Cartel Radio: Drugs and Kidnappings and Blood on the Air

If 2011 was a year for Internet-driven global protest, it was also a time of sado-crafty Mexican crime syndicates fully wiring up and operating on their own increasingly sophisticated private networks. Drug cartels have been overhauling and...

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Dec 27 2011, 10:00pm

If 2011 was a year for Internet-driven global protest, it was also a time of sado-crafty Mexican crime syndicates fully wiring up and operating on their own increasingly sophisticated private networks.

Drug cartels have been overhauling and expanding an existing national radio system. This patch network supports the far-reaching shadow communications that enable gangs, notably Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman’s Sinaloa, the world’s top drug-pushing operation, to the west; and Los Zetas, a ruthless group of defected Mexican Army special forces, in the east, to “coordinate drug deliveries, kidnapping, extortion and other crimes” with all the swift surgicality of modern militaries and law-enforcement agencies, the Associated Press reports.

By some estimates, this encrypted radio infrastructure spans a majority of Mexico’s 31 states. Mexican authorities recently seized part of the network, a mesh of handheld radios and high-grade, camouflaged towers assembled legally with parts bought off the shelf. Current and former U.S. drug and law-enforcement officials believe the gear was “part of a single network” linking operatives along Mexico’s Gulf coast, from the U.S. border to Guatemala.

The Zetas aren’t the only game on the air, though. In addition to the Pacific coast Sinaloa, the Ciudad Juarez based Barrios Azteca street gang is also known to be doing business, relaying warnings, and issuing threats to police and reporters over its own frequency.

The Zetas are, however, far and away the front-runners, even the pioneers, of modern cartel radio.

Mexican troops guard seized Zetas communications splayed for journalists (NPR)

Until recently, their communication grid – the largest, and arguably the most advanced, of the national cartel radio network – kept up the bloody and lucrative freeflow of drugs and cash and humans across borders. Scouts and movers were able to circumvent the country’s official cellphone network, a spectrum that’s easily tapped and that often can’t extend to kingpin compounds in the brambly outskirts of civilization.

This is how it worked.

Should paid taxi drivers or street vendors – ear-to-the-ground lookouts known as "halcones," or hawks – have gotten word of a raid or some other useful nugget of information, they’d pulse out signals from high-end handheld radios. These signals shot deep into northern Mexico's arid scrubland, remote countryside many hours on foot from the nearest roads, out where the flowering rockrose shrub grows thick. Untold numbers of radio towers, all painted dark-green to stand undetected among the rockrose's 8-foot-tall branches, received the tips, which then snaked along ground cables hidden in the dirt and that drew power off solar panels. From here, signal-boosting repeaters forwarded the messages to a constellation of other repeaters and antennae strewn over the country.

Far-ranging, easily maintained and upgraded on the cheap, the system went live sometime around 2006 under the direction of Jose Luis Del Toro Estrada, a coke dealer and communications guru with the Gulf cartel. At the time, the Zetas rolled as hired bruisers for the Gulf. And when the ex-special forces splintered off in 2010 to do their own thing they basically claimed Estrada’s grid for themselves, eventually coming to control the entire mesh via computers.

Not only did this allow for a surprisingly sophisticated control over any one radio signal, which could be routed to any particular radio as it skipped over others. This was a business-minded move to start functioning more as a shrewd, modern military squad, to expand into all possible avenues to cryptic communications, even as the gang kept up the boots-on-the-ground beheadings and hangings and mass-grave tending for which it’s become famous, feared, and targeted.

In a December 4 statement the Mexican Army said it had seized some 1,446 radios, 167 antennas, 166 power sources, 155 repeaters and 71 pieces of computer equipment. This was the third such seizure since September, the total haul by now maybe representing a considerable chunk of the Zetas’ sprawling point-to-point complex.

As is customary, balaclava’d troops stood watch over the goods, displayed for the press in a show that yes, the good guys are finally winning this bloody awful mess.

One-hundred and thirty-four tons of American-brain bound bud burning ceremoniously (via)

Of course, it was all a strategic bit of theatre.

This month’s take down, and even more money and resources thrown at cross-border pacts aimed at the long-term dismantling of all DIY cartel communications, isn’t going to bring an end to a problem that continues spiraling wildly, horribly out of control. Nor will it be the blow that cripples one or all the cartels, let alone their shadowy national radio network, or networks, as Mexico claims its cartel’s national radio is rather localized, not fully integrated into one monolithic station.

The Zetas may be scrambling for the short term, true, but there’s reason to believe they’ll be back on the air. In 2009, Miguel Angel Montoya, a former Cali cartel drug trafficker, told Motherboard how, "Each innovation in drug trafficking comes about when the current method reaches a state of crisis." (Montoya spearheaded one of the first narco-submarine projects. Watch him tell us about it here.) Why, then, should anyone think the hole punched in the Zetas’ radio system won’t soon be patched over, or that it hasn’t already been filled and is now running stronger, faster, more discreet than before? Indeed, one soldier tells the AP that as soon as an antenna, be it in-shrub, on a rooftop or in a vacant lot somewhere on the Zetas’ oldest turf, a place called Nuevo Laredo, is sniffed out by authorities, the thing is “swiftly replaced.”

Besides, encrypted contacts between top-ranking Zetas leaders already primarily go down on the Internet, anyway. And we’ve seen what happens when well-intentioned, if inconsistent, hackers threaten to ruin a cartel.

So as the Mexican drug wars rage on into a sixth year the cartels may only just turn even further against one another in bids to out-tech the competition. Because it’s not just about drugs anymore – well, yes, a great portion of the fortune out there will continue being made off supplying Americans with ample weed, cocaine and meth. But then there’s also the kidnappings and extortions and money launderings, often in cahoots with some of Mexico and Central America’s biggest banks.

All this requires legitimate tele- and digital-communications. Whichever syndicate can manage the most reliable, impenetrable, guerilla peer-to-peer radio or online network stands to gain stupid amounts of money. The key to such a robust system will be highly coveted, ensuring more spilled blood, potentially even a radical shift in cartel influence. Just imagine news last Friday of the capture of Felipe Cabrera Sarabia, a top strongman to "El Chapo," the Sinaloa leader, going out over the Zetas or Barrios Azteca radio networks.

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Reach this writer at brian@motherboard.tv. @TheBAnderson

Top image via AP