Nuclear material stolen in Mexico could produce dirty bomb with disastrous consequences


The article, “Mexico on HIGH ALERT after radioactive material ‘capable of creating DIRTY BOMB’ is stolen,” published by the Daily Express on April 25, 2017 signals a potentially dangerous situation. Nine states in Mexico have been placed on high alert after Iridium 192, nuclear material capable of creating a dirty bomb, was stolen near the city of Guadalajara. Authorities are concerned the material could have been stolen accidentally after a failed carjacking. The material itself is highly hazardous and can cause permanent injury.


The Possibility of Terror

A possible dirty bomb is by no means something anybody wants to ignore, especially if materials to create it are stolen in a country where adequate national security is an issue. Mexico has an organized crime and corruption epidemic that drains valuable resources from counter-terror efforts. In areas where drug cartel control is high, local law enforcement can be overwhelmed. Mass graves been found in these regions, including in Mexican states bordering the United States. Many of the cartels are enemies with one another. The turf wars and volatile borders between them cause many lives to be lost. In addition there is a sizable number of corrupt members of law enforcement and politicians. This creates lawlessness in areas the cartels don’t have strong control over while overwhelming the Mexican criminal justice system. In addition, these individuals are vulnerable to bribes by the cartels and possibly other groups.

In addition to the cartels, Mexico is facing great instability after the deregulation of Mexico’s gasoline industry. This drove gasoline prices to great heights. Coupled with a weak currency and high inflation, many people could no longer afford fuel for their vehicles. As a result, nation-wide protests emerged that the cartels took advantage of by stealing gasoline to sell at a cheaper price or give away to communities. This has very likely undermined public trust in the government and strengthened cartel positions. This instability has not dissipated either as gas prices remain a top worry for Mexican nationals while oil reserves deplete. According to a March 2017 article in Bloomberg, Mexican reserves have dropped 10 percent since last year.

A combination of lawlessness, corruption, and very unhappy citizens is an opportunity for would-be terrorists. If the state is having great difficulty in controlling what happens day-by-day, there is no guarantee it would be able to handle very serious situations such as stolen nuclear material. Gaps in security act as gateways for those who intend to create great harm through acts of terror. The most concerning part of this whole ordeal is that nuclear material has been stolen at least seven times in Mexico since 2013, according to a New Straits Times story about this incident. Here some possible scenarios that could arise from the stolen Iridium 192.

The first scenario is the most optimistic and likely one we have. The material was, as has been speculated by the Mexican government, accidentally stolen by carjackers and will be returned to authorities without incident. This is not unprecedented as the past seven times nuclear material was stolen, all was returned without incident. This includes when carjackers mistakenly stole Cobalt 60 along with a truck and a radiotherapy machine within. This is the best-case scenario and would make it the eighth time this sort of thing has happened. This is not something to be proud of as it reveals how little security there is in the handling of something extremely hazardous.

The second scenario pertains to the unrest caused by the spike in gas prices. The thieves find out that they stole nuclear material. They or people they know decide to commit an act of protest on the state. They are planning on terrorism. With the already existing vulnerabilities in Mexico’s national security, they manage to deliver the Iridium to a government office or rally. It could be prepared with an explosive device or the material could simply be dumped at the site without any protection. At the very least hundreds of people are exposed to irradiation. All of this was done to attempt to force the Mexican government to re-regulate the gas industry and normalize the price at the pump. This may seem extreme for an unorganized group of people to commit an act of terror but depending on the perception of how severe the gas-price crisis is, they may find support and sympathy. This one act of terror could even lead to an organized resistance to topple the Mexican government. As we’ve seen in the past a single drastic action can drastically change the route of a nation.

The third scenario pertains to the Mexican drug cartels. One of the cartels manages to take the stolen nuclear material from the carjackers, whether by force or through the exchange of hands. From here the nuclear material could be stored, although Iridium 192 has a half-life of 73 days, or it could be immediately be readied as a dirty bomb. The motivation to use a dirty bomb is to not only cause great physical damage to an enemy but is also an attempt at gaining prestige and demoralizing those who would be against the group. Cartel targets would include other cartels or the Mexican government itself, creating further instability that would allow the cartel more room to operate around in. A terror attack could take place anywhere within a city or in the countryside as a result, depending on where the cartel feels the most damage can be done to whoever they decide to use a dirty bomb on. Even if the dirty bomb was activated inside a shack in a rural area, it could still cause great harm. A terrorist attack conducted by a cartel would be eerily fitting as the stolen nuclear material came from Guadalajara, the very place Mexico’s history with cartels began.

The fourth scenario is of greatest importance to the United States. Members of an established terror group, having known about the seven times Mexico has lost nuclear material, has sleeper agents throughout Mexico. News of this incident spreads and the opportunity is seized on. In spite of the odds, the terrorists get their hands on the material before the Mexican state can. The materials to create a dirty bomb is in the hands of a group known to conduct terror attacks. From here it could go many different ways, depending on the motivation of the group and their intended target. For this scenario, let’s assume their target is the United States. The terrorists, using holes in Mexico’s security, manage to get near the U.S.-Mexico border. From there, if they have the funds, a cartel could be hired that has an established drug trafficking route. After hiring the cartel, the terrorists attempt avoid detection by U.S. Border Patrol. Should the group manage to get their bomb across the border, it would become a critical situation and the American government wouldn’t even realize that a dirty bomb had entered the country.

These scenarios are very scary for not only the potential victims of a terror attack but for global stability. A successful attack could lead to more attacks as terror groups around the world are emboldened. Intelligence services would be on very high alert by the sudden surge in activity all because of a failure by Mexican officials to guarantee the safety of nuclear material. These three worst-case scenarios are merely that, scenarios, but, given the right opportunities and exploitation of Mexico’s current situation, are plausible.

The best way to prevent a dirty bomb attack to begin with is prevention. Mexico needs better protection of its nuclear material, especially in transit. Carjackings are not uncommon in Mexico and at least two have lead to stolen material. Mexico should also request international assistance if it feels that it cannot guarantee its nuclear safety obligations. The safeguarding of all things that produce radiation should be a top priority of Mexico and its intelligence services. Nuclear material should never have the opportunity to be stolen.

Brief Sources

Wood, Vincent. (2017, April 25) Mexico on HIGH ALERT after radioactive material ‘capable of creating DIRTY BOMB’ is stolen. Daily Express. Retrieved from and