return to ICG Spaces home    ICG Risk Blog    discussions    newsletters    login    

Mexican drug cartels make the leap from guns to IEDs: Expect risks in Mexico to rise


Expect unpleasant bits of Colombia and Iraq to appear in Mexico

A milestone in the weaponry used in the Mexican drug wars has passed largely unnoticed over the weekend. After some 2500 dead in the past year, primarily due to gunshot trauma, the cartels deployed the first known Improvised Explosive Device (IED) - and deployed it in the capital, Mexico City, adjacent to a major tourist area. The only curiosity was why it took so long. The fact that the IED detonated prematurely, killing the perpetrator instead of the intended victim, will be forgotten as better explosives - likely military explosives that will join the rising number of automatic weapons flowing into Mexico - are deployed by the cartels against the government and one another.

We forecast asset risk in Mexico to rise accordingly. The unwelcome trends noted in my September 2007 piece, Trends point towards Mexico's destabilization, continue. One must now expect personnel attacks, even if collateral damage, in addition to supply chain interruption.

Among the drumbeat of Mexican "narco-terrorism" killings, here the torture, mutilation, murder and public dumping of six informants, the names of which are supposedly kept secret, and the transient, sensational headlines of threats of Hezbollah's Hassan Nasrallah against Israel for the assumed killing of Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus, the threat by al Qaida in Iraq (AQI) to commence attacks elsewhere in the Middle East, the continuing ethnic strife in Kenya, Chinese efforts to damp down espionage charges and refute Beijing's facilitation of Sudanese attacks in Darfur, and the run-up to elections in Pakistan, there appeared a brief AFP piece on Friday, Feb 15, 6:15 PM ET:

At least one person died and two others were injured after a bomb exploded in Mexico City's central tourist area [Zona Rosa]... "It sounded like back-to-back explosions ... one person is dead, a man, and we have a woman in critical condition with burns all over her body"... No group has come forward claiming responsibility for the blasts [which] occurred at 2:30 pm (2030 GMT)... "It was a home-made explosive device probably activated by cell-phone and probably made with gunpowder, judging from the smell"... police were investigating whether the deceased was the trigger man in the attack or simply a passerby who picked up a red bag where the device was stashed... "We noticed the dead man lost a hand and this surely happened the instant he handled the device"... Apart from rebel groups, Mexican media also speculated that Friday's attacks could be attributed to the country's powerful drug trafficking cartels.

The Houston Chronicle Mexico City Bureau shortly added:

Though rare, political bombings are not unknown in Mexico. Several leftist guerrilla groups have set off homemade bombs in Mexico City in recent years. But the groups usually issue warnings or time the blasts for early morning hours to avoid innocent casualties... City and federal police have recently arrested suspected drug cartel hitmen and confiscated large amounts of weapons in raids in several Mexico City neighborhoods. But police Friday said there was no apparent link between those arrests and the bomb.

Reuters added more detail a few hours later as the BBC carried the link to police headquarters, the intended means of triggering, and pointed directly at the cartels:

The device was set off near the city's police headquarters... Investigators believe the bomb was activated remotely by a mobile phone... Mexico's government has been locked in a violent battle with drug gangs since last month. Police have announced the arrest of several alleged members of the powerful Sinaloa drug cartel and seized substantial amounts of weapons.

By Saturday, Reuters was flagging the Sinaloa Cartel:

Mexico's increasingly brazen drug cartels may have been behind a bomb blast in the center of the capital in what would be a major escalation of a war with President Felipe Calderon's government.

Friday's explosion points more toward a bungled attack by drug gangs that killed over 2,500 people last year in a turf war. The homemade bomb, attached to a cell phone for activation, went off prematurely near Mexico City's security ministry, killing a man who was believed to have been handling it.

Initial suspicions fell on drug gangs like the Sinaloa Cartel headed by Mexico's most-wanted man, Joaquin "Shorty" Guzman, which has suffered most in recent weeks from an army-backed drive against drug violence by Calderon.

Security forces arrested one of the Sinaloa Cartel's main money launders last month and the gang has lost weapons and cash in police seizures in Mexico City in recent days.

On Monday, Reuters noted that the bomber, Juan Manuel Meza Campos (deceased), and his accomplice/lookout, Tania Vázquez Muñoz (badly burned), were targeting an unnamed "director of the public security ministry." Reuters identified the tactical shift in targeting without flagging its significance:

Drug gang hit men regularly murder police chiefs and judges, and three heavily armed men arrested in January were planning to kill the country's deputy attorney general. However gangs have not been known to use bombs so far.

By Thursday, Meza's nickname, El Pipén, and his "links to drug dealers in a high-crime neighborhood called Tepito" were known as was his intent to place the IED into a police commander's car in a nearby parking lot.

Acetone peroxide, or Triacetone Triperoxide (TATP), comes to the Americas

Of great interest to this analyst was the apparent identification of the explosive used in the device: Acetone Peroxide, often known as Triacetone Triperoxide, or TATP, the explosive of choice of the London bombings and many Palestinian suicide bomber attacks.

Owing to the fact that the precursors are readily available, Acetone Peroxide is commonly used by amateur bomb makers, is often used for detonators, [and] is a favored explosive for terrorist attacks, particularly in the Middle East...

Of [the] group of peroxide-based explosives, including triacetone triperoxide (TATP), diacetone diperoxide (DADP), and hexamethylene triperoxide diamine (HMTD) and their analogues... TATP is one of the most sensitive explosives known, a property that allows its employment as both primary explosive and main charge. With power close to that of TNT [it] may be employed for explosive devices. [TATP's shock wave velocity is approximately 5000 m/s.] However, due to its low chemical stability and its sensitivity to mechanical stress and open flame, as well as its high volatility [has] not been extensively used. Unlike most conventional explosive devices, those made of [TATP] contain neither nitro groups nor metallic elements, making its detection by standard methods quite difficult.

Not used in areas such as Iraq where military explosives are plentiful, TATP, while exceedingly sensitive and prone to cook off, offers the ability to combine three commonly available precursors, drain cleaner, hydrogen peroxide and acetone, to produce an explosive with three-quarters of the detonation rate of TNT and about half that of C-4 plastic explosive.

The cartels now refine certain cocaine products in Mexico as well as produce superior grades of methamphetamine. They can certainly perfect the production of TATP. Expect to see a family of IEDs employing homemade, commercial and military explosives emerge in Mexico.

Deadly Bomb in Mexico Was Meant for the Police
New York Times
February 21, 2008

Bomb was assassination plot, Mexico City authorities say
The blast last week is believed to have been a failed attempt to kill a top police official. Drug traffickers are suspected.
By Héctor Tobar
Los Angeles Times
February 20, 2008

Dead suspect named in botched Mexico City bombing
By Mica Rosenberg and Luis Rojas
19 Feb 2008 05:39:28 GMT
(Recasts with suspect, target identified, adds details)

Mexico City tightens security after fatal blast
By Mica Rosenberg
18 Feb 2008 23:45:44 GMT

Mexico City Bomber's Motive Unclear, Police Say
New York Times
February 17, 2008

Mexico drug gangs suspected of fatal blast
By Alistair Bell
16 Feb 2008 19:45:31 GMT

Mexico City blast may have ties to organized crime
February 16, 2008 -- Updated 1459 GMT (2259 HKT)

Bomb Kills Man on Street in Mexico
New York Times
February 16, 2008

Bomb kills one, wounds two in Mexico City
By Armando Tovar and Cyntia Barrera Diaz
16 Feb 2008 03:18:21 GMT
(Updates with officials' comments, details about the bomb)

Blast near Mexico City police HQ
BBC News
Last Updated: Saturday, 16 February 2008, 00:13 GMT

MOD-DATE: 02/16/08 00:08:25
INTRO: Bomb kills one, wounds two in Mexico City.

Homemade bomb explodes in Mexico City, killing man
Two others hurt by blast in capital near U.S. Embassy
Houston Chronicle Mexico City Bureau
Feb. 15, 2008, 11:59PM

Bomb explodes in Mexico City killing at least one
Fri Feb 15, 6:15 PM ET

Grim warnings left on six bodies found in Tijuana
Placards advise against informing on drug traffickers
Houston Chronicle Mexico City Bureau
Feb. 14, 2008, 11:06PM

Acetone Peroxide (For A Bomb - Triacetone Triperoxide) And The Terrorist Plot To Bow Up British Planes
Posted by Richard at August 10, 2006 7:27 PM

Acetone Peroxide - the explosive used in the London blasts
Posted by Hyscience at July 21, 2005 1:20 PM

TATP is suicide bombers' weapon of choice
By Philippe Naughton
Times Online
July 15, 2005

Decomposition of Triacetone Triperoxide Is an Entropic Explosion
Faina Dubnikova, Ronnie Kosloff, Joseph Almog, Yehuda Zeiri, Roland Boese, Harel Itzhaky, Aaron Alt, and Ehud Keinan
Journal of the American Chemical Society (JACS)
Received June 14, 2004
Published on Web 01/05/2005
2005, 127, 1146-1159

13.8 What is the chemical structure of common explosives?
From the Chemistry FAQ, by Bruce Hamilton with numerous contributions by others

Gordon Housworth

InfoT Public  Risk Containment and Pricing Public  Strategic Risk Public  Terrorism Public  
In order to post a message, you must be logged in
message date / author

There are no comments available.

In order to post a message, you must be logged in