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Default What the Narcos are driving these days...

Retrofitted Vehicles Offer Window Into Mexico’s Cartels

Published: December 12, 2009

CULIACÁN, Mexico — Federico Solórzano is no used car salesman, but he seemed to be getting into the part as he made the rounds of a well-stocked car lot the other day.

The Mexican Army has confiscated more than 700 vehicles in Sinaloa, including custom-made choppers and a classic Chevy painted like a Chicago police car.

“This is a 2009 Lincoln S.U.V.,” he said, gesturing toward a decked-out vehicle to his right. “Over there, we have two Corvettes. Here’s a Smart car.”

He was dressed in camouflage, and affixed to his shoulder were a golden eagle and single star, which gave away his real job as a Mexican Army general. But besides commanding the counternarcotics troops here in Sinaloa, the northwestern state that is the cradle of Mexican drug trafficking, General Solórzano also manages a huge used-car lot made up of vehicles the army has seized in Sinaloa over the past three years.

It turns out that much can be learned about the drug traffickers that the Mexican Army is combating by examining the 765 vehicles crowding the military base here awaiting disposition from the courts. If you are what you drive, drug dealers are devious, malicious, extravagant and quite conscious about security.

In some of the impounded vehicles, traffickers have installed hidden compartments, trap doors and fake sidewalls to hide drugs, drug profits and the arms they use to protect them.

“We noticed the screws here weren’t right,” said General Solórzano, pulling off a fake rear bumper from what appeared a garden-variety pickup truck. Hidden inside, he said, were cocaine and guns.

“And look at this,” he said, walking on to a Ford pickup, where he said $3 million in cash was recovered in November 2008.

Many of the vehicles that are seized during drug busts or traffic stops turn out to be armored. While bulletproofing is not illegal, General Solórzano said vehicles that had been sealed with metal and inch-thick glass raised the suspicion of soldiers and prompted them to search more vigorously for contraband.

The fact that some cars have been on the lot for as long as three years is a sign of the plodding nature of judicial proceedings in Mexico, where critics say guilt and innocence do not necessarily correlate to convictions and acquittals. Eventually, cars that are linked to criminal activity will be sold or given to government agencies for their use.

In the meantime, though, they fill General Solórzano’s lot, where oversize Hummer-like vehicles able to navigate rugged country roads are clearly a favorite. Luxury brands predominate, but they are mixed with rusted-out Buicks and vanilla Volkswagens.

“I have Jaguars; I have a Rolls Royce,” said the general, a 34-year military veteran, rattling off his top-end models. “This is a Mercedes. That, over there, is a classic Cadillac.”

Drug dealers are not all work and no play, which is clear from the motorcycle section of the lot. There are custom-made choppers with impossibly long front ends, a handmade bike retrofitted with an engine pulled from a pickup and a ghastly black machine in which the handlebars are made to resemble bones.

Classic cars are popular, including a refurbished Chevy painted like a Chicago police car from the Al Capone days.

The devious nature of the traffickers can be seen in some of the weaponry they install, which General Solórzano suspects is done in their own chop shops. Traffickers put a turret in one truck, allowing them to raise a machine gun through the roof while remaining safely inside a bulletproof chamber below.

Traffickers have also added fog machines to the back of their vehicles, allowing them to lose the authorities in a cloud of smoke. Another way they stymie the pursuing federal police is by pulling a lever on the dash and unleashing a cascade of twisted and sharpened nails.

As of January 2009, the Mexican government reported that it had seized 14,441 vehicles nationwide, on top of huge quantities of drugs, money and guns. The fact that the army keeps these vehicles on its bases instead of in an impound lot is telling, too. Drug gangs have sometimes carried out armed assaults to try to get the vehicles back, perhaps because so much money has been spent retrofitting them.

In a twist on that, men suspected of being traffickers attacked a car lot in Tijuana recently in what the authorities described as an effort to intimidate the police. The assailants used gasoline to burn 28 trucks at a Mazda dealership that were in the process of being purchased for use as police transport vehicles. Six of them were destroyed.

And cars are not the only form of transportation that the cartels will bend over backward to recover. Last year, a group of about 20 men stormed a small air field in Sinaloa and made off with five small planes that had been seized by the army months before. The army now keeps such planes under armed guard, with nearly 100 of them tethered to the runway at the airport here in Culiacán.

What can make the seizures depressing for the military is the fact that many of vehicles taken from criminals are newer, faster and better equipped than the troop carriers the army uses.

“They have money,” the general said, rubbing his fingers together.

Meanwhile, a tow truck rolled through the base pulling a sports utility vehicle, increasing General Solórzano’s inventory to 766.

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