How Narco Tanks Work

Anatomy of a Narco Tank

So-called narco tanks are heavily armored vehicles that have been showing up frequently in Mexico in recent days.
So-called narco tanks are heavily armored vehicles that have been showing up frequently in Mexico in recent days.
Hector Guerrero/AFP/Getty Images

Narco tanks are constructed to do two things: protect their cargo and take a beating. To this end, the drug organizations building these monsters have shown a great deal of imagination when it comes to their creations. Mexican authorities recently seized two of these vehicles, which demonstrate the frightening resolve of the cartels.

"El Monstruo 2011" (The Monster 2011) is the nickname given to one such vehicle. The Mexican army seized the battle-ready armored transport after a firefight with the Los Zetas cartel in early May 2011 [source: Wyler]. The crudely modified three-axel truck was large enough for 12 men and could reach speeds of 68 miles per hour [source: CNN]. It was equipped with slots and turrets for gunmen to fire weapons, including rocket-propelled grenades, from inside [source: Wueger]. El Monstruo 2011 was only disabled because its wheels were left unprotected and struck by gunfire.

Authorities found a second narco tank abandoned in Jalisco, in western Mexico, in late May 2011 [source: Wyler]. This area has seen a lot of bloodshed as rival cartels compete for control since Ignacio "Nacho" Coronel, a high-ranking leader in the Sinaloa Cartel, was killed in 2010. It's unclear which group this truck belonged to. It represents a more ambitious design, having been modified from a 2011 Ford F-Series Super Duty pick-up truck [source: Wyler]. Virtually every surface was covered with steel plates welded in place, and the front was fitted with a steel battering ram fastened to the bumper. Like El Monstruo, this truck had a cargo hold fitted with gun ports for the crew.

These are just two examples of the lengths drug cartels are willing to go to for the illegal drug trade. Similar seizures have yielded tanks that include user-friendly features like air conditioning and special insulation to muffle the sound of incoming gunfire [source: Johnson]. This conflict has seen the deployment of modern (and not-so-modern) technology to aid the cartels, but these tanks leave little doubt that they've been designed with far more violent intentions than simply running drugs.

So, who's using these machines, and how widespread are they? In the next section, we'll look at how these vehicles are affecting local law enforcement and what methods are being used to combat them.