Since 2006, the cartels have maintained an encrypted DIY radio network that stretches across nearly all 31 Mexican states, even down south into Guatemala. The communications infrastructure of the narco-gangs that have turned Mexico into a gangster’s paradise consists of “professional-grade” radio antennas, signal relays and simple handheld radios that cost “millions of dollars” — and which the Mexican authorities haven’t been able to shut down.
If it sounds like a military-grade communications apparatus, it should. The notorious Zetas, formerly the enforcers for the Gulf Cartel and now its chief rival, were born out of Mexican Special Forces.
But the Zetas aren’t stupid enough to make big deals over a radio frequency, even an encrypted one. According to a picture of what you might call Radio Zeta that’s emerged after three raids by the Mexican authorities, the bosses only communicate through the Internet. The radio network is for lookouts and lower-level players.
Here’s how it works, according to a fascinating Associated Press piece. The cartels divide up territory into “plazas.” The plaza boss has the responsibility for establishing nodes on the network — getting the antennas in place, concealing them as necessary, making sure the signal-boosting repeaters extend the network’s reach, equipping cartel personnel with handheld radios, and replacing what the security forces destroy. The cartels have even gone green, with solar panels powering the radio towers.
The network is primarily an early warning reconnaissance system. “Halcons,” or “hawks,” holler on the handhelds when the federal police or soldiers roll through cartel territory.
But it’s also an occasional offensive tool to intimidate the security forces. The cartels have been known to hijack military radio networks to broadcast threats. That’s keeping in line with the Zetas’ alarming tactic of slaughtering people for allegedly talking openly about cartel activity over the Internet.
Since September, three large raids conducted by Mexico’s beleaguered security forces have attempted to disrupt the radio network by snatching up its hardware. But much of the infrastructure — the towers, the receivers — is cheap enough to be easily replaced. The network is “low-cost, highly extendable and maintainable,” a security consultant told the AP.
But there’s an alternative for taking down the cartel broadcasts. Since the U.S. already provides intelligence and security assistance to Mexico’s drug war, maybe it’s time to think about providing some military-grade jammers as well. Mexico doesn’t seem to have a better idea for taking Radio Zeta off the air.
Photo: Flickr/Galeria de Bee