Small Wars Journal

Mexican Cartel Tactical Note # 17

Sun, 02/17/2013 - 4:02pm

Note—the information and pictures contained in this tactical analysis have been pieced together from OSINT (open source intelligence)/news reports published between March 2009 and January 2012. They represent initial I&W trending pertaining to small caliber mortar deployment by the cartels in Mexico and Central America. 

Key Information: “Mexico deploys an additional 5,000 troops to Juarez to fight drug cartels.” 2 March 2009. [1]:

In other news, Army troops captured a man who was guarding a weapons cache in rural Sinaloa (Northwestern Mexico).

Photograph No. 1 & 2   (

Photographic Analysis: Photographs No. 1 and 2 show an improvised launcher (framework) in the foreground. Leaning against the fabricated launcher structure are three M-203 type 40mm grenade launchers. This arrangement appears to have been tailored after a “salvo” type launcher that would fall into the class of Infantry Light Support Weapons.  Infantry level salvo launchers in this class are generally capable of launching two or more grenades, or light mortar rounds either individually or all at once.

This captured device has been fabricated from square steel tubing with welded joints. The construction of it also appears to be unfinished. The fact that all of the individual elevated (launcher) attachment rails appear to be welded at a fixed angle indicate two possibilities.  This may be a hastily constructed platform to test the concept, or there is an additional component for its base that is not present, or has not yet been fabricated.  The reader will note the short section of pipe that has been welded on one side of the lower framework (Photograph No. 2).  This may be present as part of a vehicle mount.  If this is a preliminary test platform, then it’s reasonable to assume that the end result will be collapsible launch rails.  This will make the whole system (with its present frame size) low profile and backpackable.  

Salvo launchers have a wide variety of uses in forward areas or areas that are heavily patrolled.  They can be used in both offensive and defensive situations.  Due their low profile, they are easily camouflaged and many can be fired remotely via wire command.

Improvised launchers, as seen in the photographs, are quite uncommon, but could be quite effective in certain situations if configured correctly and the gunner is in possession of accurate empirical data for range vs. elevation.

This device may be indicative of a new interest and trend on the part of the cartels to gain increased tactical capability in the use of projected munitions. 

Key Information: “Nicaragua Seizes Guns from Mexican Drug Cartel.” Latin American Herald Tribune. 15 November 2009 [2]:


MANAGUA – An arsenal of military weaponry seized over the weekend in the province of Matagalpa belonged to a cell of Mexico’s Sinaloa drug cartel, Nicaraguan authorities said Monday.

The National Police said Monday in a communique that the arsenal – including 58 assault rifles, two mortars, 10 grenades, 30 sticks of TNT and 19,236 rounds of ammunition – “were being transported by members of the Sinaloa cartel” in a pickup truck with Nicaraguan plates.

The shipment of arms, ammo and explosives was confiscated on Sunday in a joint operation involving the police and the army, the statement said.

The arsenal was found in the truck but the suspected members of the cartel managed to flee after engaging police in a shootout. Police pursued them but they were able to escape.

The National Police announced that several houses in different parts of Managua are being raided because they are suspected of being arms warehouses.

The police added that they are looking for Mexican Roberto Bedolla Corona, who is considered the head of the group that transported the weapons and supposedly has been living in a rented house in Managua for the past month. EFE


Key Information: United States Department of State, Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, International Narcotics Control Strategy Report: Volume I, Drug and Chemical Control. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of State: March 2010, 432:

The cross-border flow of money and guns into Mexico from the United States has enabled well-armed and well-funded cartels to engage in violent activities. They employ advanced military tactics and utilize sophisticated weaponry such as sniper rifles, grenades, rocket-propelled grenades and even mortars in attacks on security personnel. DTOs [Drug Trafficking Organizations] have openly challenged the GOM [Government of Mexico] through conflict and intimidation and have fought amongst themselves to control drug distribution routes.

Key Information: Gerardo, “Arsenal seized in Nadadores, Coahuila.” Borderland Beat. 2 June 2011. [3]:

The Mexican Army reported the discovery and seizure of an imposing arsenal in a co-op farm, Ejido Sardinas, located in the municipality of Nadadores, Coahuila.

The announcement was made by Brigadier General Dagoberto Espinoza Rodriguez, commander of the 6th military zone and Major General Noe Sandoval, commander of the 4th military region headquartered in Monterrey.

The Generals reported that the weapons consisted of Russian, Chinese, Czech and U.S. weapons that had recently been wrapped in plastic and buried in a section of the farm. The owner of the plot is unknown and no suspects were detained in the operation.

In total, 154 rifles (assault weapons, rifles, shotguns and machine guns), 7 handguns, 1 rocket launcher (RPG) and 2 rockets, 4 sixty mm mortar rounds, 2 crossbows, 10 dismantled weapons grenades, 4,629 magazines, 62,039 rounds of ammunition, 435 tactical vests with 4,735 accessories including holsters, ammunition pouches and belts, 23 camouflage uniforms and 31 radio chargers [were found].

Photographic No. 3. Containing Four Mortar Rounds


Photographic Analysis: The following identification and analysis concerns the four mortar rounds visible on the foreground of the tarp containing seized cartel weapons found in Photograph No. 3.  These mortar rounds are the 60mm HE, Model “N” produced by the Esparanza y Cia in Spain.  They have a maximum range of 1,975 meters.  The exact age of these rounds, though not that old, cannot be easily determined as the Model “N” has continued to be in production for a number of years where it has remained virtually unchanged. The rounds shown appear to have had frequent handling in transit.

These rounds are fuzed with Model 53 Impact Fuzes that are likely to have been supplied as standard from the factory.  This type of fuze arms the round at 40-meters from the muzzle, with the last safety going off once the round passes zenith in the trajectory. This fuze is also produced by the same company in Bizkaia, Spain. 

All of the rounds in the photograph are intact with their fuze safety pins properly in place.  The reader will also note that each of the four mortar rounds have the wafer propellant charges in place on the tail section.  The range of these rounds can be tactically controlled by the removal of one or two of these propellant wafers.

The cartels may have come into possession of these rounds through any number of means.  There is, however, a high likelihood that they were hijacked from a scheduled shipment of arms destined for the Mexican government.

The mere presence of these rounds in this setting is a clear indicator that the cartels are continuing to acquire higher echelon infantry weapons in their inventories. For the purposes of the cartels, mortar rounds also have a dual use as all of the components excluding the tail sections can be used in the construction of IEDs.

Key Information: The Unstoppable Los Zetas. 14 January 2012.

 White Gun was directed at the Sinaloa cartel senior leaders. Officials indicated that up to nine leaders were targeted by the sting operation. The Sinaloa cartel was operating several training camps for its gunmen and wanted military-grade weapons, to include .50 caliber heavy machineguns, medium mortars, and grenade launchers. The M2HB .50 caliber heavy machinegun is capable of destroying light armored vehicles of the type used by Mexican federal police. It is also effective against aircraft, particularly helicopters.

Who: Primarily the Sinaloa cartel was mentioned in these news reports. The Nadadores, Coahuila cache suggests a possible Zetas stockpile. The Zetas have been referenced in some earlier works as having mortars—amount unknown—in their inventory.    

What: 40mm grenades utilized as improvised mortars, small caliber (60mm) mortars, and mortar rounds utilized as IEDs (potentials).

When: From OSINT/news reports spanning March 2009 to January 2012.

Where: In a rural area of the state of Sinaloa, Mexico (2009), in the province of Matagalpa, Nicaragua (2009), and in Nadadores, Coahuila, Mexico (2011).

Why: The Sinaloa and the Zetas cartels are seeking the tactical engagement capability of engaging in indirect and high arching fires.

Tactical Significance: Standoff, harassing, and infantry support functions. Indirect and high arching fires can defeat Mexican and Central American police and military personnel deployed in open topped sand-bagged emplacements guarding police stations, barracks, other critical facilities, and road junctions. Terrorist potentials to lob mortar rounds into crowded gatherings also exist, as does the employment of mortar rounds as IEDs for ambushes, and to boost the lethality of car bombs utilized in an anti-personnel role.  




3. The original source of this report is El Universal. 1 Junio 2011. The Borderland Beat url is

Significance: Indications & Warnings (I&W), IED Potentials, Cartel Weaponry, Standoff Weaponry.