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    Testimony: The DEA Paid $125,000 to Build an Encrypted Cartel Radio Network

    Written by

    Brian Anderson

    Features Editor

    Image: Sam Galison/Flickr

    Mexico's crime syndicates have been overhauling and expanding secret nationwide radio networks for years now. As far as anyone can tell, the cartels have used their own funds to build and maintain these increasignly sophisticated lines of shadowy communications. 

    But a Mexican telecom expert said in federal court this week that he was tapped by the US Drug Enforcement Administration to help tap cartel plots. The witness, known only as "E.Q.," said the DEA gave him upwards of $125,000 to set up a secure radio network that the counternarcotics agency then used to monitor communications among members of Barrio Azteca and La Linea, two borderland cartels. 

    The network went live in May 2010, according to E.Q., who testified on Monday in El Paso in the trial of Arturo Gallegos Castrellon, the suspected Barrio Azteca kingpin and accused mastermind of the 2010 triple murder of three people affiliated with the US Consulate in Ciudad Juárez. 

    The paid confidential informant added that the Kenwood system he built with the DEA's funds utilized "a new digital technology that made it difficult for regular scanners to pick up the calls," the El Paso Times reports. It consisted—consists?—of 60 push-to-talk radios, E.Q. explained. These handheld devices, he said, were distributed equally among the two gangs, whose chatter were relayed over a stand of antennaes and repeaters that E.Q. staked atop Cerro Bola, a hill in Juárez.

    All told, E.Q. claimed to have netted a combined 7,000 hours of live and recorded radio transmissions involving members of Barrio Azteca and La Linea (who are technically the enforcers of the Carrillo Fuentes, another Mexican cartel), the Times reports. The cache detailed exactly what we've come to expect from ruthless crime syndicates whose operations stretch far beyond Mexican soil. E.Q. eavesdropped on plots for drug and gun running, a botched car bombing, arsons, lots of abductions, and countless murders.

    At some point, enough was enough. E.Q. felt he had to tip off Mexican authorities; the crimes he knew were being carried out by Barrio Azteca specifically were just too heinous to keep from Mexican law enforcement.

    The Juárez city and Chihuahua state police forces were both out of the question. E.Q. testified that from what he'd gleaned from the trove of transmissions, he had a hunch that both units were compromised. Rather, he'd try the Mexican Attorney General's office and, failing that, the Mexican Army. Both institutions refused to hear him out, he testified. 

    Eventually E.Q. found an ear at the US Consulate in Juárez, but only after he lied his way past the front door. He said he'd caught wind of a cartel plot to blow up the Consulate with a car bomb.

    The point here is that we only know what we know. Right now, at least, we simply do not know enough, based off E.Q's intriguing testimony, to say with any positivity that the DEA did in fact bankroll an encrypted radio network that effectively enabled at least two cartels to smuggle lots of drugs across the US border, and more tragically, to carry out untold hundreds or even thousands of torturous kidnappings and murders. It's a juicy thought, but in the end who really knows?  

    And yet it's not at all beyond the realm of possibility to think the DEA did throw a bunch of cash at E.Q. to rig up and fine-tune secure means of communications for the Barrio Azteca and La Linea. This is the DEA we're talking about, the same American agency that let the world's tech-savviest drug cartel do as it pleased for 12 years. If it ever went live, E.Q's Radio Cartel could very well have been dialed into the DEA's coffers.  

    Testimony in the Castrellon trial resumed today. We'll follow the story as it develops.

    @thebanderson

    Topics: crime, drugs, Drug Enforcement Administration, cartels, radio, Barrio Azteca, La Linea, DEA

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