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 Politico, with 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.
By Sam Clements
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.