Big Brother Narco: Cartels Are Building Their Own CCTV Networks
It's an unprecedented feat of counter-surveillance in the ongoing technological arms race between Mexican and American authorities and cartels.
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Big Brother Narco is watching.
Authorities in northeastern Mexico's Tamaulipas state recently dismantled an internet-operated video surveillance network used by a criminal group to monitor both government security forces and civilian life. The CCTV network comprised 39 cameras, according to El Universal, and is an unprecedented feat of counter-surveillance in an ongoing technological arms race between Mexican and American authorities and cartels.
The cameras could each be controlled wirelessly via modem, video card and data encoder, and power feeder, El Universal reports, and were scattered across Reynosa, a border town and coveted entry point into the United States for crime syndicates trafficking in narcotics and humans. A bulk of the cameras had been installed on telephone poles serviced by the Federal Electricity Commission, a public utility, and Telmex, the largest privately-held telco in Mexico.
Tamaulipas state police said in a statement that the camera network drew power from electric lines strung above Reynosa's streets, and connected to the internet via phone cables tethered to those same poles, the Associated Press reported. According to an anonymous Mexican security official quoted by the AP, it was when the government's own security cameras in Reynosa picked up suspicious persons affixing cameras to telephone poles that authorities realized what was going on.
Tamaulipas state police razed the illegal network on May 18 and 19 with support from the Secretary of National Defense, but not before cartel members made off with 18 of the cameras after catching wind of the bust.
"It was going to be discovered sooner or later," Robert Bunker, a researcher at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, told me. "Given where the system was placed, it likely had a short dwell time."
Few other details about the network were available at the time of this writing. How many people were required to build and service the network? Was the network secure, or could authorities tap into its feeds? Has this particular network been dismantled outright, or was Reynosa just one branch of a larger surveillance network helmed by Big Brother Narco? The Tamaulipas press office did not immediately respond to my request for comment.
According to Bunker, a cartel could set up a surveillance network of this scope with anywhere from a few hundred thousands dollars on up, depending on the quality of the surveillance cameras, the communication and adjunct hardware, and the sophistication of the command center the network links to. He said a high-end camera system would be optimized for nighttime surveillance with infrared and zoom capabilities, and added that commercial security cameras with three-mile transmission ranges, built-in encryption, and infrared imaging are all available on the internet for just a few thousand dollars.
It wouldn't take tremendous manpower, either, to get a modest surveillance network of 40-50 cameras up and running after purchasing the necessary kit.
"A single crew of a few cartel operatives impersonating public works personnel or the co-option of some of these personnel would likely see this network being set up within a week or two," said Bunker, who added that the system would be "relatively self sufficient once power requirements have been initially satisfied" either by tapping directly into a pole's power supply, or through solar panels linked to a backup battery system.
"It makes perfect sense, and further highlights the ingenuity of the cartels"
Routine maintenance of the network would be required every now and again. But that risk of exposure is reduced considerably when a cartel initially invests in high-end cameras, antennas, and affiliated gear. In the end, Bunker said fully servicing a surveillance system like the one recently discovered in Reynosa would require something like a half-dozen cartel engineers.
"If two cartel members were tasked with watching these cameras for an 8-hour shift," he said, "then, at a minimum, six rotating personnel would be required to monitor these cameras and fulfill other cartel intelligence and ops center duties."
It's also unclear which criminal group was behind the hidden surveillance apparatus in Reynosa. In its prepared statement, Tamaulipas state police declined to name the criminal group responsible for the counter-surveillance operation. But there is reason to suspect, based on the territorial breakout of cartels in Mexico today, that it was the work of the Gulf Cartel, a dominant crime group in the Tamaulipas region believed by some to be connected to a rash of suspected kidnappings targeted at telecommunications specialists, who are then forced to build hidden radio networks for the cartels.
Regardless who was behind the network, Bunker said, "it would make the most sense for the WiFi internet cameras to be accessed via a monitoring center somewhere in the city of Reynosa, such as in a non-descript industrial building of some sort with no criminal activity associated with it."
If in fact it was the Gulf, Bunker said the Ciclones, the Gulf's Reynosa-based intelligence and command and control faction, were likely the only ones privy to the CCTV network.
"This intelligence and operations center, for what would likely be the Ciclones, would be linked to these WiFi cameras only through their IP addresses via an encrypted and anonymized system for operational security purposes," he said.
Whoever its operators were, it could be assumed the view of Reynosa the network afforded them was quite vast. The network reportedly had the capacity to monitor 52 "high impact" locations before its constellation of cameras got knocked offline, according to El Universal.
Some of those locations, such as subdivisions, shopping malls, and major roads in the city, were decidedly civilian. The majority of the locations were aimed at military and police stations, and at various government buildings, including the attorney general's office. In Reynosa's Colonia Las Fuentes neighborhood alone, authorities found a cluster of five surveillance points, each with five cameras, that contained a device that according to El Universal allowed an operator to move multiple cameras simultaneously.
Counter-surveillance is nothing new among Mexican organized crime. Cartel lookouts, known as "halcónes," or falcons, have been known to use a hodge podge of spy tech, from military-grade encrypted walkie talkies to off-the-shelf binoculars, to stay ahead of Border Patrol in the desert. Taking that same counter-surveillance fight inland, with internet-connected hidden cameras scanning for strategic, actionable intelligence, demonstrates how far cartels will go to Big Brother Big Brother.
"I know there are stories of the cartels in the area of Mexico kidnapping technicians and engineers to work on elaborate radio networks," Duncan Tucker, a Guadalajara-based freelance journalist and occasional VICE News contributor, told me. "But I've never heard of a sophisticated criminal CCTV network like this."
A city-wide criminal CCTV network might well be a first for Mexico's cartels. Bunker likewise said that he previously never heard of a cartel utilizing this sort of surveillance and counter-intelligence technology in an urban environment, and that in the future a more sophisticated attempt at mass video surveillance by a cartel might be to hack into a city's pre-existing camera network, utilizing it "without the locals even knowing about it."
It is, and would then be, nothing if not the logical progression of a hidden apparatus of surveillance caught in a feedback loop of watchers watching watchers.
"It makes perfect sense, and further highlights the ingenuity of the cartels," Bunker said. "If the authorities can use such camera systems to monitor activity in a town or city, why can't organized criminals?"