Weapons used by Sinaloa Cartel sicarios in Culiacán, Mexico

The ARES Team

Editor’s Note: Readers should be aware that an unusually large number of false posts have been associated with the incident in Culiacán. These include images and video from movies, TV shows, and various other incidents in Mexico and elsewhere around the world, presented as being from this incident. Numerous sources have also presented images of police personnel, including plainclothes personnel, as sicarios. The material presented herein has been subjected to an abbreviated verification process, in order to keep this article timely. Readers are advised accordingly. ARES is currently preparing more detailed analyses for our clients.  At the time of publication, sporadic clashes are continuing. New information may not be reflected in this article.

Yesterday, Mexican law enforcement units, supported by elements of the Mexican military, arrested Ovidio Guzmán López, son of Joaquín “Chapo” Guzmán Loera, during an operation in Colonia Tres Ríos, Culiacán. It remains unclear how targeted this operation was. According to government officials, a patrol came under fire from a house during routine operations and detained Mr. Guzmán López after securing the building. 

In response to this arrest, dozens of sicarios (‘hitmen’; sometimes translated as ‘soldiers’) of the Sinaloa cartel unleashed chaos in the streets of Culiacán, the capital of the Mexican state of Sinaloa. Over more than four hours, they set up at least 19 blockades in the streets by seizing large buses and trucks, and setting fire to them. Armed criminals fanned out across much of the city. In effect, they managed to lay siege to the central area near the Humaya and Tamazula rivers. Reinforcements from both government (military, federal and state police, and Guardia Nacional) and cartel units streamed towards the area, but were hampered by roadblocks.

After a series of intense shootouts resulting in casualties on both sides, government  forces released Mr. Guzmán López. Reports of kidnapped Mexican soldiers and police and military family members spread via WhatsApp channels monitored by ARES, followed by voice messages stating that the “patrón” was finally being released. During the operation at least six sicarios were killed. It seems that a prison heist was also staged, facilitating the escape of more than 40 criminals. According to government statements, at least 14 different shoot-outs took place, and a small unit of Mexican soldiers appears to have been captured and later released.

Sicarios were equipped with a mix of small arms. These include a range of both AK (primarily 7.62 × 39 mm; at least one 5.56 × 45 mm example was observed) and AR-15 (5.56 × 45 mm) platform rifles, as well as FN Herstal Minimi / M249 SAW belt-fed machine guns (5.56 × 45 mm), and handguns including Beretta and Glock models. Many of the AK rifles had features consistent with Romanian origin. At least one M72-series shoulder-fired rocket launcher and two unidentified revolvers were also observed. Following the woundings and capture of police and military members, it is possible cartel forces have acquired additional firepower. Videos purported to show at least two captured weapons: an AR-type rifle and a short-barrelled FX-05 Xihucóatl.

Body armour and load-bearing equipment were used by many cartel members, including examples marked ‘Marina’ (Marines) or ‘Policía Estatal’ (State Police). Even ballistic helmets were seen in use. Modern optics, including AimPoint types and the distinctive Vism ECO 4×34 model were seen. Other firearms accessories were also observed, including laser aiming modules; aftermarket furniture such as fore-ends, stocks, vertical grips; and white lights. Many sicarios were observed carrying small UHF radios. The cartel operated primarily from white-coloured vehicles, with some sources indicated that as many as 50 vehicles may have been stolen to facilitate the cartel response.

Despite this range of personal weaponry and equipment, the cartel’s firepower superiority inside the city was achieve due to light weapons, and especially the employment of technicals: civilian pick-up trucks used to carry heavy machine guns. At least four different technicals were used during the incident, with one being disabled by government forces. It’s noteworthy that the disabled technical is the one with a gunner cupola on it, which negates a clear advantage that these technicals exploit: being able to pass visually as civilian vehicles until they manoeuvre to firing positions, and later merge again into traffic. Several more technicals were observed moving toward the affected area during and following the most intense periods of fighting.

.50 BMG  (12.7 × 99 mm) calibre heavy machine guns have historically been used by cartels to disable armoured vehicles, belonging to both police and military units, and those belonging to other cartels and criminal groups. Weapon chambered for this calibre are also much more effective against targets in cover, especially in an urban environment, than small arms fire.  These are also the primary reasons for the acquisition and use of .50 BMG anti-materiel rifles. In Culiacán, several M2-type heavy machine guns were observed fitted to the technicals described above. In addition, at least one Barrett M82-series anti-material rifle was employed. One .30 calibre M1919 machine gun was also seen.

Access to light weapons and the platforms to deploy them provided a significant advantage. Range, accuracy, and anti-armour capability can provide a tremendous advantage in an urban area, especially where government forces were restricted in their ability to reinforce units in the besieged area. Numbers and violence of action, supported by capabilities traditionally associated with non-state actors in areas of open conflict,  gave the upper hand to the Sinaloa cartel.

With thanks to confidential sources in Mexico, @abraxasspa and @on_point_skillz. All images sourced from Mexican social media via the ARES CONMAT Database. Header image from MbS News.


Remember, all arms and munitions are dangerous. Treat all firearms as if they are loaded, and all munitions as if they are live, until you have personally confirmed otherwise. If you do not have specialist knowledge, never assume that arms or munitions are safe to handle until they have been inspected by a subject matter specialist. You should not approach, handle, move, operate, or modify arms and munitions unless explicitly trained to do so. If you encounter any unexploded ordnance (UXO) or explosive remnants of war (ERW), always remember the ‘ARMS’ acronym:

AVOID the area
RECORD all relevant information
MARK the area from a safe distance to warn others
SEEK assistance from the relevant authorities