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Dec 26, 3:46 PM EST
By MICHAEL WEISSENSTEIN
AP Photo/Marco Ugarte
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MEXICO CITY (AP) -- When convoys of soldiers or federal police move through the scrubland of northern Mexico, the Zetas drug cartel knows they are coming.
The alert goes out from a taxi driver or a street vendor, equipped with a high-end handheld radio and paid to work as a lookout known as a "halcon," or hawk.
The radio signal travels deep into the arid countryside, hours by foot from the nearest road. There, the 8-foot-tall (2-meter-tall) dark-green branches of the rockrose bush conceal a radio tower painted to match. A cable buried in the dirt draws power from a solar panel. A signal-boosting repeater relays the message along a network of powerful antennas and other repeaters that stretch hundreds of miles (kilometers) across Mexico, a shadow communications system allowing the cartel to coordinate drug deliveries, kidnapping, extortion and other crimes with the immediacy and precision of a modern military or law-enforcement agency.
The Mexican army and marines have begun attacking the system, seizing hundreds of pieces of communications equipment in at least three operations since September that offer a firsthand look at a surprisingly far-ranging and sophisticated infrastructure.
Current and former U.S. law-enforcement officials say the equipment, ranging from professional-grade towers to handheld radios, was part of a single network that until recently extended from the U.S. border down eastern Mexico's Gulf coast and into Guatemala.
The network allowed Zetas operatives to conduct encrypted conversations without depending on the official cellphone network, which is relatively easy for authorities to tap into, and in many cases does not reach deep into the Mexican countryside.
"They're doing what any sensible military unit would do," said Robert Killebrew, a retired U.S. Army colonel who has studied the Mexican drug cartels for the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank. "They're branching out into as many forms of communications as possible."
The Mexican army said on Dec. 4 that it had seized a total of at least 167 antennas, 155 repeaters, 166 power sources, 71 pieces of computer equipment and 1,446 radios. The equipment has been taken down in several cities in the Gulf coast state of Veracruz and the northern states of Nuevo Leon, Coahuila, San Luis Potosi and Tamaulipas.
The network was built around 2006 by the Gulf cartel, a narcotics-trafficking gang that employed a group of enforcers known as the Zetas, who had defected from Mexican army special forces. The Zetas split from the Gulf cartel in 2010 and have since become one of the nation's most dominant drug cartels, with profitable sidelines in kidnapping, extortion and human trafficking.
The network's mastermind was Jose Luis Del Toro Estrada, a communications expert known as Tecnico who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute cocaine in federal court in Houston, Texas, two years ago.
Using millions of dollars worth of legally available equipment, Del Toro established the system in most of Mexico's 31 states and parts of northern Guatemala under the orders of the top leaders in the Gulf cartel and the Zetas. The Gulf cartel boss in each drug-smuggling territory, or plaza, was responsible for buying towers and repeaters as well as equipping his underlings with radios, according to Del Toro's plea agreement.
Del Toro employed communications specialists to maintain and run the system and research new technology, according to the agreement.
Mexican authorities, however, presented a different picture of the cartel radio infrastructure, saying it was less monolithic than the one described by U.S. authorities. A Mexican military official denied that the army and navy have been targeting one network that covered the entire Gulf coast. The operations had been focused on a series of smaller, local systems that were not connected to each other due to technical limitations, he said.
"It's not a single network," the official told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the topic. "They use it to act locally."
In recent years, reporters traveling with the Mexican military have heard cartels using radio equipment to broadcast threats on soldiers' frequencies. The military official told the AP that the signals are now encrypted, but cartels are still trying to break in.
At least until recently, the cartel's system was controlled by computers that enabled complex control of the radio signals, allowing the cartel to direct its communications to specific radios while bypassing others, according to Grupo Savant, an intelligence and security consulting firm in Washington that has firsthand knowledge of Mexico's cartel operations.
The radio system appears to be a "low-cost, highly extendable and maintainable network" that shows the Zetas' sophistication, said Gordon Housworth, managing director of Intellectual Capital Group, LLC, a risk- and technology-consulting firm that has studied the structure and operations of Mexican cartels and criminal groups.
Other Mexican criminal organizations maintain similar radio networks, including the Sinaloa cartel, based in the Pacific coast state of the same name, and the Barrios Azteca street gang, which operates in Ciudad Juarez, across from El Paso, Texas, a U.S. law-enforcement official said. The Zetas' system is the largest, however, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.
The Mexican raids are "a deliberate attempt to disrupt the business cycle of the cartels," said one former law-enforcement official with direct knowledge of the network. "By going after command and communications you disrupt control."
Law-enforcement officials and independent analysts described the operations against the Zetas' communications system as significant short-term victories in the fight against the cartel.
"The seizures show that the organization is scrambling," said Steven Dudley, co-director of InSight, a group that analyzes and investigates organized crime in Latin America.
The longer-term impact is unclear. The cartel has had little difficulty in replacing radio gear and other equipment seized in smaller operations in recent years. And contacts among the highest-ranking Zetas operatives tend to take place in highly encrypted communications over the Internet, according to Grupo Savant.
Certainly, cartel radio equipment is a near-ubiquitous presence for Mexicans living along the front lines of the drug war.
In the state of Tamaulipas, across the border from eastern Texas, many antennas are concealed in the foliage of the rockrose, an invasive shrub that has spread across much of the state's open land.
Even from a few feet (meters) away it's nearly impossible to see the towers or their power cables.
In Nuevo Laredo, the Zetas' first stronghold, antennas sprout from rooftops and empty lots. One soldier told the AP that even when authorities took down an antenna there, it was swiftly replaced.
Associated Press writers E. Eduardo Castillo in Mexico City and Efrain Klerigan in Victoria, Tamaulipas, contributed to this report.
Thanks for the story. I always wondered if the communications of these cartels are like the tunnel diggers - certain death once complete. You have any info on this?
I thought about this over lunch and this is the information I have on your interesting angle, PincheG. Not to say los Zetas haven't killed workers over their communication development because they do whatever it takes to achieve their needs. But I doubt they're hiring their network placement crew to later kill as in the narco tunnel and labs...disposal takes too much work only to have to do it again and again. They can probably scare any workers into silence or put them to work else where.
Consider part of this article propaganda, to make the officials look sharp, on top of it, their accomplishment mega, and the totally exaggerated single network (fabricated) threat as temporarily neutralized. In reality, authorities haven't confiscated nearly enough equipment to make their accomplishment viable or doing much more than temporarily dismantling and inconveniencing the network.
For a long time Mexico had underestimated the Zetas. Authorities hadn't given too much thought to the Zetas communication other than who inside was always tipping off the last letter off.
Half the people think the Zetas are complete idiots incapable of little else besides killing and those same people are the ones who expected Los Zetas to be attempting to use a wire wrapped around a fork attached to a 12 volt and paper cups to send/receive signals, but drooling over the whole complicated mess and blowing themselves up instead. So' of course, they are very surprised at their sophistication with their network. So, it's a matter of relativity.
The nature of radio communication really isn't rocket science. It takes expertise which money can buy. Networks have been built and specified as needed around the plazas. There are lots of networks growing as the Zetas expand. Technology advances are helping. The communication system for the Zetas is probably sufficiently complicated, needing specialized "technicos" for exterior and interior upkeep not to use expendable help like the tunnels and labs.
Here is a key, certain municipalities have been completely complicit with the establishment of narco network operations and allow "piggiebacking" on cell towers etc. And they've been known to overtake and steal pre-existing equipment. With these techniques and a million more, it is easier work than digging a tunnel and less labor intensive. And as we've heard Los Zetas don't kill innocents, right? And there you have it.
I appreciate the insight Weng - thank you.
I would have to agree about the complicity of the municipalities. Just think of the grand scheme of all this - importing radio towers (which no doubt the customs knew about), actually purchasing the radio towers (no doubt the supplier had to have asked what/who the end-use was for) not to mention the implementation of the network itself. That would/should've drawn A LOT of eyes. Given, I did notice that many of the towers were camo'ed in the trees and painted so maybe that is why there was barely a notice paid.
I'm surprised they didn't just register their own cellular company - although Carlos Slim might have something to say about that lol
Thanks again brother!
In reply to this post by Havana
wen...mexico has never underestimated the last letter, and in fact calls them the number one enemy and focuses on their Annihilation as of last year, Obama also.
it is those people outside Mexico that have greatly underestimated Zs...including more than a few wrong people here at BB.
The way I see it.... the more people that don't like me, the less people I have to please
Hey Chivis-Los Zetas background was solid as can be but after the split they expanded very, very quickly into a cartel of poorly trained, undisciplined, young thugs. The opposite of what they originally were. While the top level may have been good strategists, the bottom level, continually growing, and definitely for a while, were seen as violent brainless brutes, who made bad decisions, more often quickly overreacting based on blood lust. To me they always seemed a dangerous, threat. I know many Mexicans who thought the Zetas would weaken and they definitely underestimated them and their numbers. I stand by what I said or people would have never been surprised at their grasp of technology, if they hadn't underestimated the Zetas. It may have been part of a brilliant strategy.
we will have to agree to disagree on that one. the young thugs are the bottom layer of the three tiered system that the last letter perfected. we don't see the engine or the organizational layer we only see the young punks lying dead on the pavement or in perp round ups. the big mistake Calderon made was not going after the middle layer...and now he does not have time. with Pena, it will become worse
The way I see it.... the more people that don't like me, the less people I have to please
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