By Nick Miroff and William Booth
The Washington Post
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 Calderon 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 Mr. Calderon 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 since December 2006, 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.
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 Leon state. 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 panel as if it were a soda can.
"They are a way to spread fear and terror," said Paulino Jimenez Hildago, 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 Martin Barron Cruz, an expert in arms and security at Mexico's National Institute of Criminal Sciences, a government agency.
"It's an arms race," Mr. Barron 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 quarter 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.
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."