Reporting on the Mexican Cartel Drug War

More on Los Zeta's Radio Network

Thursday, January 3, 2013 |

Borderland Beat

The Mexican military is trying to dismantle an extensive network of radio antennas built and operated by the notorious Zeta drug cartel. But the authorities haven’t had much luck shutting Radio Zeta down. Not only is much of the equipment super-easy to replace. But the cartel has also apparently found some unwilling — and alarming — assistance by kidnapping and enslaving technicians to help build it.

At least 36 engineers and technicians have been kidnapped in the past four years, according to a report from Mexican news site Animal Politicowith an English translation published by organized-crime monitoring group InSight. Worse, none of the engineers have been held for ransom — they’ve just disappeared. Among them include at least one IBM employee and several communications technicians from a firm owned by Mexico’s largest construction company. “The fact that skilled workers have been disappearing in these areas is no accident,” Felipe Gonzalez, head of Mexico’s Senate Security Committee, told the website.
“None of the systems engineers who disappeared have been found,” Gonzalez said. Unlike Colombia, where drug traffickers control large amounts of territory and can keep hostages for many years, Mexico’s drug territory is more in flux. “When they need specialists they catch them, use them, and discard them,” said the father of one kidnapped engineer.

For at least six years, Mexico’s cartels have relied in part on a sophisticated radio network to handle their communications. The Zetas hide radio antennas and signal relay stations deep inside remote and hard-to-reach terrain, connect them to solar panels, and then link the facilities to radio-receiving cellphones and Nextel devices. While the kingpins stay off the network — they use the internet to send messages — the radio network acts as a shadow communication system for the cartels’ lower-level players and lookouts, and a tool to hijack military radios.

One network spread across northeastern Mexico and dismantled last year included 167 radio antennas alone. As recently as September, Mexican marines found a 295-foot-high transmission towerin Veracruz state. And while the founding leadership of the Zetas originated in the Mexican special forces — and who might have had the know-how to set up a radio system — relatively few of the ex-commando types are still active today.

One engineer, named Jose Antonio, was kidnapped in January 2009 while talking on the phone with his girlfriend outside a mechanics shop. He worked for ICA Fluor Daniel, a construction company jointly owned by U.S.-based Fluor Corporation and ICA, Mexico’s largest construction firm. Antonio’s family contacted the authorities, but were instead visited by a man claiming to be an ICA employee along with two Zetas. “They said they were going to help us, and that our contact would be ICA’s security chief,” said the kidnapped engineer’s mother. But the group’s message was implicit: Don’t pursue this, or else. The cartel members were later arrested, but Antonio never returned.

Alejandro Moreno, an IBM engineer kidnapped in January 2011 while traveling from Monterrey to the Texas border city of Laredo, hasn’t been heard from since. In 2009, nine contractors hired to build radio antennas in the border city of Nuevo Laredo — a Zetas stronghold — were kidnapped from a rented apartment by masked gunmen. They were taken with their vehicles and equipment.

Aside from the radios, the cartel’s extensive weaponry alone caused GlobalPost’s Ioan Grillo to note “whether [the Zetas] should continue to be labeled as drug traffickers — or need a more martial description.” Now add a military-grade communication system built with slave labor.

It’d also be one thing if jamming the radio network or tracking down and dismantling the equipment were enough to stop it. But that might not be enough.





Past coverage: Borderland Beat: Can You Hear Me Now?

Drug cartels are all over the place in Mexico, but the Los Zetas have gained the title of the most technologically advanced and dangerous cartel in the country. They’re ex-paramilitary, tooled up like a miniature army, and have even set up their own radio communications network to organize all their horrible, murderous, people-trafficking business.

Los Zetas' radio network is the rock of the low-level operations carried out by the "street-soldiers." It keeps daily activity running smoothly as well as providing a quick method of communication for the network of lookouts monitoring police movement and making sure the cartel is always one step ahead of the authorities. As you might have expected from a gang that seems to enjoy indiscriminately slaughtering people, they haven't exactly gone about setting up their radio network in the most legitimate way. Their SOP has been to kidnap radio experts, and not one of the reported 36 missing technicians have been seen since.

Los Zetas aren’t the only cartel with their own radio network, but they are said to have the biggest and most advanced of them all, meaning the Mexican military has had little luck bringing it down.

Colonel Bob Killebrew writes and consults on national defense issues at the Center for a New American Security, most recently co-authoring the book Crime Wars; Gangs, Cartels and US National Security. I spoke to him about Los Zetas and their radio network.

VICE: Hi, Bob. What can you tell me about Los Zetas?
Bob Killebrew: In the United States, we often make the mistake of thinking about the cartels as just drug pushers, when they are actually military terrorist groups. They also deal in kidnapping, murder, extortion—all the crime you can do with a well-organized and ruthless group. They have no social value, they have no social feeling, they follow no rules and their foot soldiers are young men who have basically decided they are not going to survive in the world. They have no morals and no scruples.

Yikes. Apart from being really brutal, they’re also very organized, right?

Yeah, they have a paramilitary mindset... a chain of command, an appreciation of what technology can do to enhance paramilitary capabilities. If you’re a military guy who started such a group, one of your first concerns is communications. You can build communication networks at a relatively low expense if you have the expertise. So, it’s quite possible to build, say, a network for a low-level handheld radio carried by a taxi driver that can be picked up, re-transmitted, boosted up, and sent anywhere you want to send it, and even encrypted after it’s transmitted.
How far can they communicate with the radios?
It depends on how big a reach they want. If the taxi driver is calling up to warn someone about the Mexican army leaving town, he only needs to tell the people in his immediate geographical area. So they build a network that will go that far—call it the local network. But there can be a second network—a state network, say—and there can be a national network as well. As long as they’ve got the terrain to put the repeaters (signal boosters) down and they’ve got the access to the materials and the technicians to do it, there’s nothing to stop them from going global, as I’m sure they already are. 

Wow. How easy is it to set up a network like this?

The building of a network like this needs extensive use of remote transmitters, and the terrain in Mexico favors that. Most Mexican terrain—particularly in Veracruz and other places like that—has a lot of distinctive geography that allows you to point antennas and repeaters on high pieces of land. The equipment can be bought on the open market—not easily, but you can get it. What Los Zetas have is the engineering expertise to do it. Of course they get that the way they always get things—they’ll kidnap engineers, make them work for them, then dispose of them.

Why do they need this network so badly?

First to control their drug shipments, because when you start to move drugs you need continuous communications—they don’t use people who aren't totally trustworthy. The second thing they need it for is to arrange business affairs: picking up drugs, dropping drugs off, meetings... that type of thing. Then the third, of course, is keeping tabs on the opposition. If a taxi driver can pick up a handheld radio and say, “Hey, the Mexican army is leaving town in ten trucks,” that’s a great low-level early warning system.
Will Los Zetas’ communication technology evolve?
Oh sure, it will evolve as the capability evolves. Los Zetas won’t be doing any research and development on their own, but they’ll be buying stuff as fast as it comes on the market. They’ve solved the problem of technology because they just kidnap the people they want to work for them. And then they eliminate them when they’re done. It’s a very ruthlessly efficient organization.

Why do you think Mexican gangs are so much more overtly violent than others?

I talked to a retired New York City police chief once who told me he'd actually understood the mafia because the mafia had rules. They didn't commit indiscriminate violence, they didn’t just go out and shoot police officers for fun, and there was an understanding between them and the police. But he said that the gangs we’re dealing with now have no rules. They simply kill, or do whatever they’re going to do. And I think it’s a problem for our society. Not just that, it’s a problem for our civilization as a whole.

How big of a threat are Los Zetas and the other cartels?

I think that they represent a new kind of 21st century criminal. And these cartels are not the mafia—they’re different and they’re worse. And if you look at them as a global phenomenon, they have the potential to seriously challenge our civilization. They have tons of money, they have innovation, and they’re totally ruthless. They operate outside even the informal laws that crime used to follow.

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33 Borderland Beat Comments:

Anonymous said...

I think they traded the old telcel amigo for the new blockberry that weights about 2 lbs.

Anonymous said...

Don't hate on Los Zetas. I went to Nuevo Laredo back in May 2012. To La Zona. I am half mexican and white. My two friends were all white. We had a blast. There was no trouble. No problems. Everyone was cool. Everyone was tipped. Everyone happy. Made a cool friend in the process. Media blows things up. It really was deserted at night but it was all good. Don't hate if you have never been there. Go there first before you talk shit.

Anonymous said...

I think that they represent a new kind of 21st century criminal. And these cartels are not the mafia—they’re different and they’re worse. And if you look at them as a global phenomenon, they have the potential to seriously challenge our civilization. They have tons of money, they have innovation, and they’re totally ruthless. They operate outside even the informal laws that crime used to follow. SO WHAT ARE YOU PREPARED TO DO ABOUT IT ???

Anonymous said...

why aint the narco bosses ashamed of harming the innocent citizens of mexico....what the hell is wrong with them.
They got all this highly sophisticated communication devices and weapons,ammo.....i just dont get it,why isnt pushing drugs north of the border not enough? I would love the new government to do a backflip and allow the US forces in,too saturate mexico with the Mexican army and the US army....that my friends would be the end of the Cartels once and for all.

Anonymous said...

OMG!!!! the first picture,look how many damn guns there are....looks to be over 150guns.

Anonymous said...

send U.S. soldiers to the border and drones in to Mexico, if mexico can't handle the cartels the U.S. can. We are alwaysh happy to cause and fight a war. Hell the zetas can setup as many radio towers as they want because our drones could care less.

Halcones can't save zetas from what they can't see. No one likes the Zetas mainly for the reason that was state by the U.S. official. They kill innocent people.

The zetas don't have enough bullets to stop a tsunami of bad karma.

Anonymous said...

Really? A Conservative mouthpiece for weapons sales. Terrorists are everywhere
Drugs are everywhere.
stop and think for a minute BOB.
Why cant you stop your crack heads from lighting up?

Anonymous said...

Awsome Readddd
Many thanks Havana!

Anonymous said...

I obviously would be devastated if this happened to my son, but I would be even more enraged at the lack of protection , justice and especially my helplessness. That may be why people pick up guns and go postal.

Anonymous said...

It is the same with tunnel labor and before long it'll be, "I need some help with organization with my household electronics. I think i'll go out and deprive a specialist of his liberty, make him fix it all and just "dispose of him." " Oh that is so sick.

Anonymous said...

Mexican law works to protect the criminals who do all of the dirty work for those at the top .

Anonymous said...

Solution: Black Ops teams. Elimination.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps you just happened to be in a safer zone at the time of your visit. You may not have such good fortune on your future visits

Anonymous said...

January 4, 2013 5:42 AM
"Why cant you stop your crack heads from lighting up"
You got your own now amigo.So don't spout to loud.

Anonymous said...

They just have to keep on dismantling ever chance they can to distupt those netwoks. Anyway and everyway is the only way to weaken Los zetas even a little. If it doesn't slow 'em down much maybe it will inconvenience them enough to deter a killing or two. I'll take even that-that is how bad they are.

Anonymous said...

10:13...hahah ur a fucking moron man...its not that bad?? really?? u said u went for how long with your buddies?/?

Anonymous said...

Los Z every time they grow more like an Organization and in numbers,Z40 new strategy is working well he was new contacts in Colombia a couple of days ago he meet with the Tamaulipas Governor in Victoria seems that 40 and his brother are getting powerful.All those low level thugs they get caught and killed every day are noting compared what they really lose in the Cartel.

Los Z controlling Coahuila and Nuevo Laredo and having some part of Durango to transport Weed to Coauila and Nuevo Laredo makes a lot of $$$.Also they hace a BIG presence in Guatemala they get drugs and soldiers from Guatemala and the Coke from Venezuela and Colombia tied up with the Urbanos or Rastrojos over there in Colombia.

Seems that the Zetas Cartel are not close to get wiped out the are very Organized in there structure...

Anonymous said...

Put politics aside, recruit from all over, los pepes, special ops, ones that can't be turned. Put four teams of 50 . Have it planned out with objectives and change tactics when necessary. Areas would be cleaned up. You'd need a branch of 200 for both Acapulco and Sinaloa- so six to start. That's what I think.

Garcia said...

Here near Corpus Christi, on my HAM radio and CB I pick up constant communications coming out of Mexico which help transfer and transport the flow of everything from people to drugs. I mean constant, female operators speaking spanish and some kind of code

Anonymous said...

Repeat after me. The Mexican army and police are in with the cartels. Every time I see someone here suggest that the Mexican army needs to go after them or blah, blah, blah....dude, you don't understand. The Mexican military works FOR the cartel that is paying them in that area. The only reason they ever kill or capture a cartel members is because the OPPOSING cartel paid them to.

Anonymous said...

Bullshit. I was there too and got lucky I made it back.

Anonymous said...

Agreed. New type of criminal calls for a new type of 50.

Anonymous said...

Exactly! This sounds like its already way outta hand the fact that they operate with such barbaric impunity brings to mind a need for a roman legion that can tame the savages into submission, even though the roman empire fell they did handle shit when needed

Anonymous said...

Interesting! Can u understand that they moving loads?

Anonymous said...

You know this post makes me sick like most of your posts, Havana. Imagine the fright of those young engineers kidnapped by the Z's. Thanks for your time putting these posts, heavy with links, togerher for us readers. Certainly some of us are grateful.Sick but grateful.

Anonymous said...

I think your right. But one problem. Nothing valuable in Mexico to take.control over. Nothing of value to US. So US will never go. Doesnt make $cents$.

Anonymous said...

If us goes. Ill go fight too

Anonymous said...

'I think i'll go out and deprive a specialist of his liberty, make him fix it all and just "dispose of him." " Oh that is so sick.'

Yeah, it's hard to find a good plumber in Nuevo Laredo. Also hard to find a decent mechanic, piano teacher and seamstress for quincenera dresses. Rogamos por la gente buena que todavia viven en Ratazzzlandia.

Anonymous said...

I hate Cartels.....fukers killing mexico and its people.

Anonymous said...

"It really was deserted at night" for a reason D A

Anonymous said...

The u.s wouldnt go into mexico it is against mexican constitution to allow any foreign army to set foot in mexican soil. Have you forgotten the mexican american war?

Anonymous said...

Bola de pendejos keep playing call of duty

Anonymous said...

Eventually, when the citizens of Mexico revolt because thee government is working for the cartels, the united states will "liberate" Mexico. We will occupy them until zetas are no more. Just look at our fight against the Taliban. Still in Afghanistan. More than 10 years later.

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