Narcos target choppers with rocket launchers and machine guns from Central America
by ROBERT BECKHUSEN
Four vehicles filled with armed men traveled through dry scrubland 70 miles south of the Texas border. Overhead, a Mexican navy Black Hawk helicopter was on the lookout.
It was July 5, 2015, and the helicopter — built in the United States — was on a surveillance mission in the area. It’s a sparse and remote badland near Nuevo Laredo, and there’s little out there except the occasional ranch hidden among the region’s countless squat, water-starved trees and shrubs.
But when it comes to drug violence, it’s one of the more dangerous regions in Mexico. Cartels frequently use the rural trails to avoid military or federal police patrols along the highways.
As soon as the gunmen noticed the helicopter, they fired at it, striking the chopper seven times. The helicopter crew fired warning shots in return, and then escalated to shooting directly at the gunmen.
Six of the men on the ground — all of them alleged cartel members — died in the firefight.
It was just a blip in the drumbeat of violence. But incidents involving gunmen firing at helicopters in Mexico has become more common in recent months — reflecting the military’s increasing reliance on choppers in its nearly decade-long drug war.
On the ground, the cartels can frequently match the military and Federales in terms of firepower. Organized crime groups often travel in force, with several armored vehicles to a convoy and with each gunman carrying an automatic or semi-automatic rifle — plus even the occasional .50-caliber armor-piercing sniper rifle.
Armored helicopters provide an advantage in maneuverability and even more firepower. The U.S. has supplied dozens of Black Hawk helicopters to Mexico with M134 Miniguns — a 7.62-millimeter rapid-fire weapon capable of firing thousands of rounds per minute.
That’s led to a tit-for-tat series of escalations. The military goes after the cartels with Minigun-toting helicopters, and cartels shoot back with heavier and heavier weapons.
In May, gunmen with the Jalisco New Generation Cartel shot down a French-supplied Cougar helicopter with an RPG-7 rocket launcher, killing six Mexican soldiers.
It was the first time an organized crime group in the country had successfully shot down a helicopter. Mishaps are far more common. The Mexican military and police combined have lost 132 aircraft since 2001, all of them due to accidents — at a cost of 94 lives.
The fighting has even ensnared U.S. federal helicopters along the border. On June 5, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection helicopter — an unarmored EC-120 — made an emergency landing after being hit by ground fire near Laredo, Texas.
Even scarier, one bullet penetrated the cockpit windshield and hit the EC-120’s pilot in the chest. Fortunately, the round stopped at the pilot’s bulletproof vest without causing injury. In response, CBP rushed two armored Black Hawk helicopters to South Texas.
Pres. Enrique Pena Nieto has focused heavily on targeting drug cartel leaders. His presidency has seen the arrest of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman — the country’s most powerful drug lord — and the death of Zetas leader Heriberto Lazcano.
Both operations involved the use of fast-moving helicopters. Lazcano was killed in a similar operation involving a pursuit by a chopper while he was driving along a rural highway.
But the Cartel Jalisco seems more willing to escalate and shoot back. It’s also frighteningly easy to acquire rocket-propelled grenade launchers in the country … if you know the right people. RPG-7s cost as low as $3,000 plus an additional $300 per warhead, according to the investigative journalism website Animal Politico.
These weapons largely come from Central America, where organized crime groups resell them from civil war stockpiles, steal them from military armories or buy them directly from corrupt officials.