By Robert J. Bunker, David A. Kuhn, and John P. Sullivan C/O Futures, LLC and Small Wars Journal-El Centro
© Copyright 2022
As discussed in an earlier article (Counter-IED Report, Spring-Summer 2021), the utilization of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (VBIEDS) by the Mexican cartels has gone through two historical phases with a more recent third phase beginning in August 2016. That phase, taking place between the Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG) and the Cártel de Santa Rosa Lima (CSRL) in Guanajuato state and limited surrounding areas, has since fully ebbed with the implosion of the CSRL since the arrest of its leader José Antonio Yépez Ortiz (aka “El Marro”) in late 2020.
What can now be considered a new fourth phase of cartel IED utilization (devoid of VBIEDs – or at least anti-personnel bombs placed in cars) has now begun since January 2021 and is presently ongoing. This phase primarily focuses on improvised land (anti- vehicle) mine deployment for defensive purposes related to small urban enclaves controlled by a cartel in order to help blunt an offensive drive by another cartel or Mexican Federal forces. Once again, the Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG) is at the center of this activity but the geographic focus has primarily shifted to Michoacán state with an outlier incident, not linked to CJNG, taking place in Tamaulipas state. In this new phase, an opposing cartel faction Cárteles Unidos (CU) – composed of a number of small cartels that have banded together against the aggressor CJNG – are also involved in Improvised Anti-Vehicle Mine (IAVM) utilization, though now apparently to a much lesser extent than CJNG.
HIGHLIGHTED IMPROVISED LAND MINE INCIDENTS
Five incidents of Mexican cartel related IAVM, use beginning in January 2021 and extending into February 2022, are provided below. In addition to these five incidents, a September 2021 incident has been mentioned, but not confirmed, in which a man stepped onto a land mine detonating it while walking on a dirt road in Tepalcatepec, Michoacán. Given the circumstances of the incident and the fact that the victim was pulverized, it appears to be an IAVM with primitive fuzing that detonated at anti-personnel mine levels of pressure sensitivity. Additionally, in November 2021, a small crater with a round metal plate in it was observed by a reporter in Loma Blanca, Michoacán. Local villagers informed the reporter that a land mine had detonated in an area known to be dominated by the Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG). A metal plate in this instance would be utilized to direct the explosive force of an improvised mine situated upon it upward. Sporadic imagery of what appears to be heavily ‘mine damaged’ civilian vehicles and cartel Improvised Armored Fighting Vehicles (IAFVs) are also readily evident related to cartel improvised land mine deployment in the contested areas of Michoacán, however, actual incidents in time and location could not be fully vetted.
Incident No 1. – Undisclosed Urban Area, Michoacán (2 January 2021)
The initial incident took place on 2 January 2021 somewhere in an urban area contested between Cárteles Unidos (CU) and the Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG) in Michoacán state, Mexico. The incident caught on 21 seconds of nighttime security camera footage (no sound) which shows a CJNG IAFV driving down the street while taking small arms fire and possibly responding with small arms fires 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 in an overwhelming flash of light. This immediately causes fires to break out on the underside of the vehicle, catching its wheels/wheel wells on fire as it travels down the road and out of the view of the security camera. In the original Blog del Narco article posting, the image of a CJNG IAFV is provided but it cannot be positively identified as the one damaged in the IAVM detonation. Injuries (and/or fatalities) assumed.
Who: Cárteles Unidos (CU) and Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG).
What: A purported Cárteles Unidos (CU) IAVM detonated and destroyed a Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG) IAFV which ran over it while travelling in a street.
When: On 2 January 2021, during nighttime hours, the incident was caught on 21 seconds of security camera video footage.
Where: Somewhere in the state of Michoacán where CU and CJNG are coming into conflict. The location has not been disclosed but is likely in the greater Tepalcatepec and Aguililla region. It is an urban area in which businesses would have security cameras posted.
Why: CU and CJNG are engaged in an ongoing conflict, with the CJNG IAFV being targeted by the purported CU improvised anti-vehicle mine.
Incident No 2. – Peña Blanca Area, Tamaulipas (5 October 2021)
The second incident took place during the morning of 5 October 2021 in Comales in Tamaulipas state, Mexico at the access point for Santa Rosalía de Camargo Gas Collection Station – a Pemex facility – on the road from Peña Blanca. It is chronicled in news report imagery in a number of photographs and in a follow-on video showing SEDENA personnel burning the IED in a pile of brush on the gravel/pavement area of the access road to render it safe (with it subsequently detonating). The news reports state that a booby trap was said to have been created, linking ponchallantas (road spikes; caltrops) on the highway to 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 – would send a signal to the IED once a vehicle passed over the ponchallantas. Given the ongoing clashes between the Cártel del Golfo (CDG) and the Cártel del Noreste (CDN), the presumption exists that one cartel was targeting the IAFVs of the other, although other targets – such as SEDENA or Mexican law enforcement vehicles or vehicles associated with the Gas Collection Station itself could also have been the focus. The booby trap was discovered by a Secretaría de la Defensa Nacional (SEDENA) convoy making security inspection rounds. It should be noted that the incident description and the imagery related to the actual IED (which is poor quality) are somewhat in variance and the triggering/ambush approach is tactically questionable.
Who: Huachicoleros (Fuel Thieves); Rivals Cártel del Golfo (Gulf; CDG) and Cartel del Noreste (Northeast; CDN).
What: An IAVM composed of an explosive-filled PVC tube – 80 centimeters long by 4 inches in diameter – with an attached meter long fuze (electronic). A 40mm grenade (launched from a M203 or like system) was situated next to the PVC tube for possible explosive boosting and fragmentation purposes.
When: Discovered by a SEDENA (Ejército Mexicano; Mexican Army) patrol during the morning of 5 October 2021.
Where: Access point to Santa Rosalía de Camargo Gas Collection Station – a Pemex facility – which is on a stretch of road between Peña Blanca and Comales ejdio in Tamaulipas, Mexico.
Why: The immediate area has been the site of ongoing IAFV engagements between the CDG and CDN. The cartel forces have witnessed many casualties and burned out IAFVs as a result of the clashes. It is speculated that the improvised anti- vehicle mine may have been rigged as a booby trap by one of the cartels against the other.
Incident No 3. – Apatzingán, Michoacán (31 January 2022)
In the third incident, taking place on Monday, 31 January 2022 at approximately 1030 hours (10:30 am), a Mexican Army (SEDENA) convoy travelling on a dirt road in a remote area near Apatzingán drove over a landmine. The vehicle was reportedly a ‘SandCat’ light armored vehicle (LAV). At least one and possibly up to four or more soldiers were said to be injured. One soldier likely had serious spine injuries. The area where the incident occurred is reportedly in territory contested by the Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG) and the Cárteles Unidos (CU). The direct attack against state forces has strategic significance. The exact details of the targeting remain under investigation, with the detonation method undisclosed. The IAVM may have possibly been ammonium nitrate based. It is also unknown if the Ejército Mexicano (Mexican Army) convoy was explicitly targeted or whether the target was one of the competing cartels contesting the proximate region.
Who: Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG) or Cárteles Unidos (CU).
What: An undisclosed type of improvised land mine which damaged a Mexican Army (SEDENA) ‘SandCat’ light armored vehicle (LAV) and injured multiple soldiers. The type of explosive and detonation method have not been disclosed.
When: On Monday, 31 January 2022 at approximately 1030 hours (10:30 am).
Where: On a dirt road in a remote rural area with low hills and scrub near Apatzingán, Michoacán.
Why: Whether the target of the attack was an opposing cartel – either CJNG or CU – or if the target were SEDENA or other state security personnel is presently unknown.
Incident No 4. – El Aguaje, Michoacán (12 February 2022)
The fourth incident took place in the hamlet of El Aguaje, in between Tepalcatepec and Aguililla, Michoacán. A 79-year-old farmer drove his truck over a land mine (IAVM) that detonated, killing him and injuring his 45-year-old son who was a passenger in the vehicle. Conflicting reports state that the farmer stepped onto the mine but imagery of his damaged truck has been released. The farmer was either arriving at or leaving the fields he was cultivating. The hamlet is in a contested region with the Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG) or Cárteles Unidos (CU) fighting over it, with Los Viagras as the local CU faction fighting against CJNG. While the type of improvised mine was not reported, recent cartel design patterns suggest that a PVC pipe filled with explosives and pressure sensitive fuzing may have been utilized. Additionally, round metal plate and conical metal cap components for blast channeling and focusing may have been incorporated into the IED design – as seen with other more recent cartel IAVMs – but this is presently speculation.
Who: Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG) or Cárteles Unidos (CU).
What: A land mine (IAVM) of unknown design; Likely PVC pipe filled with explosives; pressure sensitive fuzing. Speculative round metal plate and conical metal cap components.
When: On Saturday 12 February 2022.
Where: In the hamlet of El Aguaje, in between Tepalcatepec and Aguililla, Michoacán, by a farmer’s fields.
Why: Whether the target of the attack was an opposing cartel – either CJNG or CU – or if the target was SEDENA or other state security personnel is presently unknown. The farmer and his son, as civilians (non-combatants), were not the intended target of the land mine.
Note: The field journalist Ioan Grillo who focuses on the Mexican cartels has mentioned that another incident took place in February 2022 in Michoacán – presumably in the Tepalcatepec and Aguililla area of operations – in which a group of cows were blown up by a land mine. No specific details were provided.
Incident No 5. – Greater Tepalcatepec and Aguililla Region, Michoacán (Mid-February 2022-Early April 2022)
The fifth incident is representative of an ongoing demining campaign undertaken by SEDENA (Ejército Mexicano; Mexican Army) Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) units and force protection forces supported at times 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. At least four IVAM designs are evident in incident imagery with many more variations likely given their artisanal (improvised) nature. At least three more design examples exist in related incident imagery but could not be fully verified for inclusion in the initial design number. The Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG) has been identified as the primary deployer of these improvised land mines (IAVMs).
Who: Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG); Limited Cárteles Unidos (CU) IAVMs were also likely present.
What: 250 land mines/IAVMs initially cleared (demined) with more recent reports of over 500 land mines/IAVMs potentially cleared.
When: The demining operation was ongoing from mid-February 2022 and through early April 2022.
Where: Greater Tepalcatepec and Aguililla Region; Clusters found in Aguililla, as the focus of the conflict, as well as Tepalcatepec, Buenavista, Coalcomán, and Tomatlán.
Why: CJNG is under increasing pressure from both CU and local defense forces attacks (either allied or compromised by that cartel), as well as Mexican security forces operations directed at the cartel conducted by SEDENA, GN, and SSP– Michoacán. As CJNG falls back into a defensive posture to protect the towns and villages under its control, it is resorting to increasing use of IEDs and IAVMs to augment its fixed field fortifications and static and mobile response elements.
CURRENT PATTERNS & FUTURE POTENTIALS
In the aforementioned article (See Counter-IED Report, Spring-Summer 2021), it was noted that “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” existed. The new fourth phase of cartel IED utilization – a use pattern that had previously been identified and was to be expected – has since fully altered that preexisting pattern of illicit weaponry and technology use by the Mexican cartels. Present patterns and interactions of this fourth IED use phase – most specifically related to CJNG – with other Mexican crime wars trends are as follows:
- Overlaps with CJNG weaponized drone utilization (See Counter-IED Report, Winter 2021/22) related to IED construction are readily apparent which suggests that the same weaponeers are involved in both programs. This can be viewed by comparing the distinct Peribán, Michoacán (2 March 2021) drone bomblet fragmentation bodies with those recovered at El Aguaje, Michoacán (Mid-February 2022). These two towns are about 90km by road from one another and both well within CJNG area of operations. Additionally, the growing sophistication of this weaponry – along with improvised CJNG mortar systems recovered in September 2021 – suggest that the cartel is getting external help in its designs and production. Either a key individual and/or a small team of individuals have joined the cartel or are now on its payroll for weaponry R&D and artisanal fabrication purposes.
- Unlike cartel weaponized drone use which gradually proliferated over a multi-year period (from October 2017 through mid-late 2021), IAVM deployment was unheard of prior to January 2021 and by February 2022 was in extensive use by CJNG. Weaponized drones proved more difficult for that cartel to ‘work out’ from an acquisition, development, and deployment perspective than IEDs. Given the greater simplicity of IEDs and the fact the Mexican cartels have been utilizing them off and on since the early 1990s, it is of little wonder that they massively proliferated with over 250 (over 500 – if recent reports are accurate) individual land mines (IVAMs) now demined by SEDENA in the greater Tepalcatepec and Aguililla region of Michoacán.
- The intensity of cartel ground combat operations in Michoacán has now evolved to the point that cartel offensive mobile units (mounted infantry) possess Improvised Armored Fighting Vehicles (IAVFs) with .50 cal. main armaments and/or medium and heavy machine guns; squads of men with body armor, helmets, and infantry small arms (including launched grenades); anti-tank weapons (primarily RPGs); and Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) and weaponized drone capabilities. On the defensive, cartel positions may now utilize – in addition to the recent inclusion of anti-vehicular mines – interlocking fields of fire, primitive field fortifications and pillboxes, vehicle blockades, caltrops, earthen berms, anti-IAFV trenches, infantry small arms and anti-tank weapons (primarily RPGs), .50 cal. anti-materiel/ sniper rifle overwatch, and ISR and weaponized drone capabilities.
Already, as a result of these evolving cartel ground combat capabilities, the Mexican Army (SEDENA) is increasingly fielding its forces in Michoacán with both dedicated EOD units and anti-tank weapons to supplement its mounted infantry elements which utilize light armored vehicles and weaponry including medium and heavy machine guns.
Future cartel IED and IAVM potentials are presently speculative given the rapidly changing nature of the conflict in Michoacán stemming from CJNG aggression and its shifting fortunes. However, three future potentials already exist:
- No mention in the official statements, news reports, or social media exists which suggest that the IAVMs are being randomly booby trapped with an additional mine (IED) placed underneath them. The expectation is that counter-demining Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures (TTPs) will be implemented by CJNG at some point if this has not taken place already. Given that SEDENA EOD units have only appeared within the last two months, the CJNG leadership has likely not yet realized the utility of this counter-demining TTP.
- It would make operational sense for CJNG to deploy anti-personnel landmines in addition to the anti-vehicular ones presently being utilized. This would create additional barriers to cartel and Federal Mexican dismounted infantry forces penetrating cartel defenses and help create channeling effects for designated kill zones. It would also potentially make IAVM demining operations more complex for EOD units – as anti-personnel (AP) mines could be situated to protect them. However, it is presently unknown if IAVMs possess any form of pressure calibration for detonation purposes. Given reports of at least one person and some cows being blown up by improvised cartel land mines, they may be sensitive enough to already be functioning at AP mine sensitivity levels.
- 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.
It is too early to tell if the fourth phase of cartel IED utilization will continue well into the future or could possibly end soon. As seen in past Mexican cartel weaponry and technology use patterns, however, once military (and paramilitary) hardware such as IAFVs, .50 cal. anti-materiel rifles, anti-personnel car bombs, and weaponized drones are deployed they do not completely disappear. Instead, as we have witnessed over and over again, they have a very bad habit of coming back with a vengeance some years later in what has increasingly become never-ending Mexican crime wars. ■
Robert J. Bunker and John P. Sullivan, Eds., Illicit Tactical Progress: Mexican Cartel Tactical Notes 2013- 2020. Bloomington: Xlibris 2021.
- A one-off incident taking place in December 2021 linked to a Cártel Pueblos Unidos prison break in Tula, Hidalgo has also been noted. Various IEDs/VBIEDs and a modified LPG (Liquefied Petroleum Gas) transport truck used for gate ramming were components of the operation. See Daniel Weisz Argomedo, Nathan P. Jones, John P. Sullivan, and Robert J. Bunker, “Mexican Cartel Strategic Note No. 33: Pueblos Unidos Launch Sophisticated Prison Break Allegedly Using Coches Bomba (Car Bombs) or IEDs.” Small Wars Journal. 20 December 2021.
Incident overviews and context were directly drawn from some of the following resources:
- Robert J. Bunker and John P. Sullivan, Cartel Car Bombings in Mexico. Carlisle Barracks: US Army War College, Strategic Studies Institute, August 2013: 1-71.
- Robert J. Bunker, John P. Sullivan, David A. Kuhn, and Alma Keshavarz, “Use of IEDs and VBIEDs in Mexican Crime Wars.” Counter-IED Report. Spring/Summer 2021: 63-73.
- Robert J. Bunker, “Improvised Anti-Vehicle Mine (IAVM) I&W in Mexico.” C/O Futures Cartel Research Note Series. Claremont, CA: 14 October 2021: 1-10.
- John P. Sullivan and Robert J. Bunker, “Mexican Cartel Strategic Note No. 34: Anti-Vehicle Mine Targeting SEDENA Convoy between Tepalcatepec and Aguililla, Michoacán.” Small Wars Journal. 16 February 2022: 1-7.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Dr. Robert J. Bunker is the Director of Research and Analysis of C/O Futures, LLC (www.cofutures.net) and a Senior Fellow with Small Wars Journal-El Centro. An international security and counterterrorism professional, he was Futurist in Residence at the Behavioral Science Unit (BSU) at the Federal Bureau of Investigation Academy in Quantico, VA, Minerva Chair at the Strategic Studies Institute (SSI) of the U.S. Army War College, Carlisle, PA, and has taught at Claremont Graduate University, the University of Southern California, and with other universities. Dr. Bunker holds degrees in the fields of history, anthropology-geography, social science, behavioral science, government, and political science and has trained extensively in counterterrorism and counternarcotics. He has delivered hundreds of presentations – including U.S. congressional testimony – with well over 600 publications across various fields and formats. Email: email@example.com
David A. Kuhn is an Associate with C/O Futures, LLC (www.cofutures.net) and an Associate with Small Wars Journal-El Centro. He is a subject matter expert in analysis, technical instruction, and terrorism response training related to stand off weaponry (MANPADS, threat, interdiction, aircraft survivability, et. al), infantry weapons, small arms, IED/VBIEDs, WMD, and other threat and allied use technologies. He is presently the principal of VTAC Training Solutions and has career- long experience in supporting governmental operations and corporate initiatives in the fields of homeland security, vulnerability assessment, technical operations, and project management, with additional focus and expertise in areas involving facility threat/risk assessments, underwater operations, and varied engineering technologies.
Dr. John P. Sullivan is a Senior Fellow with Small Wars Journal-El Centro and an Associate with C/O Futures, LLC (www.cofutures.net). He was a career police officer and is an honorably retired lieutenant with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, specializing in emer-agency operations, transit policing, counterterrorism, CBRN response, and intelligence. He is an instructor with the USC Price Safe Communities Institute and has a research focus on the impact of transnational organized crime on sovereignty in Mexico and other countries. Dr. Sullivan holds a B.A. in Government, M.A. in Urban Affairs and Policy Analysis, and a Ph.D. in Information and Knowledge Society. He has hundreds of publications and numerous books published as co-author and co-editor.