Image: Donna Burton/USCBP
They're holed up in mountain caves along the Mexico-Arizona border, watching, listening, waiting. They're paid lookouts for some of Mexico's organized crime syndicates who've been tasked with spotting law enforcement and tipping off smugglers in the scorched and desolate desert valleys down below, as the Associated Press reports.
They use whatever surveillance gear they can get their hands on, everything from cheap walkie talkies to military-style radios with "rolling" encryption. American law enforcement officials in Pinal County, Arizona, recently nabbed seven of these low-level narco scouts, confiscating cell phones, encrypted radios, and binoculars, according to the AP. It's the sort of ad-hoc spy kit that not only stands in stark contrast to America's militarized borderland surveillance apparatus, with its lookout towers, floodlights, fixed and mobile video surveillance systems, motion sensors, tethered blimps, and drones. It's also giving the US's border tech a run for its money.
Officials say they're seeing more and more of this activity as cartels continue to be squeezed out of big cities, and forced to move drugs and humans in more unforgiving terrain.
"One of the current challenges we see now is that as we have gotten better at securing the border with personnel technology and infrastructure primarily in the urban areas, now that traffic has moved somewhat to more rugged, more difficult terrain," Manuel Padilla, the acting chief US Border Patrol agent for Tucson sector, told the Guardian.
Indeed, the joint Mexico-US border surveillance net has gotten so good at tracking and catching criminals in major ports of entry along the border—in places like Ciudad Juarez, where a cartel IT expert-turned-informant said he engineered a $125,000 encrypted narco radio network funded entirely by the US Drug Enforcement Administration—that cartels have at one point set up spy centers, known colloquially as "spider holes," on most of western Arizona's mountaintops and ridegelines.
It's hard, perhaps impossible, to say how many of these remote spy posts are active right now. What we know is that at any given moment in 2011, at the height of drug war violence in Mexico, there were between 200 and 300 cartel scouts looking out for any sign of Border Patrol, DEA, and law enforcement presence along the border, DEA agent Todd Scott told NBC. We know, too, that heavily-armed scouts will post up in spider holes for at least a week, as the AP notes.
And it's more than just being able to ping valley smugglers when the heat gets to close for comfort. Cartel border spies have been known to help coordinate the northbound movements of loads of contrabands and people, the criminal equivalent of air-traffic controllers "handing off or contacting the traffickers as they leave or enter the spotters' area of control," reports NBC.
Two can play this game, after all. Just as the Feds can monitor sensors along the fence, or use drones to persistently gaze down on the border's scrubbier no man's lands, looking out for any sign of movement, so too can the cartels stare right back at those watching them. At least, that's when the DEA doesn't just let a cartel do as it pleases.