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

Federal police respond to an attack Thursday on the main avenue of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, across the border from El Paso.
Federal police respond to an attack Thursday on the main avenue of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, across the border from El Paso. (Jesus Alcazar/agence France-presse Via Getty Images)

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

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.

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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.


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