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Carat Black Scorpion (Centigon Citadel/Puma)

Kingdom of Belgium/France (2008)
Light Armored Personnel Carrier – Approximately 100 Built

Lightly armored personnel carriers on commercial chassis are widely produced, since they offer relatively cheap solutions for police and peacekeeping roles, or for main roles with armies with a low budget. Because of their popularity and demand, a large variety of companies around the world have decided to design and produce this kind of vehicle, as did the Carat Defense Group, headquartered in Belgium. They launched the Black Scorpion in 2008, a generic 4×4 APC based on a Toyota chassis, which has proven to be a solid base for armored vehicles. Despite, or maybe due to the sheer amount of models that are designed in this way, they generally receive only scant attention in the field of recent armored historiography, even while they play an important role in many armed conflicts, especially in Africa. The Black Scorpion, alternatively known as the Citadel or Puma, is no exception.

A Black Scorpion in its APC configuration, seen from the front right at one of Centigon’s factories. Source: Carat Defense
The open-bed version of the Black Scorpion with an additional two machine guns on swivel mounts, placed on the corners of the open rear compartment. Of note is the lower roof. Source: Carat Defense

Company History and Overview

The Centigon Security Group came to be thanks to various international takeovers, which coincide with the development and production of the Black Scorpion. The core of the company can be traced back to 1876, with the founding of carriage-maker Sayers & Scovill in Cincinnati, Ohio, USA. In 1906, the first motorcar body was built. During World War 2, the company produced trailers for the military while, in 1942, the company was renamed Hess & Eisenhardt. In 1950, the first armored car was delivered, namely an armored Lincoln Cosmo for US President Truman. After this, the company armored many cars for prominent figures, a business continuing after the armoring division of the company was taken over by O’Gara Brothers, renaming the business to O’Gara-Hess Eisenhardt. Under their leadership, business would expand, the largest of which was the armoring of the HMMWV, known as the M1114 from 1994 onwards.

The expansion also led to the establishment of (temporary) manufacturing subsidiaries abroad during the 1990s and 2000s, namely in Bahrain, Brazil, Colombia, France, Germany, Mexico, the Philippines, Russia, and Venezuela. In 2001, O’Gara-Hess & Eisenhardt was taken over by Armor Holdings and renamed Centigon. In 2007, Armor Holdings was taken over by BAE Systems Inc., but little interest was shown in the Centigon division. Therefore, Centigon was sold to the Belgian Carat Duchatelet Holdings in February 2008. Under Carat, a military division was established in Bahrain.

Company logos. The O’Gara-Hess & Eisenhardt logo was used until 2001 and then replaced by the Centigon brand after a takeover by Armor Holdings. In 2008, the company was sold to Carat which, after a reform in 2010 was named Carat Security Group, of which Centigon remained a division (represented by the blue circle in the Carat logo). Centigon was sold in 2014 to investors and renamed to Centigon Security Group in 2016.
Puma ‘14180’ of the Mexican Federal Police, who became the first and also most numerous user of the vehicle, with deliveries starting in 2008. Source: Cuartoscuro

Carat Duchatelet Holdings was reformed in March 2010. The umbrella brand Carat Security Group was created, with the divisions Carat Duchatelet, Carat Defense, and Centigon. Near the end of 2014, Centigon was sold again, this time to the Chinese companies Dongfeng Design Institute Co Ltd. (20%) and Red Star Macalline (80%). Around this time, the subsidiaries in Bahrain and Brazil were closed down, leaving factories in Colombia, France, Venezuela, and two in Mexico. In 2016, the company was renamed to Centigon Security Group. Late 2020, the Chinese shareholders announced they were interested in selling the Centigon Security Group.


Development of the new vehicle was initiated in the late 2000s, possibly after the takeover by Carat in February 2008, in concert with governmental agencies. Although unspecified, these agencies were likely the Mexican Federal Police and the Army of Bahrain, both countries which housed a Centigon subsidiary at the time and were the first recipients of the new vehicle. Later, batches were acquired by the African countries of Chad, Nigeria, Rwanda, and Burkina Faso, while Colombia, also home to a Centigon Factory, tested an example in 2018. Further users or evaluators are unknown. Undoubtedly, the vehicle has been internationally offered to other agencies and militaries, especially since the vehicle has been featured in various defense and military exhibitions. In 2017, it was displayed at the Milipol show in Paris and in 2018 at the EUROSATORY Defense and Security International Exhibition.

Until 2014, the vehicle was known as the Carat Black Scorpion. After Centigon was sold by Carat, the vehicle was marketed as the Centigon Citadel. Meanwhile, Mexico named the vehicle Puma. Centigon also slightly modified the design when it changed the name to Citadel. The most notable difference was the addition of a door on the left side of the troop compartment.

*Note to reader: this article will use the different names interchangeably depending on the context. Mexican vehicles will be referred to as Puma; Bahraini, Chadian, and Rwandan vehicles will be referred to as Black Scorpion; and post-2014 developments by Centigon will be referred to as Citadel.

The Centigon Citadel APC prototype in police colors. Changes compared to the first production series included the addition of a side door and an additional window on each side. Source: Centigon Security Group


The use of the Toyota Land Cruiser HZJ79 chassis limits the vehicle to a conventional design, but assures ease of maintenance and availability of spare parts. Power comes from a Toyota 4.5 l diesel, liquid-cooled, in-inline, six-cylinder engine with direct injection and turbocharging. At 3,600 rpm, it delivers 187 hp (138 kW) and has a torque of 365 Nm at 2,250 rpm. Power is transferred via a five-speed manual gearbox to all four wheels. The stiff front axle is suspended by coil springs and the rigid rear axle by longitudinal leaf springs. All four wheels are equipped with breaks, ventilated disc brakes at the front, and regular disc brakes at the rear.

The Toyota Land Cruiser HZJ79 on which the Black Scorpion is based. Source: Toyota

The driver is sat on the front left, with a co-driver/commander to the right. Behind the driver’s position, the troop compartment slightly expands, both in width and height, to provide enough room for an additional troop of six. They are seated on light foldable seats consisting of an aluminium frame with attached canvas, which run along the sides of the compartment. Seatbelts are provided as well. The troop enters the compartment through a double rear door.

On each side of the compartment, two bulletproof glass windows are installed, and another two in the double rear door.

Pictures showing the inside of the driver’s door and the troop compartment. Source: Carat Duchatelet Group


The base vehicle features eight firing ports, one in each of the four side and rear doors, and two on each side. Another option, as seen on a prototype and some Nigerian vehicles, has two additional firing ports, one on each side of the vehicle, in addition to two extra windows.

The vehicle can optionally be fitted with a firing port in the front right windscreen that can be equipped with a light machine gun operated by the co-driver. This option has been adopted by Chadian, Rwandan, and possibly some Bahraini vehicles.

A line-up of Chadian Black Scorpions deployed in Mali, 2013. Note the two types of weapon stations that are in use, either a heavy machine gun with a small armored shield behind it, or a light machine gun with a larger shield placed more forwards. They are also equipped with a firing port for a light machine gun in the front-left windscreen. Source: Reuters

A weapon station is installed on the roof, which has been offered in various configurations by Centigon. The most basic configuration is used by Mexican vehicles, which have no weapon mount at all, being used for police duties, although machine guns are often deployed on a tripod placed on the roof. The singular round hatch folds backwards. Bahraini and some Nigerian vehicles use another configuration, with a mounting for a weapon and a two-part hatch which folds to the sides.

Rwandan vehicles have a frontal armored shield with a mounting for a light machine gun and a hatch that folds backwards, providing the gunner with both front and rear protection. Chad uses two types of configurations, one being similar to the Rwandan, with the same gunshield but a different hatch layout. The second configuration consists of the mounting for a heavy DShK machine gun and a much smaller armored shield placed mostly behind this gun.

Top down-view of one of the Rwandan vehicles before delivery, showing the layout of the roof and weapon station. Source: Carat Security Group
A Bahraini Black Scorpion in 2011, showing the alternative placement of the weapon station. It is placed more forward, creating a cone-shaped extrusion. Note the steps that are mounted on the side, providing outside access to the weapon station, which is unique to this variant. Source: Reuters/Hamad I Mohammed

Open-bed Platform

Apart from the fully enclosed APC version, Centigon also offers an open-bed version of the Black Scorpion. From the front to the driver’s cabin, this version is identical to the regular vehicle, apart from the two front windows that gained the ability to be opened up completely. The closed troop compartment has been lowered and significantly shortened, although maintaining a weapon station on the roof. The rear of the vehicle has been opened up, and two machine gun mounts have been placed on each rear corner, providing more firepower to the vehicle, but less protection to its occupants.

The open-bed version, shown at the Eurosatory exhibition of June 2012 in Paris. Note that the vehicle does not look that different from the front compared to the regular design, apart from the front windows that fold down. For this purpose, the windscreen wipers have been top-mounted. Source:
A rear-view of the open-bed version. Of note are the swivelling machine guns mounted on the rear corners of the vehicle. It is also shown how the rearwards folding hatch of the weapon station provides rear cover for the gunner. Source:


Around 2008, the Mexican Federal Police placed an order for a number of Pumas, as well as Wolverines. The Wolverine was another armored personnel carrier developed by Carat/Centigon. It is unknown how many Pumas were ordered, however, each vehicle received a unique registration and based upon photographic evidence, at least fourteen registrations have been identified with numbers ranging from ‘14178’ to ‘14229’. Assuming all Pumas were consecutively numbered, this could mean the Federal Police acquired at least 51 vehicles, possibly more.

Puma ‘14209’ during deployment to Central de Abasto de Emiliano Zapata, a warehouse in Morelos, in March 2015. Source:

The vehicles were acquired with funds provided by the USA through the Mérida Initiative, alternatively known as Plan Mexico, which was drafted in 2007 and signed in 2008. This initiative aimed at combating organized crime, money laundering, and drug trafficking. Due to the wide deployment in Mexico, the vehicles regularly crossed Mexico on their own power. This led the vehicles to wear down relatively quickly, with a Mexican police official stating that, due to their extensive use, they were theoretically not fit to be used longer than three years.

After delivery of the first Pumas in 2008/2009, they were used in many internal security missions. For example, in March 2015, they were successfully deployed in the vicinity of Central de Abasto de Emiliano Zapata (a warehouse in Morelos) in an attempt to reduce the crime that plagued the local merchants. In May 2019, a column of 21 Federal Police vehicles, including Pumas, arrived in Tuxtepec, Oaxaca, as part of a National Guard mission to fight organized crime in the region.

On 30th March 2016, Puma ‘14224’ was involved in a one-sided accident when its driver lost control and drove into a construction site alongside the road, flipping the vehicle on its side. Although an unfortunate event, no-one was injured and the pictures provide a rare glance at the underside of the vehicle. Source: and

On 1st October 2019, the Federal Police was officially dissolved and integrated into the National Guard. At least 500 vehicles, including a number of Pumas, were transferred to the National Guard, most of them stored at Centro de Mando (Command Center) in Iztapalapa. Reportedly, many of these were in a bad mechanical condition and had been stored in the open for a while already. After the transfer, the vehicles were planned to undergo repairs. It is unknown how many Pumas were taken over by the National Guard and remain in service.

Known registrations are: 14178, 14180, 14181, 14198, 14202, 14207, 14209, 14215, 14219, 14220, 14222, 14224, 14228, and 14229.

Several police vehicles on the streets. Note the deployment of a tripod mounted machine gun. The firing port in the driver’s door has been opened. Source: GAR Spotting MX Vehículos de Emergencia y Militares Facebook


Simultaneously with Mexico, around 2008-2009, Bahrain placed an order for twenty vehicles, which were assembled in Bahrain itself. Very little is known about the vehicles which, according to SIPRI, were delivered in 2011-2012. Shortly after delivery, the Bahrain branch of Centigon closed down. It seems services were taken over by the company Manzomat Al Riyadh, based in Saudi-Arabia, which lists the Black Scorpion among their delivered products. Before the branch closed down, however, Carat Defense also developed and delivered an armor package for the Bahraini M113s.

Black Scorpions at the Centigon factory in Bahrain. The vehicles in the rear have the forward placed weapon stations, unique to Bahraini vehicles. Source: Carat Defense

The Black Scorpions arrived in the turmoil that was the Bahraini Uprising (14th February – 18th March 2011, with occasional unrest lasting until 3rd March 2014), one of the many episodes of the Arab Spring. It is unknown how, or even if the Black Scorpions played a role during the suppression of the uprising.

Already since 2012, the vehicle has sometimes been referred to as the Faisal. If this is an official name is unknown, especially since a new armored vehicle developed in Bahrain in 2019 was also named Faisal.

The sides of two Black Scorpions are seen here during a training exercise of the Bahraini Army. Source:

The Black Scorpion in Chad

Around 2011, the Chadian Army procured a number of Black Scorpions (said to be ten, but most probably more), which appear to have been produced by the Mexican subsidiary. Since Chad heavily relies upon J79 Toyota Land Cruisers in its Army, this was a straightforward decision, especially from a logistical perspective. The vehicles were likely acquired in light of the 2008 rebel attack on the capital, which unsuccessfully attempted to depose President Idriss Déby Itno.

In January 2013, Chad announced it would join the French Operation Serval against islamic insurgents in Mali and entered the country through Niger. It deployed a large number of vehicles, including technicals, BMP-1s, Eland-90s, and its new Black Scorpions. Chad’s Forces proved to be highly effective in the familiar desert terrain and became a key ally to the French forces. However, on 15th April, the Chadian Parliament voted for the withdrawal of all 2,000 troops, motivated by the death of 36 Chadian soldiers, with the first soldiers returning to Chad on 13th May.

Infographic with a timeline of the Chadian intervention in Mali. Source:

During the short, but intensive deployment that lasted three months, at least one Black Scorpion was lost when it drove on a landmine. Some of its occupants were wounded, but all survived.

This Black Scorpion drove on a landmine and was destroyed during the push towards Adrar des Ifoghas in February 2013. Source:
Two Black Scorpions being passed by other Chadian Land Cruisers in Mali. Source:

Exactly two years after the Chadian intervention in Mali, on 16th January 2015, the Chadian Army was authorised to advance into Nigeria and Cameroon to assist their respective governments, as well as Niger, in the fight against the jihadist group Boko Haram. Around 2,000 troops were deployed with some 400 vehicles, again including the Black Scorpions. During the initial push, these were relatively often photographed and filmed, partially for propaganda purposes, but over time, they were seen less in the media. Given the chances that some vehicles would be lost to IEDs and mines, it is certainly possible that a number of the Black Scorpions have been lost, especially since Chad has acquired several batches of other new armored vehicles after 2015.

Different registrations that have been observed are 7535, 7537, 7539, 7543, 7544, 8596, 8599, ??62, ?763, and 8934. Since the chances that each unique registration has been photographed is quite slim, Chad probably acquired more than just ten vehicles, but how many remains unknown.

Two Black Scorpions led part of the column of 400 vehicles into Cameroon in January 2015. Source: AFP News
Black Scorpions during deployment in Nigeria in early 2015. Source: Al Jazeera


Between 2009 and 2012, the Lagos State Government donated thirty armored personnel carriers to the Nigerian Police Forces, including an undisclosed number of Black Scorpions. Although the Nigerian Police is organized on a federal level, it has grown customary for state governments to donate hardware to the police to increase their capabilities in their respective states. This way, the Rapid Response Squad (RSS) of the Lagos State Police Command got hold on these vehicles which were delivered in various configurations, including the regular APC version with no weapon station, three windows on each side, and a side door, but also a version with the extended weapon station mount.

A Black Scorpion of the Rapid Response Squad of the Lagos State Police Command in 2015. Note the extended roof weapon station base and the external stairs going up to it. This may indicate these vehicles were delivered from the Bahraini factory before it closed down. Source: RRS on Facebook
A row of brand-new Black Scorpions during a handover ceremony. Nigeria is the only known user of this specific configuration with a sidedoor and an additional window and firing port on each side of the compartment. Source: Beegeagle’s Blog

The Black Scorpions form a small part of the ever growing fleet of Nigerian armored police vehicles, which also include large quantities of imported Streit, and locally-built Proforce vehicles, among others. Interestingly, the design of the Black Scorpion, both the APC and the Open-Bed version, were roughly copied by Proforce and built under the name PF3 Leopard.

The Proforce PF3 Leopard, which closely resembled the design philosophy of the Carat Black Scorpion and was marketed as a cheaper verison of it. Source: Techwarf


Just a meager amount of information is known about the vehicles that are operated by the police of Rwanda. At least four have been deployed to the Central African Republic with the UN mission MINUSCA (Mission multidimensionnelle intégrée des Nations unies pour la stabilisation en Centrafrique, Eng. United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic) since 2014. They are painted in classic UN-white and each has a unique UN registration, including ‘UN19026’, ‘UN19029’, and ‘UN37001’. As of 2022, all four remain in service. The Rwandan vehicles are the only ones to feature mesh frames over the windows, providing further protection against large objects.

Two Rwandan vehicles on patrol in the capital of the CAR, Bangui, on 14th September 2015. Source: AFP / Edouard Dropsy
‘UN37001’ in 2017. Rwandan Black Scorpions are the only ones to feature an additional protective mesh cover over the windows. Source:
A Black Scorpion in Bangui on 11th October 2014. Source: AFP / France24

It is unknown if the police or army of Rwanda operate any more Black Scorpions, either in the CAR or in Rwanda itself. However, it is known that MINUSCA has only a limited number of armored vehicles available, marking the former unlikely. Furthermore, the vehicles seem to have been specifically acquired for the UN mission, marking the latter as unlikely as well.

The MINUSCA mission was established on 10th April 2014 in the impoverished Central African Republic (CAR) after the republic experienced intense violence since December 2012, caused by a rebel coalition attacking governmental troops. After a year, the situation deteriorated even further, eventually leading into the UN mission (until 2016 known as MISCA). The first UN mandate allowed for 10,000 soldiers and 1,820 policemen to be deployed. Since 2014, Rwanda has been one of the top three contributing countries, providing both military and police forces. The Black Scorpions are in use with the police force in the capital Bangui.

All four Black Scorpions, shown in a news item that aired in January 2021. Source: RBA News
‘UN19026’ in 2015. Panhard VBLs can be seen in the background. Source: AFP Edouard Dropsy


In the first two weeks of October 2018, the Army of Colombia tested the Centigon Citadel. Earlier that year, Colombia had already shown interest in a similar vehicle, the Jankel Hunter PPV, while the Hunter TR-12, another similar vehicle built in Colombia, had been bought in very limited numbers. The Citadel was probably chosen to be tested because Centigon also houses a subsidiary in Colombia, although the tests were arranged through the Mexican subsidiary. After the tests, Colombia showed no further interest in the Citadel.

The prototype was tested in Colombia in October 2018. The design details indicate that this was the same prototype as exhibited at the Milipol show of 2017. Source: Erich Saumeth via

Burkina Faso

The latest recipient of the Citadel was Burkina Faso. Sometime before April 2019, at least two units were received for the Unités d’Intervention Polyvalente de la Police Nationale (Eng. National Police Multipurpose Intervention Units, abbr. UIP-PN).

A training exercise of the UIP-PN, held in Ouagadougou in April 2019. Note that the vehicle features both protective mesh on the windows, and has the additional door in the side of the crew compartment. Source: Luca Salvatore Pistone /

A UIP-PN vehicle seen from the other side. Source: Chekier Photo

On 25th February 2021, a ceremony was held in the capital, Ouagadougou, where the Gendarmerie of Burkina Faso took delivery of an additional two Citadels, as well eight Toyota Land Cruiser pick-ups, two trucks, two Toyota ambulances, eighty motorcycles, and additional equipment. This materiel, worth roughly 1 billion CFA Francs (ca. 1.5 million euros), was donated by the European Union through the Stabilization of Eastern Burkina Faso project (STABEST), arranged by the Belgian Development Agency ENABEL. The complete program had a budget of 4.7 million euros The equipment was intended to be used in Eastern Burkina Faso by the 34e Escadron de Groupement Mobile de la Gendarmerie Nationale (Eng. 34th Squadron of the Mobile Group of the National Gendarmerie) and the Compagnie Républicaine de Sécurité de Fada N’Gourma (Eng. Republic Protection Force of Fada N’Gourma). The personnel was also trained through the support program. It is unknown to what extent and with what results the vehicles have been, or are in use.

A row of vehicles donated to Burkina Faso by the European Union. Source: Lobs Paalga
The second Citadel. Note that this is the older design, while a new design was already available in 2017, indicating Centigon has not changed its production line. Source: Lobs Paalga


As of February 2022, both design iterations remain on offer by the Centigon Security Group. They also seem to be offered by the UAE-based company Dynamic Defence Solutions. It is unknown in what way this company is connected to Centigon, or if they are even allowed to market this vehicle under their brand. Chances that Centigon will secure a new deal are slim, due to the oversaturation of the market combined with the aging design.

The Chadian, Mexican, and Rwandan vehicles have all seen intensive use since their adaptation, which will possibly lead to a relatively early retirement of the model, something indirectly admitted by a Mexican police official as well. However, in their respective environments, lightly armored vehicles form a valuable asset in (border) patrol and internal security operations, so attempts will be made to keep them as long in service as possible, which is eased by the widely available Toyota spare parts.

The latest prototype of Centigon, for the first time displayed at Milipol 2017, features some differences with the earlier production models, including an additional window and firing port on each side, redesigned fenders, and a redesigned bumper. Source: Jérôme Hadacek /
The latest prototype seen from the front left. Of note is the additional door on the left side. Source:


The Black Scorpion is a capable armored vehicle and a typical example of the range of armored personnel carriers that are based on commercial chassis. The Toyota chassis assures relatively easy operation and maintenance and the reason why the Black Scorpion is among the more than 25 similar Toyota-based APCs that are offered on the international military market as of 2021. However, most of the vehicles are used very intensively, making a long service life uncertain.

A Chadian Black Scorpion armed with a DShK heavy machine gun, seen with the markings of the Groupement No1 de Garde du Palais Présidentiel.
A Puma of the Mexican Federal Police.
A black Scorpion as used by the Rwandan Police with the UN mission in the Central African Republic. All three illustrations are made by Ardhya ‘Vesp’ Anargha.


Dimensions (L-W-H) 5.560 x 2.136 x 2.190 m
Curb weight 4.1 tonnes
Crew 8 (1 driver + 7 troops including commander and gunner)
Chassis Toyota HZJ 79
Propulsion Diesel, liquid-cooled in-line six-cylinder (R6), 4164 ccm, direct injection, turbocharging, 138 kW (187 hp) at 3600 rpm, torque 365 Nm at 2250 rpm
Bore / Stroke 94 / 100 mm
Speed 120 km/h (75 mph)
Range N/A
Transmission mechanical five-speed transmission
Wheelbase 3.180 m
Track Width 1.515 / 1.555 m
Armament Optional light weapon station up to 12.7 mm, optional front-facing firing port, 8 firing ports
Armor STANAG 1 / VPAM Kl.7 / CEN B6
Total Production Unknown, at least 89


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Has Own Video Modern Mexican Armor

Narco Tanks

Los Zetas (And Other Cartels) (Circa 2010)
Improvised APCs – 120+ Built

The real Mad Max cars

Narco Tanks” (known as “Narco tanques” in Spanish) is an umbrella term made by the media for the improvised armored cars used by modern drugs cartels in Mexico. SUVs and commercial vehicles serve as the chassis for Narco Tanks, and they are tooled up with armor, turrets, mounted weapons, and even James Bond-like gadgets. They are seen mostly in the Mexican states bordering the USA because these areas have become zones of intense conflict between cartels competing for drugs smuggling routes into the USA. These vehicles typically look like something from the post-apocalyptic film, Mad Max, and were first reported at some point between 2010 and 2011; although the Mexican mass media is often deliberately slow to report on certain cartel-related stories for fear of reprisal attacks.
Created in illicit workshops, these vehicles are well-known for their exotic designs, but for the local Mexicans, they are weapons of an ever-escalating and ever-deadlier inter-cartel war that even the military has been involved in for over ten years.
Narco Tanks were first reported around 2010. They have seen prolific use until 2012, mostly in Tamaulipas, by Los Zetas (and sometimes other cartels), and some limited combat with the military has occurred.

Context: Los Zetas and the drugs trade

Los Zetas (The Z’s) has been described as the most technologically advanced, sophisticated, and dangerous drugs cartel operating in Mexico. Perhaps surprisingly, it only began operating as a truly independent organization in 2010, but its roots stretch back the the late 1990s after a group of Mexican army commandos deserted and began working for Cártel del Golfo, one of the oldest cartels in Mexico. It appears as though these commandos formed the core of the Los Zetas contingent, and eventually split from Cártel del Golf – the exact reasons seems unclear, but the conglomerate structure of cartels means that fractures are fairly common.
Owing to the fact that their original members belonged to an elite military unit, Grupo Aeromóvil de Fuerzas Especiales (now Cuerpo de Fuerzas Especiales), Los Zetas members tend to be exceptionally well-trained in urban and commando combat. In fact, many of their members are also known to be former US army personnel, Guatemalan ex-special forces, and corrupt officials / police officers. Combining their elite membership with their proven brutality and vast array of military grade weapons, it is clear to see why this group is considered so dangerous.
Since 2010, Los Zetas has used Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas (north east of Mexico, close to the border with Texas) as its base of operations.
Los Zetas are perhaps one of the most brutal cartels operating in Mexico, gaining infamy for events such as the massacre of 300+ civilians in Allende, Coahuila, north East Mexico, simply because two local men betrayed Los Zetas – this being just one of many other high profile incidents. Crucial to understanding the existence of Narco Tanks is that only half of the income of Los Zetas comes from drugs trafficking, whereas the other half comes from activities against civilians and war with other drugs cartels, which has, in turn, created a desire for armored vehicles.
Over the last ten years, Mexico has seen high levels of violence due to competition between cartels, each competing for control of drugs routes into the USA. Border areas very useful territory, as they give shorter smuggling trips, which means that there is less time and opportunity for the smugglers to be intercepted by Mexican authorities. Knowing the importance of this to a successful smuggling run, cartels are willing to fight for every single street in border areas.
This escalation in fighting, such as the murder of the local-police chief in Nuevo Laredo, has reportedly led to increased military efforts against the cartel. It is even reported (albeit without proper source citation) that there was a decision as early as 2000 by then-President Vicente Fox to send soldiers to fight against the cartels directly, seeing as though local law enforcement lacked the training and raw firepower to deal with the threat. Regardless of the authenticity of this report, it seems that there are some small evidence and reports of soldiers fighting against Los Zetas.
This increased fighting has meant that a small arms race has begun between rival cartels, who want strong firepower from vehicles (thus allowing them to perform fast and deadly mobile attacks) and effective protection for their crews during these attacks. As well as this, the role of the military may have meant that cartels have sought to protect their convoys in case of an ambush or quick strike mission.

However, it is important to keep in mind a broader context, as more than just an arms race has come as a result of cartel-violence. Conservative estimates give the figure of 70,000 for those killed in cartel-related attacks from 2006-2012, military intervention having greatly exacerbated this. Of course, this intervention was far from uncalled for, as massacres and constant cartel-related violence were on the rise before 2005.

Production of Narco Tanks

Narco Tanks are produced in improvised production lines or underground workshops which are hard to detect by law enforcement, and only two have been reported captured since 2011, the latest being in February 2015. Analysis of captured workshops by the military has shown that some vehicles had suspensions modified to take up to 30 tons of weight which allow the vehicles to feature armor of 5-25mm thick, which can withstand small arms fire and even 40mm military grenades.
These vehicles can differ greatly, having been based on SUVs (Sports Utility Vehicles) like the Ford F-350, and even larger vehicles like commercial vans, dumper trucks, and even tractors in rarer instances. Whilst cartels could probably afford military grade vehicles, they are large, conspicuous, and spare parts are not readily available. Whereas, larger civilian and commercial vehicles tend to blend in (as they would attract less attention from authorities, both on the road and during purchase), are easy to maintain, and spare parts are easy to come by.

Types of Narco Tanks

According to an article in Small Wars Journal by Robert J. Bunker, the Narco Tanks can be classified in five categories – I (Defensive), II (Defensive), III – Early (Offensive), III – Mature (Offensive), and IV (Offensive). Level I vehicles are hastily improvised vehicles with minor innovations, an example of such is the use ballistic vests inside a delivery truck to provide protection for cartel hit squads, as seen in one incident on July 11th, 1979, at Dadeland Mall, Florida. Indeed, this precedes the modern Narco Tank, but such vehicles are very likely to exist due to the reduced chance of attracting attention.
Level II vehicles tend to be professionally armored SUVs using internal armor kits, ballistic glass, and bullet-proof tires, all of which are common in Mexico. Since the late 1990s, middle-class civilians have begun purchasing these armor kits to protect themselves from kidnapping and general cartel violence. Furthermore, in recent years, these armor kits have become readily available at a low cost for mass consumption, seeing as though the market has grown so large, which means that they are even more common, and have become the most common type of Narco Tank.
Level III (early) vehicles have improvised pillboxes or similar firing positions on the bed of a truck, can possibly be armored, and have been seen around northeastern Mexico from 2010-2011.
Level III (mature) vehicles make up the bulk of sensationally photographed Narco Tanks (although many examples of Level III Early vehicles exist). They are usually (but not exclusively) work trucks featuring exterior armor, 5-25mm thick, gun ports, air conditioning for passengers, external gun mounts, battering rams, and even small turrets. The key difference between Level III and Level I-II vehicles it that Level III vehicles are considered offensive weapons, as opposed to defensive. They can be operated like gun-trucks similar to the ones seen employed by the US during the Vietnam War. Level III Narco Tanks can be split further into two categories – SUVs and large commercial vehicles.
Level IV is a predicted evolution of Level III – an Improvised Armored Fighting Vehicle with an anti-vehicular main gun (probably some form of AA gun) and possibly thicker armor. For various reasons that will be explored later in this article, this evolution has not happened.
What makes larger Level III vehicles particularly dangerous and well-known is their sheer size, intimidating appearance, high passenger capacity (often as many as 20 men), and the fact that they may carry heavy machine guns or even RPGs. Analysis of photographs reveals that some weapons seen include personal weapons, mounted .50 cal snipers, mounted machine guns, and perhaps other heavy infantry or anti-tank weapons such as rocket propelled grenades. Unconventional weapons are used on these vehicles, too. Many of them have battering rams, perhaps to burst through gates, enemy vehicles, or even general traffic. Whereas some vehicles even reportedly have gadgets that chuck nails or oil onto the road, presumably to help lose a tailing vehicle.
Smaller Narco Tanks are generally based on SUVs and pickup trucks. They are easy to conceal and are known to feature very powerful V10 engines, making them perfect for the type of combat they are involved in. These also often feature turrets, a curious innovation perhaps, but they allow effective fire to be laid down on enemies. For example, one vehicle had a turret designed for a sniper to cover a 160-degree radius towards the front. They can provide crucial forwards fire that most comparable gun trucks lack.
SUV Narco Tanks tend to be light, but there are examples of extensively modified and heavily armed types. Both of these types were made at roughly the same time, but only the lighter SUV Narco Tanks are seen today – the heavy ones tend to be very conspicuous, such as the infamous examples of Monstruo 2010 and 2011 (see below). Such designs are also rather short-lived designs owing to their inherent flaws such as being far too conspicuous, unreliable, and slow.
monster 11
A ‘light’ Narco Tank – a large pick-up truck (possibly a 1999 Chevrolet Silverado 2500) featuring an armored pillbox on the rear. It has space for four passengers, and its armor 19mm thick. It is less likely to attract attention from authorities.  Being barely modified, it could probably hit speeds of 110km/h (68mph). Seized June, 2011, Tamaulipas.

Lighter SUV Narco Tanks tend to have internal armor kits, or just small pillboxes mounted on the rear. As mentioned earlier, internal armor kits are becoming commercially available, which, whilst providing similar armor characteristics as external improvised armor, are also nearly impossible for authorities to detect from the outside of the vehicle. Vehicles modified with these kits are also not blatantly cartel-related, save for all of the firearms inside, meaning they cannot be seized without serious proof of criminal intent. They are also substantially lighter than those equipped with heavier external armor, which means that these Light Narco Tanks can travel much quicker. These two advantages alone have meant that the chances of seeing the larger, more spectacular Narco Tanks in the future is slim.

In Combat and Tactics

The smaller vehicles based on SUVs tend to be stealthy and defensive weapons, usually to defend territory or protect drugs shipments. They may still carry heavier weapons such as .50 cal sniper rifles, but rarely anything larger. There are reports of videos that show them to be operated in convoys of 10-20 vehicles, each carrying up to five men. Again, to make the point very clear – this type is more and more common, seeing as though they have many benefits over the larger vehicles, as they are more difficult to detect, can travel faster, and attract less unwanted attention.
A Chevy Suburban with a mounted Browning M2 machine gun. Found in Nuevo Laredo, circa 2010. This type of Narco Tank is becoming more common, because it is more stealthy, although the machine gun is very obvious, and it seems as though it would be near impossible to aim. It would also be very dangerous to operate in such an enclosed space without military-grade ear defenders.
Larger gun trucks are seen in fewer numbers, perhaps alone or in small groups. These vehicles seem to be used exclusively as an offensive weapon against rival cartels. However, they feature a major weak point – tires, which are rarely bulletproof and are seldom protected by armor plating.
Narco Tanks are far from indestructible and have not overwhelmed opposing cartels or the Mexican military. They are not often engaged by the military, but the military has been known to employ handheld AT weaponry against them, such as the RL-83 Blindicide bazooka, which was used during one engagement in May 2011, at Escobobo, Nuevo Leon. Some photos exist of abandoned Narco Tanks having been severely damaged by RPGs fired from opposing cartels, and some knocked out vehicles have even been graffitied, daring Los Zetas to send more Narco Tanks to their doom.
Narco Tank destroyed by RPG
An abandoned Narco Tank based on a truck which appears to have been destroyed by an RPG hit and a subsequent fire. RPGs are common in cartel arsenals, and seemingly with good reason.
They have also not been used against civilians as an offensive weapon. Los Zetas seems to act in a military-fashion, by wearing military uniforms and setting up roadblocks with their Narco Tanks, which sometimes look similar to military vehicles, save for a few details. Despite seeming as though they want to have political and social control over areas, Los Zetas and other cartels are not wholly hierarchical in their structure. In fact, they operate as federations, thus meaning that they can become fragmented very easily (it was fragmentation of one cartel that led to Los Zetas’ formation), thus meaning that they cannot form any kind of governing body. Furthermore, Narco Tanks may become redundant, as the necessary coordination of these military-like vehicles (mainly avoiding capture by authorities) may not be present in a fragmented group.

Infamous: Monstruo 2010 and 2011

Two of the most famous Narco Tanks are known as Monstruo 2010 and Monstruo 2011. It is unclear whether or not they were made by the same workshop, but they both share very similar features, although it may be the case that they are unrelated vehicles, save for the name. These are the vehicles which truly do look like they were straight from the Max Max franchise, owing to their entirely armored exterior and unique appearance.

“Monstruos del Narcos” (infographic in Spanish on Monstruo 2010)
Monstruo 2010 is the more crude looking version, based on a large SUV. According to the above infographic, it could transport up to 19 or 20 men carrying assault rifles. It features a single turret at the front of the crew compartment for a sniper. All glass was removed from the vehicle and replaced with armor plating; although small vision slits featuring armored glass (polycarbonate and Duplex) were added. The tires, too, were partially covered with a steel plate, but nevertheless, an ultralightweight, bulletproof, ballistic steel ring was added to each. The steel hull was an inch (25.4mm) thick and angled upwards. The front of the vehicle featured a large steel pole 4×4 inches big, to smash through obstacles, and, strangely, the grill was reportedly electrified with up to 700 volts! It also had nail-dropping, oil-slicking, and smoke screen devices which could throw off pursuers, which would be necessary, as it could only travel a mere 40-50km/h (25-31mph).
It also featured a satellite communication system for listening to police / military communications – perhaps one of the most inventive and ingenious devices ever attached to a Narco Tank. It would mean that the vehicle would not have to rely on lookouts using mobile phones to inform the Narco Tanks on police / military movements. Crucially, the lookouts could only do this once the authorities were in the process of carrying out a raid, whereas tapping into communication systems would inform the Narco Tank of potential threats before they have even begun moving. Nevertheless, Monstruo 2010 was captured by authorities in Jalisco, May 2011.
Monstruo 2011 looked much more sophisticated than Monstruo 2010. The key differences are that it featured two turrets and looked fairly well put together, even featuring reinforced transmission. It is believed that two Monstruo 2011 vehicles have been found, which look almost identical. The first was found in Rancho San Juan, Municipality of Progreso, Coahuila, buried under tonnes of dirt, perhaps to evade detection. The other was found in Ciudad Mier, Tamaulipas, with its tires missing.
monster 18
A Monstruo 2011 found in Ciudad Mier, Tamaulipas. It is almost identical to the other Monstruo 2011, despite being found in a totally different part of the country. The only obvious differences are the turrets are very slightly different at the top, and the co-driver’s side window is longer. No photos of this one at Ciudad Mier exist of it with its suspension intact.

The vehicle is based on a Ford Super Duty pickup truck. On average, its armor is one inch (25.4mm) thick. The driver’s seating area remains totally unchanged inside, save for level V bulletproof glass. The nose of the vehicle was sharply pointed with a steel battering ram, showing a clear intention to smash through obstacles, although it could only travel at speeds of only 40-50km/h (25-31mph). It can transport an estimated 20 people, and it even features semi-enclosed steel firing compartments – six on both sides of the hull, two at the rear, and two sniper’s turrets. It does not seem to feature any gadgets like Monstruo 2010, but it was, undoubtedly, a sophisticated and well-planned design, probably created using blueprints, which would explain the existence of two Monstruo 2011s.

Monstruo 2011 specification

Dimensions (L-w-h) 7m x 3m x 3.5m (23ft x 9.8ft x 11.5ft)
Base vehicle Ford Super Duty pick-up, estimated mid-2000s model
Crew 2 (driver, co-driver) + up to 20 passengers
Propulsion Triton V10, five-speed, ten cylinder, petrol
Speed (road) 40-50km/h (25-31mph)
Armament 1x Large steel battering ram.
2x Sniper’s turrets
14x Pistol ports for personal weapons, usually assault rifles and .50cal sniper rifles.
Armor Up to 25.4mm
Total production 2 almost identical models
Fate Both seized by authorities. First in May, 2011. Second in June, 2011. Probably dismantled or scrapped.

Further development

As mentioned earlier, Narco Tanks like the Monstruos and heavy trucks have been seldom seen since 2012, perhaps owing to the fact that stealthy SUVs with internal armor are preferred by the cartels, and with good reason. The Mexican government states that at least 100 Narco Tanks have been seized so far, which has undoubtedly had a knock-on effect on Narco Tank production. Instead of getting bigger, as many commentators have speculated, they have actually gotten smaller and less conspicuous.
The most recent reported sighting of Narco Tanks was in February 2015, when a Narco Tanks factory hidden inside a winery was discovered by Mexican authorities near Nuevo Laredo, close to the US border. 13 vehicles were seized, but only 8 of them were Narco Tanks – the other five were in the process of being armored. Along with the haul of vehicles was a number of .50 cal bullets, bullet-proof glass panels, and AK-47 magazines. This is only the second widely reported raid on a Narco Tank factory, and it is almost certain that plenty more illegal workshops are still in operation and are producing Narco Tanks to this very day.
Sources and further reading:
Small Wars Journal (English and Spanish) (Warning: Very graphic content) (Spanish)
Los Zetas on Wikipedia
Cártel del Golfo on Wikipedia

sniper in truck riveted to floor
A .50cal sniper riveted to the rear of a modern Narco Tank based on an enclosed people carrier. This type of Narco Tank is becoming more common because it is more stealthy and its interior armor is a lot less conspicuous.

narco truck
One of the larger Narco Tanks, it might be based on a dump truck, and it supposedly belonged to Cártel Del Golfo. Mexican Marines are guarding the vehicle. 25mm shells, a 40mm grenade, and some AP .50cal rounds were also reportedly found inside!

inside of a narco truck
The interior of the above (or possibly below, sources differ) Narco Tank. It features air conditioning, and possibly fire-proof insulation.

monster 17
A similar heavily armored truck featuring a ram, seized January 2012, Carmago, Tamaulipas. The front ram has been reinforced with steel plates.

A video of one of the Monstruo 2011s having been seized (Spanish).

A video of Monstruo 2010 having been seized.