The use of anti-vehicle land mines by criminal cartels is now part of Mexico’s violent criminal landscape. This phase of improvised explosive devices represents an escalation of improvised explosive device (IED) use against state forces and criminal rivals. Essentially, improvised land (anti-vehicle) mines are being deployed for defensive purposes. That is, they are used to protect small urban enclaves under cartel control from Mexican Federal forces (police and military) and rival cartels or autodefensas (self-defense forces). The Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG) is at the center of these defensive measures used to blunt offensive actions by their rivals.
IAVMs: A New Trend?
In our recent article at Counter-IED Report, we identified improvised cartel use of improvised anti-vehicle mines (IAVMs) in both Michoacán (by the CJNG or Cárteles Unidos – CU) and in Tamaulipas – a Northern state bordering Texas – by unspecified huachicoleros (fuel thieves) from the rival Cártel del Golfo (Gulf cartel – CDG) or Cártel del Noreste (Northeast cartel – CDN).
Five IAVM incidents have been documented. These incidents are summarized below and in Table 1. The incidents occurred between January 2021 and February 2022. An additional incident in September 2021 has been mentioned, but not confirmed. That unconfirmed incident apparently involved a man who stepped onto a possible anti-personnel mine. Additional unverified incidents have been suggested but not confirmed. The five documented incidents are briefly summarized below.
Incident No 1: Undisclosed Urban Area. Michoacán (2 January 2021)
This incident occurred in an area contested by the Cárteles Unidos (CU) and Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG). The incident was captured on security camera video. The video shows a CJNG Improvised Armored Fighting Vehicle (IAFV) driving down the street while taking small-arms fire and possibly responding with small-arms fire from its mounted infantry compartment. As the IAFV passes the center of the security camera footage, an explosive device – presumed to be a CU IAVM (Improvised Anti-Vehicle Mine) – is detonated.
Incident No 2: Peña Blanca Area, Tamaulipas (5 October 2021)
This incident occurred during morning hours in Comales, Tamaulipas, at the access point for Santa Rosalía de Camargo Gas Collection Station – a Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex) facility – on the road from Peña Blanca. News reports state the device involved a booby trap combining ponchallantas (road spikes or caltrops) on the highway with an active IED (composed of explosive-filled PVC pipe and a 40mm grenade next to it) hidden in the bushes a few meters away. It was speculated that some form of trigger/detonation link – such as an electronic wire – sent a signal to the IED once a vehicle passed over the ponchallantas. The area involved is the site of ongoing engagements (involving artisanal armored vehicles or IAVFs) between the CGG and CDN.
Incident No 3: Apatzingán, Michoacán (31 January 2022)
This incident occurred at approximately 1030 hours (10:30 am) when a Ejército Mexicano (Mexican Army) convoy drove over a land mine while traversing a dirt road near Apatzingán. The vehicle involved was reportedly a ‘Sandcat’ light armored vehicle (LAV). At least one and up to four additional soldiers were said to be injured. The incident occurred in an area contested by the Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG) and the Cárteles Unidos (CU). While it remains unknown if the Ejército Mexicano (Mexican Army) convoy was explicitly targeted or the target was one of the competing cartels contesting the area, the direct attack against state forces is strategically significant.
Incident No 4: El Aguaje, Michoacán (12 February 2022)
This incident occurred in a small hamlet, El Aguaje, located between Tepalcatepec and Aguililla, Michoacán. A 79-year-old farmer and his passenger, his 45-year-old son, were killed when he drove his truck over a land mine (IAVM). The area is contested by the Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG) and Cárteles Unidos (CU) fighting over it, with the local CU faction, Los Viagras, fighting against CJNG. It has not been confirmed if the target of the attack was an opposing cartel – either CJNG or CU – or if the target were SEDENA or other state security personnel. The farmer and his son, as civilians (non-combatants), were not the intended target of the land mine.
Incident No 5: Greater Tepalcatepec and Aguililla Region, Michoacán
(Mid-February 2022-Early April 2022)
This incident exemplifies the ongoing demining campaign by SEDENA’s Army (Ejército Mexicano) Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) units. These missions are often supported by Secretaría de Seguridad Pública de Michoacán (SSP–Michoacán) and Guardia Nacional (GN) personnel. The ongoing operation took place from mid-February 2022 through early April 2022 when this incident overview was written. Initial reports of 250 land mines/IAVMs cleared (demined) by late February 2022 have now risen to over 500 land mines/IAVMs potentially cleared (demined) by early April 2022.
In an earlier C-IED Report (Spring-Summer 2021), we observed an absence of land mine use by Mexican cartels – specifically, we said there was an “absence of land mines; neither improvised or military grade anti-personnel or anti-vehicular land mines have been used by the cartels in Mexico.” Since then, these criminal armed groups (CAGs) have begun to use land mines (IAVMs) in their suite of tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs).
In addition, in our Autumn 2022 C-IED Report, summarized here, we noted: “The fielding of CJNG IAVMs is still very much in its entrepreneurial (experimental) phase as witnessed with their earlier shift in weaponized drone utilization from point detonation (one time drone use) to standoff bombardment (multiple-drone use) capabilities. The various CJNG IAVMs designs currently being produced are artisanal, likely utilizing different explosive mixtures, and with triggering mechanisms derived from pressure activation, cell phone (and/or radio signal), and possibly binary chemical reaction methods (as reported). The expectation is that some basic IAVM design(s) may become standardized or the cartel will at some point simply attempt to bring in and utilize foreign made military grade landmines instead.”
While cartel land mine use is in the early experimental phase, the future use and proliferation of both anti-vehicle and anti-personnel mines can’t be discounted. Nor should their use be over-emphasized. The experimental use of weaponry is part of the Mexican crime ecosystem (or narcoscape). In the past, we have seen experimental use of car bombs (IEDs and VBIEDs), weaponized aerial drones, improvised armored fighting vehicles, and early indicators of IAVM potentials. Such experimentation and use of military TTPs should be expected to continue. These trends are of concern not only to Mexican police and military, but also to law enforcement personnel throughout the Western Hemisphere and obviously to Customs and Border Protection personnel along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Table 1: Documented Improvised Anti-Vehicle Mi ne (IAVM) Incidents
|2 January 2021||Cárteles Unidos (CU)||Undisclosed Urban Area, Michoacán; Greater Tepalcatepec and Aguililla Region Assumed||Unknown Device Type and Detonation Method||Damage to or Destruction of a Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG) IAFV; Injuries or Fatalities|
|5 October 2021||Cártel del Golfo (Gulf; CDG) or Cártel del Noreste (Northeast; CDN)||Peña Blanca Area, Tamaulipas||Explosive-Filled PVC Tube; 40mm Grenade for Additional Effect; Pressure/ Other Detonation Method Via Electronic Wire (Fuze)||Booby Trap Discovered and Rendered Safe by SEDENA
Patrol; Meant for Competing Cartel (CDG or CDN) or Mexican Security Forces
|31 January 2022||Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG) or Cárteles Unidos (CU)||Apatzingán, Michoacán||Unknown Device Type and Detonation Method; Possibly Ammonium Nitrate Based||Damage to a SEDENA ‘SandCat’ Light Armored Vehicle (LAV); Soldier Injuries|
|12 February 2022||Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG) or Cárteles Unidos (CU)||El Aguaje, Michoacán||Unknown; Likely PVC Pipe Filled with Explosives; Pressure Sensitive Fuzing||Farmer Driving Over a Land Mine Killed and Son Injured|
|Mid-February 2022 to Early April 2022||Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG)||Greater Tepalcatepec and Aguililla Region||At Least Four IAVM Designs Evident||Over 250 Land Mines/IAVMs Cleared/Demined by SEDENA (Later Reports of Over 500 Potentially Cleared)|
Source: Bunker, Kuhn, and Sullivan, Counter-IED Report 2022
Robert J. Bunker and John P. Sullivan, Eds., Illicit Tactical Progress: Mexican Cartel Tactical Notes 2013-2020. Bloomington: Xlibris, 2021.
This article is an abridged version of Robert J. Bunker, David A. Kuhn, and John P. Sullivan, “Use of Improvised Land (Anti-Vehicle) Mines in Mexican Crime Wars.” Counter-IED Report, Autumn, 2022. All rights remain with the authors. © Copyright 2022