For years, the Mexican military has chased after heavily-armed drug traffickers using Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters. Being both tough and reliable, the American-made copters are well suited to the task.
Now Mexico is buying a lot more of them. The latest, most modern version.
The U.S. State Department will facilitate the sale of 18 M-model Black Hawks for $680 million. The bulk of the cost is for the birds themselves but the bundle also includes radios, identification transponders, 36 M134 Gatling guns and 18 night-vision goggles.
The sale also includes training and support services. The Defense Security Cooperation Agency detailed these items and more in a recent notification to Congress.
“The sale of these UH-60M helicopters to Mexico will significantly increase and strengthen its capability to provide in-country airlift support for its forces engaged in counter-drug operations,” DSCA noted.
A mere 18 helicopters might not seem like a lot. The U.S. military alone has more than 2,000 Black Hawks. But it’s a lot for Mexico. The number is more than all the UH-60s that America handed to its southern neighbor during the worst years of the drug war.
“It’s also a big shift for Mexico which has regularly purchased [helicopters] from Russia,” James Bosworth, an analyst at Latin America security firm Southern Pulse tells War is Boring. “If I’ve learned anything from reading news over the past 15 years, it’s to avoid getting in vehicles made by Russians.”
The fact that Mexico wants so many copters is also a sign the government could be preparing for an extended conflict.
Starting in 2007, America previously provided 14 Black Hawks to Mexico under a $1.4-billion arms plan known as the Merida Initiative.
Years of hard use have likely added to these birds’ normal wear and tear. One federal police Black Hawk crashed during a hurricane relief operation near the resort city of Acapulco in September.
The copters are particularly useful in a drug war.
The cartels operate more or less like insurgents, relying on mobility to escape being killed or captured. The more professional cartel gunmen use armored vehicles, military-style tactics and high-powered weapons, which gives them an advantage over lightly-armed—and lightly-armored—police forces.
Black Hawks allow the Mexican military to quickly ferry small teams around, chase after armored convoys and descend on kingpin hideouts before the drug lords can escape. Mexican troops have even fired on gunmen from the air while being shielded, to a degree, from return small-arms fire.
“The Black Hawks will be safer and more reliable for the Mexican military, which is good for both countries,” Bosworth says.
Mexican marines in a Black Hawk stopped a truck carrying Los Zetas boss Miguel Angel Trevino in July 2013. Troops jumped out of the helicopter and nabbed Trevino as he fled into the brush.
As recently as April 18, a Mexican army helicopter chased after a convoy of SUVs in the border city of Matamoros. Gunmen in one vehicle fired on the helicopter with AK assault rifles. But the helicopter returned fire, killing three gunmen and knocking the SUV out of action.
The new Black Hawks might serve as a kind of insurance policy.
Mexican president Enrique Pena Nieto campaigned on a plan to reduce violence … without going after the cartels with guns blazing. But despite this pledge, the drug war is still just as militarized. The homicide rate has stabilized, but thousands of people are still expected to die from drug-related violence in 2014.
The past year has seen the arrests of the leaders of Mexico’s two biggest and baddest cartels, including Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman of the Sinaloa Cartel. This “kingpin strategy” takes the worst bad guys off the streets, but means there’s an opportunity for rivals to muscle into new drug-trafficking territory.
In cities like Matamoros—which has experienced sporadic gun battles in recent months—that could be the Gulf Cartel or warring groups within the Zetas using the chaos as an opportunity.
So it’s worth asking the question. Would the Mexican government spend $680 million on a bunch of military helicopters if it expected the drug war to end any time soon? Almost certainly not.