There’s a reason the state can’t defeat the cartels—and it’s not just that people love drugs. It’s also about technology, which the state no longer controls.
Over the past decade, technologies developed and even invented by Mexican and Colombian cartels have come to challenge not only the state’s monopoly over drug pushing and violence but its monopoly over citizens as well. Some drug lords are de facto regional governors and cartels are now parallel states.
From weapons factories to surveillance networks, here are ten ways they’ve gone about it.
10. Tire punchers
Although primitive, especially for state-building, tire punchers get a place on this list. Police can use them to stop you from escaping, but cartels have reversed this dynamic. In a pinch, they’ll drop spikes from tubes on customized cars to send pursuers spinning out of control.
Known as ponchallatas, these spikes can be quite sophisticated. Some are just sharp nails welded together like jacks, so however they land one always points up. But others are cut from sheet metal, and some even have hollow spikes and holes to maximize the deflation of tires.
The use of ponchallantas is most associated with southern Texas, the stomping grounds of Los Zetas and the Gulf Cartel. Between 2008 and 2013, they used tire punchers 80 times to stop police dead in their tracks.
In 2021, drones were used by members of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel to drop explosives on poilice officers in Michoacan. Each of the drones was fitted with a remote-controlled hook carrying a container full of plastic explosives and ball bearings, complete with a cup to serve as a parachute.
Drone bombings are as much a status symbol or display of strength as anything else, and are filmed for broadcasting online.
Usually, though, drones are just used for surveillance, deployed to monitor rivals and police, or to carry small cargoes of drugs.
Another weapon of the road pioneered by Los Zetas is the monstruo, or “monster”—a custom-built narco-tank with gun turrets, battering rams, and steel-plate armor four inches thick. Some are built from scratch, while others are converted from pickup trucks; but they’re all a brutal menace to the state. In fact, with their up-to-date camouflage, they’re indistinguishable from the tanks of the Mexican army (which is kind of apt given the number of special forces recruited to Los Zetas). They’re basically immune to anything the police have to throw at them.
Also known as rinocerontes (rhinoceroses), they’ve become popular with many cartels, not least as status symbols—hence the display of their initials on the shells (e.g. CJNG for the Jalisco New Generation Cartel).
Despite each one costing more than two million pesos ($117,000), payable to cartel mechanics, monstruos have exploded in number. As of 2015, 40 had been seized nationwide; since 2019, however, 260 have been seized in Tamaulipas alone.
7. Cannons and catapults
Sometimes the old ways are best. To get drugs over the border, smugglers have been known to just shoot them over the fence. One “medieval-style” catapult was actually welded onto it, and capable of firing loads up to 300 meters. It’s a tactic also used in Afghanistan, to smuggle opium into Iran.
Another method deployed by cartels in Mexico is the compressed air cannon, which is both faster and further reaching—something like 700 meters at 300 miles per hour. It’s not ideal, but it’s a good last resort for when other supply routes are closed.
In 2015, drug lord El Chapo humiliated the Mexican government by escaping from his prison cell through a tunnel underground. Complete with lights, ventilation, and a motorbike on rails, the mile-long passageway was a feat of clandestine engineering.
But narco-tunnels are routinely used for smuggling. While it’s unknown (of course) how many there are, law enforcement has busted 15 over the last couple of decades.
One of the most impressive ran from Tijuana to San Diego, 35 feet underground, allowing vast quantities of drugs to pass unimpeded under one of the most fortified stretches of the US border wall.
5. Stealth Aircraft
Between 2006 and 2011, authorities seized more than 400 aircraft from cartel drug smugglers—more planes than there are in the Mexican Air Force. They also destroyed more than 2,000 unregistered airfields. Most of these are single-engine, high-wing planes like Cessnas, suitable for landing on dirt roads and deserts. Some have modifications, such as metal plates under the nose to protect engines from gravel or big tires for landing on rocks.
Increasingly, though, low-flying ultralight aircraft are used to evade radar detection. Fitted with steel baskets for carrying drugs, they look like motorized hang gliders from the ground—if they’re seen at all. Usually, they’re painted black and fly at night without lights. Pilots wear night vision goggles or follow the routes of main roads, releasing their loads at illuminated drop zones. Extra fuel tanks keep them airborne for longer than ordinary ultralights.
Although they’re able to carry much less weight than larger planes, ultralights can’t be shot down by authorities—not legally anyway.
When you make everything yourself, it’s hard for the state to control you. Guns, in particular, from a cartel’s perspective, are better assembled in-house. They’re not easy, though. Authorities were taken aback by the sophistication of a gun factory busted in Jalisco. Hidden between a couple of farmhouses, it had, according to the Attorney General, “highly sophisticated machinery” and “very precise software”, allowing cartel armorers to make untraceable components for AR-15s from unfinished aluminum blocks.
But they also cobble together assault rifles from components smuggled in from the US.
It’s thought the next step for gunsmiths will be 3D printing, assuming they’re not there already.
Luxury undersea superyachts aside, when you think of submarines, you think of the state—or the military anyway. Rarely are they used by civilians. In 2019, however, a fiberglass sub with a crew of three (an amateur boxer and two Ecuadorian cousins) was scuttled in Spain after four weeks at sea. Carrying three tons of coke, the 21.5-meter submersible, which belonged to the Colombian Gulf Clan cartel, had traveled 3,500 miles from a shipyard in the Amazon rainforest.
Conditions on board were awful. Most of the space was for cargo and fuel, so the cabin itself was tiny. It was also dark, noisy, and smelly. The crew lived on energy bars, rice, and sardines, crapped in trash bags, and fretted constantly about leaks, betrayal, and detection—not to mention their health.
Still, it was the first narco-sub to reach European waters, hence its revolutionary nickname, Che.
Free trade and firepower can only get you so far. When you’re up against the state, you also need to know what it’s doing; you need eyes and ears everywhere.
In Mexico, cartels use clandestine CCTV networks to monitor the competition—hooked up to the enemy’s own telephone poles. It’s not known whether these are centrally coordinated by some kind of narco-NSA, but individual cartels do have intelligence services. The Gulf Cartel, for instance, in the city of Reynosa, has an “intelligence and command and control faction” called the Ciclones. Thought to be operated “via an encrypted and anonymized system”, 39 of their cameras were discovered by police and taken offline in 2015. While operational, they provided clear views of government and military buildings, police stations, and the attorney general’s office, as well as civilian areas.
At the US border, another kind of surveillance is used. In 2011, at the height of the “drug war”, up to 300 cartel scouts were deployed on ridges and mountain top spy posts or “spider holes” to watch the movements of government agents. They relayed this intel to smugglers on the ground over an encrypted radio network set up by kidnapped engineers.
To really evade the law, you have to supplant it. You have to get the masses on side. Following the state’s example, cartels feed propaganda to kids—and TikTok is the place to recruit them, especially for the forward-thinking Jalisco New Generation Cartel. Videos of exotic pets, dancing gangsters, wads of cash, assault rifles, tanks, cars, and poppy fields, as well as daring Grand Theft Auto-style airdrops and speedboat chases—all to playful Mexican soundtracks—glamorize the cartel lifestyle. The clips get millions of views, not only in Mexico but around the world as well. TikTok tries to take down the videos, but supply and demand remain high. The result is a steady stream of youngsters only too eager to join. It also leaks into mainstream popular culture, with shows like Narcos on Netflix.
Within Mexico, infowar tactics deployed by cartels resemble those widely used by the state. Journalists and editors critical of cartels, for example, are kidnapped or murdered, forcing others to censor themselves. Nowadays, many outlets simply print cartel press releases as news. Sometimes it really is news, such as highlighting human rights abuses by the state, but always with a pro-cartel agenda.
Other means of propaganda include narcocorridos (folk songs or ballads glamorizing cartels), graffiti, blogs and other social media, banners, demonstrations, and flyers.