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.
Colonel Bob Killebrew
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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