Mexico Is Arming Itself With U.S. Military Hardware
But America’s southern neighbor once preferred European weapons—what changed?
In recent years, Mexico has made a major shift in how it equips its military. Instead of largely relying on European nations to sell it weapons — as was the case for decades — Mexico is increasingly turning to the United States.
Because there’s a drug war going on … which the U.S. is eager to help bankroll.
It’s not just money, of which the U.S. has provided $2.5 billion since 2008. The U.S. continues to supply Mexico with battle rifles, Humvees, helicopters and gobs of night vision gear. It all comes during an internal conflict that’s killed tens of thousands of people and is still extremely violent.
The country’s largest drug cartels have fragmented. Some cities — such as the border town of Ciudad Juarez — are considerably safer than a few years ago. However, rural areas continue to deteriorate, with smaller and more decentralized drug gangs kidnapping, extorting and killing with impunity.
But Mexico had been wary of buying weapons from the United States.
There’s a series of long and complicated reasons for this. There’s the history of U.S. interventions in Mexican territory, and the reality of domestic Mexican politics. During the Cold War, Mexican politicians were afraid of building too close of a relationship with the U.S. — a hedge against the Soviet Union stirring up trouble in its backyard.
Mexico was never part of NATO, and the country scuttled a proposed U.S. military agreement in 1952 because it came with the condition that Mexican troops help out in “missions important to the defense of the Western Hemisphere.”
At the time, the U.S. wanted Mexico to contribute troops to the war in Korea. But Mexico City saw this conflict as too far removed, and hardly a threat to its own interests.
Mexico preferred to keep its army small — owing to a history of military dictators overthrowing elected governments in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The U.S. offering to help expand the Mexican army in the 1950s? Thanks, but no thanks.
It shows in Mexico’s arsenal. The Mexican navy — in actuality a coastal defense force — is heavily comprised of former U.S. Navy ships donated or sold in the 1980s and 1990s.
But the Mexicans’ armored fighting vehicles are French. Many of their rifles are German. Their artillery is French, Chinese and Italian. On the other hand, there’s plenty of American weapons now, too.
The Mexican army largely uses German G3 and HK33 battle rifles, and a smaller number domestically produced FX-05 Xiuhcoatl rifles — which are variants of the German G36.
But Washington has transferred thousands of rifles to the Mexican army during the past decade. These are largely AR-15 variant carbines. You can see a Mexican soldier equipped with one above, while escorting a Zetas cartel regional boss in 2012.
In 2014, the price of U.S. small arms and ammunition exports to the Mexico came to $21.6 million, according to researcher John Lindsay-Poland, writing for the North American Congress on Latin America’s Website.
That’s not very much — but Mexico and the U.S. are spending billions of dollars on other kinds of hardware, either through direct purchases or via military aid.
NACLA has also helpfully published a chart showing the increase in American arms sales to Mexico, depicting it hitting a $1.2 billion peak in 2012.
Helicopters and Humvees
One of the most expensive and visible elements of U.S. aid is in the form of Black Hawk helicopters. Mexico first bought Black Hawks in 1991 — but only two of them.
Later, the Mexican federal police acquired 23 of the military ’choppers.
Since the drug war accelerated in the late 2000s, the U.S. began exporting a lot more. In 2014, the Pentagon paid Sikorsky more than $680 million for 18 Black Hawks — plus their equipment and support services — for transfer to the Mexican air force.
The deal includes two M134 miniguns for each helicopter. Plus night vision gear for the Mexican pilots and navigation equipment.
“The sale of these UH-60M helicopters to Mexico will significantly increase and strengthen its capability to provide in-country airlift support for its forces engaged in counter-drug operations,” the U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency stated in a notification to Congress.
The U.S. sold three more Black Hawks to the Mexican marines in 2015. The marines have previously put these helicopters to good use, such as swooping down and arresting cartel leaders — including Sinaloa Cartel boss Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman in 2014.
But that’s not all. The U.S. sold the Mexican air force 15 Bell 407GX helicopters this year, according to NACLA.
Then there’s the build-up on the ground. In January, the U.S. confirmed a sale of 2,200 Humvees to the Mexican army in a deal worth $245 million. The DSCA announced the deal last year, but trimmed it down by several hundred vehicles.
For 2015, it is one of the largest U.S. military arms sales abroad.
“Mexico has been a strong partner in combating organized crime and drug trafficking organizations,” the DSCA stated. “The sale of these HMMWVs to Mexico will significantly increase and strengthen its capability to provide in-country troop mobility to provide security.”
Which also makes the U.S. one of Mexico’s largest arms suppliers. It’s quite a change from the more skeptical — if friendly — days of the Cold War.