Recent claims that computer programmers are being forcibly recruited by Mexican drug gangs, if true, suggest that the criminal groups may be upping their efforts to reap the potential profits of cyber crime.
Written by Ronan Graham
The story of Fernando Ernesto Villegas Alvarez recently featured in Mexican newspaper Excelsior. A 24-year-old intern at a research center in a Mexico City college, Villegas was, according to his parents, delighted to be offered an attractive job at company known as “Productos Foca.” However, things turned sour when he was enticed into working on an out-of-office project in Acapulco with the promise of a 10,000 peso bonus ($850), equivalent to his monthly wage. His final task in Acapulco was in a house in the Brisas del Marques area, where he was supposedly required to help set up email accounts for his client. However, he soon found out that this client was Edgar Valdez Villareal, alias “La Barbie,” an infamous, now-captured, drug lord from the Beltran Leyva Organization.
According to Villegas' mother, her son was gripped by fear and felt compelled to do as he was told, although he wanted to return home. However, Villegas, never did return home. On July 31, 2010, police raided the residence where he was working and sleeping. He was accused of carrying weapons belonging to the army and was told that the Mac computer he was using was stolen property. The exact nature of the work he undertook for Valdez Villareal remains unclear, and he now stands accused of possession of a grenade, with no charges relating to cybercrime. After spending 80 days in police custody, he was transferred to a federal prison in Veracruz State, where he remains. He is, according to his supporters, an innocent computer programmer who was held against his will by a violent drug boss.
According to some reports, Villegas claims that police forced him to throw a grenade in order to implicate him in being a member of the gang.
Dmitry Bestuzhev, a Latin American specialist with the global Russian computer security company Kaspersky Lab, told news channel RT that he was not surprised by allegations that criminal gangs were coercing Mexican computer programmers. Bestuzhev believes these gangs are increasingly demonstrating a desire to make money from cybercrime but lack the technical knowhow within their ranks to do so. He said that they turn to computer programmers to help them to, among other things, steal information to clone credit cards and passports.
There are certainly many reasons why these gangs would be desperate to recruit programmers with the expertise to break into the world of cybercrime. Mexican drug trafficking organization are unsurprisingly attracted by the high profits and minimal risks, offered by cyber crimes like fraud, theft, and piracy. "I strongly believe that if drug dealers see [profit] in abusing kidnapped cyber-criminals, they will keep doing it,” Bestuzhev said.
It’s not clear whether Fernando Ernesto Villegas Alvarez is an innocent computer programmer, intimidated into using his expertise to help criminal gangs, but the story sounds plausible. As InSight Crime has noted, Mexico is becoming a global hub for cybercrime, due to its growing population of computer users and large number of pre-existing criminal networks. Many of these groups have seen their drug trafficking profits squeezed by President Felipe Calderon’s crackdown on organized crime, and are turning to other illegal activities to bring in income.