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Mexican drug cartels' newest weapon: Cold War-era grenades made in U.S.

By Nick Miroff and William Booth
Saturday, July 17, 2010; A01

MEXICO CITY -- Grenades made in the United States and sent to Central America during the Cold War have resurfaced as terrifying new weapons in almost weekly attacks by Mexican drug cartels.

Sent a generation ago to battle communist revolutionaries in the jungles of Central America, U.S. grenades are being diverted from dusty old armories and sold to criminal mafias, who are using them to destabilize the Mexican government and terrorize civilians, according to U.S. and Mexican law enforcement officials.

The redeployment of U.S.-made grenades by Mexican drug lords underscores the increasingly intertwined nature of the conflict, as President Felipe Calderón sends his soldiers out to confront gangs armed with a deadly combination of brand-new military-style assault rifles purchased in the United States and munitions left over from the Cold War.

Grenades have killed a relatively small number of the 25,000 people who have died since Calderón launched his U.S.-backed offensive against the cartels. But the grenades pack a far greater psychological punch than the ubiquitous AK-47s and AR-15 rifles -- they can overwhelm and intimidate outgunned soldiers and police while reminding ordinary Mexicans that the country is literally at war.

There have been more than 72 grenade attacks in Mexico in the last year, including spectacular assaults on police convoys and public officials. Mexican forces have seized more than 5,800 live grenades since 2007, a small fraction of a vast armory maintained by the drug cartels, officials said.

According to the Mexican attorney general's office, there have been 101 grenade attacks against government buildings in the past 3 1/2 years, information now made public for the first time.

To fight back, U.S. experts in grenades and other explosives are now working side by side with Mexican counterparts. On Thursday, assailants detonated a car bomb in downtown Ciudad Juarez, killing two federal police officers and an emergency medical technician and wounding seven.

The majority of grenades have been traced back to El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, according to investigations by agents at the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and their Mexican counterparts. ATF has also found that almost 90 percent of the grenades confiscated and traced in Mexico are more than 20 years old.

The administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush sent 300,000 hand grenades to friendly regimes in Central America to fight leftist insurgents in the civil wars of the 1980s and early 1990s, according to declassified military data obtained through the Freedom of Information Act by the Federation of American Scientists.

Not all grenades found in Mexico are American-made. Many are of Asian or Soviet and Eastern European manufacture, ATF officials said, probably given to leftist insurgents by Cuba and Nicaragua's Sandinistas.

One of the most common hand grenades found in Mexico is the M67, the workhorse explosive manufactured in the United States for American soldiers and for sale or transfer to foreign militaries. Some 266,000 M67 grenades went to El Salvador alone between 1980 and 1993, during the civil war there.

Now selling for $100 to $500 apiece on the black market, grenades have exploded in practically every region of Mexico in recent years.

In the past year, assailants have rolled grenades into brothels in the border city of Reynosa. They have hurled one at the U.S. consulate in nearby Nuevo Laredo. They have launched them at a military barracks in Tampico and at a television station in Nayarit state.

In the state of Durango, 10 students, most teenagers but some as young as 8, were ripped apart on their way to receive government scholarships in March when attacked with grenades at a cartel checkpoint. The blasts tore a gaping hole in the side of their pickup, peeling back the door panels as if it were a soda can.

"They are a way to spread fear and terror," said Paulino Jiménez Hidalgo, a retired Mexican army general. "And they're a way to gain the upper hand over the authorities."

Grenade attacks began in 2007 in response to the expanded role of the military in anti-narcotics enforcement and the rise of the Zetas, the fearsome cartel founded by former special-forces soldiers, according to Martín Barrón Cruz, an expert in arms and security at Mexico's National Institute of Criminal Sciences, a government agency.

"It's an arms race," Barrón said.

Demand for military hardware is soaring, he said, citing recent seizures of .50-caliber rifles, mortars and anti-personnel mines.

The criminal organizations are demonstrating a growing tactical knowledge about how to use grenades in close-quarters combat.

"They're a good way to cover your retreat or to initiate an attack," said Anna Gilmour, a drug-war expert at IHS Jane's, a global security consulting firm. "You can use them as a means of spreading confusion."

As one senior U.S. law enforcement official in Mexico put it, grenades are "a lazy man's killing weapon" because they don't require good aim.

"You don't have to be able to hit a bull's-eye. You just roll it out," he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of security protocols.

Frequently, grenades are left unexploded at attack scenes. U.S. officials attribute this to operator error rather than the age of the munitions, since grenades can last for decades if stored properly. While some seized grenades are covered in rust or dirt, others are in mint condition, suggesting they may have been removed recently from military stores.

ATF and its Mexican counterparts consider information about the source country and specific make of grenades classified. Federal police in Mexico are now offering $200 -- about six weeks' pay at minimum wage in Mexico -- as a reward for every grenade turned over to authorities.

U.S. investigators and independent experts suspect that few military grenades have entered Mexico directly across the northern border from the United States.

"There might be a few thefts from U.S. military bases, but there has been little evidence that grenades in Mexico are being smuggled from the United States," said Colby Goodman, an arms trafficking expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Interviews with military, police and U.S. law enforcement agents in Central America suggest authorities are increasingly concerned about preventing thefts from grenade stockpiles but are virtually powerless to prevent the spread of weapons that are already loose.

"Almost all of the attacks we've seen have been with M67s," said Howard Cotto, a chief investigator with El Salvador's National Civil Police. "There are so many of them floating around here."

Salvadoran police have seized 390 M67s since 2005.

Black-market grenades are so easy to obtain in El Salvador that street gangs routinely use them as tools of extortion, to menace business owners and bus drivers. Concern that grenades could leak out of army garrisons prompted the Salvadoran military to consolidate its abundant supply in two high-security facilities last year, the Salvadoran defense minister, Gen. David Munguía Payés, said in an interview. The U.S. government is planning to send a threat-assessment team to the country to help secure its arsenals.

"Since 2009 we haven't registered any missing grenades," Munguía Payés said. "But we know that there are grenades out there on the black market."

In Guatemala, aging American-, Israeli- and Asian-made grenades have been seeping out of the country's Mariscal Zavala armory for years, according to military officials and security experts.

The military official who oversees the arsenals, Col. Luis Francisco Juárez, said safeguards are now in place to ensure that no weapons are illegally removed. But Guatemalan court records show that when his predecessor, Col. Carlos Toledo, reported to his superiors last year that 500 weapons were missing, he was stripped of his command and subjected to death threats.

Just two months after Toledo reported the missing weapons, arms diverted from the Guatemalan military turned up at a bloody scene where five police officers were killed while allegedly trying to steal 370 kilos of cocaine from a cartel safe house. A huge arms cache was uncovered at the site, including more than 550 40mm projectile grenades, many of which had lot numbers matching those in the Guatemalan armory and which appeared to be manufactured in the United States, according to military and legal sources.

In another large seizure, 500 grenades were recovered in March 2009 at a site in northern Guatemala that authorities described as a training camp run by the Mexican Zeta drug organization.

An investigation by Guatemala's El Periódico newspaper found that as many as 27,000 military weapons, including an unknown number of grenades, may have been illegally sold or stolen in recent years.

Miroff reported from El Salvador and Guatemala.

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