Wired’s Danger Room blog discussed an AP article about a homemade, encrypted, DIY radio network run by the Zetas that stretches across all of Mexico and into Guatemala. The network is built using “professional-grade” radio antennas, signal relays, and simple handheld radios that cost “millions of dollars.” Yet the individual components are inexpensive, so the network has proven very robust, despite efforts by Mexican authorities to shut it down.
As the Danger Room article points out, the Zetas were born out of the Mexican Special Forces. Consequently, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that this network appears to be a military-style communications network: robust, expandable, and easily maintained. Local bosses are required to keep the network in good shape, and provide handheld radios to the necessary personnel. Antennas and repeaters are camouflaged, and some networks rely on solar power–an interesting evolution.
Although the high-level bosses use the internet to communicate, this radio network is used largely for two purposes: alerting cartel members to police and military activities, and taking over military communications networks to issue threats.
The AP article is not as impressed with the network as Danger Room, stating that the network is not monolithic, but a collection of small, independent, local networks. Also, despite comments about the network’s inexpensive and robust nature, the AP article claims that the Mexican military has taken substantial steps toward knocking out the networks.
Given what we’ve seen regarding the use of social networks by protest groups around the world, it’s interesting to see how other groups communicate. But as protest groups used social networks to communicate their ideas to the larger world, I’m surprised the Mexican cartels haven’t used these networks as more of a propaganda tool. Then again, such use would not only make the networks’ components easier to track, but also force a greater response by Mexican military and law enforcement.
Additionally, stories have started to surface about US efforts to develop an internet in a suitcase. Although primarily designed to be used by dissidents fighting repressive regimes, it has been tested by OWS protestors. As designs for such projects become more common, I wonder if the next step for the Mexican cartels would be to ditch the radio network and set up “suitcases” (or mobile suitcases). Combined with social networks, encrypted chat, and other tools, I wonder if this might be a more robust, secure, and possibly cheaper option.
It will be interesting to see if cartel criminals and protestors learn from one another, perhaps driving communications technology forward, but for wildly different reasons.