return to ICG Spaces home    ICG Risk Blog    discussions    newsletters    login    

ICG Risk Blog - [ Assisting journalists: Are the Mexican vehicle explosions a "proper car bomb"? ]

Assisting journalists: Are the Mexican vehicle explosions a "proper car bomb"?


Journalists contact us from time to time, too often to make a story on the back of our disclosing proprietary research to them. In fewer but welcome cases, they want to get terms straight to educate their readers.


After an earlier version of this note was posted to Frontera List as Mexican police probe Juarez car bomb possibly intended for authorities, two journalists asked:

Do you have any insight into how best to define a car bomb versus a bomb in a car? I ask [as] it’s my impression that we haven’t really seen a proper car bomb in Mexico yet – not on the scale of the ones I saw in Iraq or other places. But what’s the right definition? When do we know the cartels are looking to get such a device?


Where do you think they got it? is that common on the international criminal market, or is that just what might be locally available [from] the mining industry in Chihuahua?

Our reply:


Each of the recent spate of vehicle explosions is a Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (VBIED) and the groups employing them are coming up the experience curve.


What makes a VBIED


First, slowly deconstruct VBIED, i.e., a vehicle borne IED.


In effect, a VBIED is both a shrapnel pack and a delivery mechanism for an IED described as: 

Definition: An IED is a bomb fabricated in an improvised manner incorporating destructive, lethal, noxious, pyrotechnic, or incendiary chemicals and designed to destroy or incapacitate personnel or vehicles. In some cases, IEDs are used to distract, disrupt, or delay an opposing force, to facilitate another type of attack. IEDs may incorporate military or commercially-sourced explosives, and often combine both types, or they may otherwise be made with home made explosives (HME).

They are unique in nature because the IED builder has had to improvise with the materials at hand. Designed to defeat a specific target or type of target, they generally become more difficult to detect and protect against as they become more sophisticated.

Almost anything that blows up will do, from grenades to plastic explosives to leftover mines. The most everyday of electronics -- a cell phone, a garage door opener, a child's remote-control toy -- can be recast as a trigger. And the hiding places for these handmade bombs are everywhere: in the ground, aboard a truck, even inside an animal carcass

Though they can vary widely in shape and form...

Once the perps understand fuzing and vehicle transport, they will quickly scale the explosive content.


Second, the size and brisance of the Mexican explosions in relationship to Iraq and Afghanistan


The size and brisance of the current Mexican VBIEDs are not on the scale of devices being encountered in the Mideast and SW Asia. From a private note:

Cheap escalation, expect both IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) and VBIEDs (Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Devices) to increase in volume and lethality as actors build larger charges.


IEDs and VBIEDs in Iraq, Afghanistan and other high tempo war zones are constructed from UXO (unexploded ordnance) abandoned or captured on the battlefield or looted from former state magazines.


By contrast, Mexican devices are currently utilizing blasting explosives [Tovex] that have far less brisance than military explosives. (In lay terms this has to do with the velocity of the radiating shock waves; blasting explosives are designed to fracture rock rather than pulverize, so explosive mixtures are tuned accordingly.)


The Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was an ammonium nitrate fertilizer, diesel fuel and nitromethane device (and here), albeit of some 2200 kg, but it shows the art of the possible.


Once local actors start making fuel oil/nitrate fertilizer devices from locally available stocks, Mexico will be off to the races in earnest...

Cartel experimentation with explosives as opposed to firearms appears to have started in 2009:

The assailants apparently used Tovex, a water gel explosive commonly used as a replacement for dynamite in mining and other industrial activities, said the U.S. official, who is familiar with the investigation but spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to discuss the Mexican-led investigation...


Mexico's powerful drug cartels have long been experimenting with explosives. In the northern state of Durango in 2009, more than a dozen masked gunmen stole 900 cartridges of Tovex water gel explosives from a warehouse run by the U.S.-based Austin Powder Company. Mexican authorities recovered the stolen material, but the theft underscored how easy it can be to get explosive material in the country, where armed men also have attacked transport vehicles carrying such substances.


The ATF has helped investigate several events involving improvised explosive devices around Mexico, including a roadside bomb in March at a gas station in the northern state of Nuevo Leon. That bomb, which didn't injure anyone, consisted of two large cylinders filled with nails and possibly black powder, another substance that is readily available on the black market.

The ground situation will rapidly escalate when one or more of the criminal groups begin to add military explosives (Semtex or C4) to their global shopping lists. As I noted in The reality of Mexican drug cartel weapons sourcing:

[The] cartels could easily rise above the squad subordinated weapons (assault weapons and light machine guns) currently in use to include antitank missiles and larger ordnance. Beyond the demands of ego and attempts to demonstrate superior area control, there are not enough viable targets to justify the added expense. Be certain that when the need or desire is there, so will be the weapons...

Third, the trajectory to expect


A well worn trajectory that played itself out in Iraq and now in Afghanistan will run in Mexico. From: Nicola Calipari-Giuliana Sgrena incident report, part 2, 5/5/2005: 

Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), Unexploded IEDs, Hand Grenades, Indirect Fire (mortars, rockets, and unidentified indirect fire), Rocket-Propelled Grenades (RPGs), Small Arms Fire (SAF), Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (VBIEDs), and Complex Attacks. The most common attacks along Route Irish are IEDs, VBIEDs, and SAF.

IEDs [continue] to evolve. Current techniques are:

  • Explosives positioned alongside guard rails. The large number of guard rails on the road make these devices difficult to detect and relatively easy to emplace by staging equipment in vehicles or near overpasses, and, in a matter of minutes, having the IED armed and in the desired location.
  • Explosives wrapped in a brown paper bag or a plastic trash bag. This is a particularly easy method of concealment, easy to emplace, and has been used effectively against Coalition Forces and civilians along Route Irish.
  • Explosives set on a timer. This technique is new to the Route Irish area, but is being seen more frequently.
  • Use of the median. The 50 meter wide median of Route Irish provides a large area for emplacing IEDs. These can be dug in, hidden, and/or placed in an animal carcass or other deceptive container.
  • Surface laid explosives. The enemy will drop a bag containing the explosive onto the highway and exit the area on an off-ramp with the detonation occurring seconds or minutes later depending on the desired time for the explosion.
  • Explosives on opposite sides of the median. Devices have been found along both sides of the median that were apparently designed to work in tandem, to counter Coalition Force tactics to avoid the right side of the highway while traveling Route Irish.
  • Explosives hidden under the asphalt. Insurgents pretend to do work on the pavement, plant the explosives, and repair the surface. These are usually remote-detonated devices.

Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (VBIEDs) contain two types of car bombs, e.g., when the vehicle is moving (suicide) and when the vehicle is parked and stationary. Both can be either command or remote-detonated:

  • Multiple suicide vehicles. The first vehicle either creates an opening for a second, more powerful vehicle, or acts as bait to draw other personnel, such as medics and other first responders, into the kill zone of the first vehicle. As people respond, the second VBIED engages the responders.
  • Suicide VBIEDs are typically used against convoys, Coalition Force patrols, or Coalition checkpoints where they can achieve maximum damage. Such vehicles will rapidly approach the convoy from the rear and attempt to get in between convoy vehicles before detonating.
  • Stationary VBIEDs are typically parked along main supply routes, like Route Irish, and often have been found near known checkpoints. These are usually remotely operated and may be employed in conjunction with a suicide VBIED.

From the concluding section of Beyond Colombianization, Mexico is the Iraq, the Afghanistan, on our southern border

It is going to get worse


Mexico demands what is called situational awareness of its citizens and visitors. While the violence in the border towns is reaching epidemic proportions, Monterrey and Acapulco (aka Narcopulco) now increasingly have what amounts to squad level firefights in the central business/tourist district.


Criminal co-optition will accelerate as groups jocky for product, plaza control, security and supremacy.


These negative events are paralleling Mexico’s betterment of the China Price, and may well deprive Mexico of added legitimate revenue and infrastructure build-out.


By early 2008 the Gulf Cartel had “begun acquiring more military-grade weapons, including FN Herstal P90 submachine guns, FN Herstal 5.7 x 28mm pistols, M72 LAW (light anti-tank weapon) rocket launchers, AT4 anti-tank rockets, RPG-7 rocket-propelled grenade launchers, MGL 37mm grenade launchers and fragmentation grenades.”


The use of Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (VBIEDs) has started and I would expect that to accelerate with even more paralysis of Mexican judicial and police asset that US forces suffer in Afghanistan.


Missing from this first effort: Secondary and tertiary detonations, often waves of parallel ignitions, against massed first responders and receiving hospitals. The Chechens and Iraqis have perfected this progression, but for the foreseeable future these secondary detonations will be IEDs and VBIEDs and not suicide vests. As time progresses: Multiple targets, simultaneous attacks, multiple vehicles per target and armed assault/breaching cadres to clear security personnel and gain access to the primary target...


Bomb Wounds 2 in Northeast Mexico

Latin American Herald Tribune

August 30,2010


Comando caught with explosives in Chihuahua

From: Susan <>

Frontera List

23 Jul 2010 20:01:11 -0500


Ciudad Juarez car bomb shows new sophistication in Mexican drug cartels' tactics

By William Booth

Washington Post

July 22, 2010; A10

US official: Mexican car bomb likely used Tovex



updated 7/19/2010 11:38:32 PM ET


Mexico car bomb: 'Colombianization' of Mexico nearly complete

Last week's Mexico car bomb in the border town of Cuidad Juarez killed three. It is the first known use of a car bomb against authorities and marks a troubling new level of violence in the country's brutal drug war.

By Sara Miller Llana


July 18, 2010


Experts: Car bomb in Juárez mimics Middle East terrorist tactics

Car bombing was trap

By Ramon Bracamontes

El Paso Times

07/17/2010 12:00:00 AM MDT


Car bomb in Mexican drug war changes ground rules



updated 7/17/2010 11:04:40 AM ET


Mexico blames drug cartel for deadly car bomb

By Julian Cardona


Jul 16, 2010 8:58pm EDT


Potential Indicators of Threats Involving Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (VBIEDs)

Homeland Security Information Bulletin

May 15, 2003



Oklahoma City bombing

Oklahoma City Newspapers


Early preparations

Building the bomb


Gordon Housworth

InfoT Public  Infrastructure Defense Public  Risk Containment and Pricing Public  Strategic Risk Public  Terrorism Public  Weapons & Technology Public  


  discuss this article

<<  |  July 2020  |  >>
view our rss feed