fight to fill holes with far less training.”

Looking at the Jalisco New Generation cartel, he said, they’re “showing pretty good levels of training” and likely have former members of the military who are training their new recruits. He noted the cartel has narco commandos—groups of armed mobile units—and they will likely become more military-like in their behavior as the conflict progresses.

The new threats are a frightening concept for the Mexican police, many of whom Bunker said “are not trained in military tactics.” He said since Mexican police typically don’t expect to go head-to-head against cartel foot soldiers, “They don’t understand the dynamics of firefights and ambushes.”

He noted, “Even SWAT teams are not trained to go against military squads.” They are trained to enter and clear buildings, often with one or two people barricaded inside, and this specialized training “would get them in trouble in a real firefight with an opposing force creating kill zones.”

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