Photographer: Adriana Zehbrauskas/Bloomberg
Photographer: Adriana Zehbrauskas/Bloomberg

Armored Cars and Sniper Rifles: Inside Latin America's Biggest Security Expo

Sirens echoing, lights blinking, gunshots, federal police officers, models dressed as police officers, armoured cars, sniper uniforms, fog chambers, and guns, many guns. A place for all your needs, safety-wise. Be the sniper of your dreams. Don’t be shy, come and hold this machine gun. Photographs and introductory text by Adriana Zehbrauskas/Bloomberg

It was a little odd to walk through the brightly lit, 13,000 square feet of hallways of Expo Seguridad in Mexico City. The exposition in late April was crowded with smiling people carrying shopping bags of brochures for thermal cameras, trained dogs, DNA forensic expert services, bulletproof vests, and intel solutions. And there they were: I recognized the uniforms of Mexico's Federal Police from the time I embedded with them, flying over marijuana fields in Sinaloa and riding in the back of a truck along the Tamaulipas/U.S. border to bust an illegal bridge over the Rio Grande. I remembered wearing one of these uniforms. So this is where they come from, I thought. It suddenly felt very personal.

I left Expo Seguridad after a few hours of walking, somewhat dizzy from all the sounds and blinking lights and thinking about the thousands of people still missing in Mexico, the hundreds of clandestine graves found in recent years, all the journalists killed for doing their jobs. (Mexico is in the top 20 list of deadliest countries for journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.) The drug war alone has left at least 70,000 people dead and more than 20,000 missing since 2006.

There’s a reason why this is the largest security expo in Latin America. Nothing to be proud of, though.

A visitor looks at a monitor while adjusting a thermal imaging camera at the ULIRvision vendor booth inside the 2016 Expo Seguridad in Mexico City. Thousands attended the three-day event from April 26-28, at which vendors competed for some of Mexico's $12 billion-dollar budget for security expenses.

Mexico's gun laws are considered strict. For private citizens wanting to purchase firearms, there is only one store in the country where they can do so: the Directorate of Arms and Munitions Sales in Mexico City.

Masked paramilitary figures holding machine guns adorn the booth of a uniform maker's stand. Masks to protect identities have become ubiquitous over the years for security forces battling drug cartels. The U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security estimates that those cartels take in between $19 billion and $29 billion annually from U.S. drug sales.

Mexican Federal Police officers leave the expo after attending one of the morning's conferences.

Attendees stand near the door of a conference room inside the expo conference area.

In May 2015, a military helicopter was shot down in the state of Jalisco, which borders Michoacan. The attack on the aircraft was part of the Jalisco New Generation drug cartel's reaction to a crackdown by authorities. At least 39 people died in clashes between armed civilians and Mexican federal forces following the incident.

Mexico is one of three countries that include gun-ownership rights in their constitutions. The U.S. and Guatemala are the others.

An attendee uses a mobile phone at the 2016 Expo Seguridad in Mexico City while standing in front of a vendor's advertisement.

Some 18 months after the disappearance and apparent deaths of 43 college students in 2014, the country’s attorney general has ordered a new probe of the fire that the government says destroyed their corpses. 

Models greet attendees at a vendor's booth at the 2016 Expo Seguridad in Mexico City.

Mexican Federal Police officers ascend an escalator at the 2016 Expo Seguridad in Mexico City.

Mexico's drug-related violence has left at least 70,000 people dead and more than 20,000 people missing over the past eight years, including 49 headless corpses dumped en masse on the highway that links Monterrey to the U.S.