Mexican Cartels Are Arming Themselves to the Teeth With Powerful US Sniper Rifles

High-powered .50-caliber rifles can be purchased legally in most of the U.S. — and they keep showing up in the hands of cartel gunmen.

The Jalisco New Generation Cartel, led by fugitive kingpin Nemesio Oseguera Servantes (aka El Mencho), has been wreaking havoc across Mexico. And among U.S. law enforcement, there’s no doubt about where the cartel gets the majority of its firepower.

“It’s no secret,” Kyle Mori, the DEA special agent leading the hunt for El Mencho, told VICE News. “It's undeniable that the majority of the weaponry that they have is obtained in the United States.”


One weapon in particular has been showing up in the hands of El Mencho’s gunmen: .50-caliber rifles, used by military sharpshooters for long-range sniping. These large rifles can be lethal at distances of over a mile, firing large bullets that are capable of punching through armor, passing through the engine block of a truck, or taking down a helicopter with a well-placed shot.

The rifles were used by alleged Jalisco New Generation gunmen during an ambush on Mexico City’s police chief in June. The chief, Omar García Harfuch, survived the assassination attempt, but two police officers and one bystander were killed.

The Mexican Army recovered 554 .50-caliber rifles from 2010 to 2018, and all but one were traced back to the U.S., according to records obtained last year by the activist organization Stop U.S. Arms to Mexico. Overall, around 70% of all weapons seized in Mexico are traced back to the United States, according to data from the Mexican authorities and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, with most of the rest made in Europe.

John Lindsay-Poland, coordinator of Stop U.S. Arms to Mexico, noted that .50-caliber rifles are currently legal in 47 states, including on the border in Arizona and Texas. He said he recently visited a gun show in Texas and saw one available for around $8,000, no questions asked.

“You could bring it home with you that day,” Lindsay-Poland said. “You could then pass it over the border yourself or you could sell it to someone else at a profit and that person could bring it over the border. It's very easy to get items like that over the border because most of the enforcement at the border is focused on people and things coming from south to north instead of north to south.”


El Mencho’s forces have been waging bloody turf wars against rival groups, and amid the fighting several videos have emerged showing cartel foot soldiers toting .50-caliber rifles. One clip shows a large paramilitary force, purportedly called the “Grupo Élite,” that’s armed to the teeth with multiple .50-caliber weapons, including machine guns mounted in armored trucks.

The video, which shows dozens of men in a long convoy pledging allegiance to El Mencho, prompted some speculation that it may have been somehow staged or faked, but Mori, the DEA agent, said he believes it’s legit. A second U.S. law enforcement official involved in cartel investigations seconded Mori’s assessment, saying, “The overwhelming response right now is that it’s real.” Neither was surprised to see .50-caliber weapons on display.

“I was not surprised or shocked at all,” Mori said. “Based on what we know of the organization, as far as their violence, their ability to assemble in a paramilitary structure, their ability to organize, I would have no reason to doubt the veracity of that video or the authenticity.”

Cover: Members of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel brandish powerful military weapons, including a .50-caliber sniper rifle, likely purchased in the United States.  (VICE News)