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The Secret Codes That Cartel Bosses Use to Send Handwritten Orders from Prison

Crime syndicates will always adapt in the face of law enforcement's increasingly sophisticated surveillance toolkit.
August 26, 2014, 7:20pm
Image: Shutterstock

To the untrained eye, the handwritten notes seeping out of prisons in Honduras look like gibberish. Even to the trained eye, the notes are tough, if not impossible, to read.

But to the far-flung players of the criminal underworld, from powerful bosses to street-level goons, there is no question what these letters say. Written in the criminal networks' own secret alphabets, the letters allow locked-up crime lords to coordinate in secret with their comrades on the outside.


Secret languages and encrypted codes have been hallmarks of organized crime for about as long as organized crime has been a thing, of course. And yet the tactic is apparently having a bit of a moment in Honduras, where many criminal bosses from El Salvador, home to both the MS-13 and Barrio 18 international crime syndicates, are serving time.

According to Honduran news site El Heraldo, authorities and intelligence officials there have seen a noticeable uptick in these puzzling handwritten messages in recent months. Known as willas, the notes make their way by hand from Point A, a jail cell, to Point B, somewhere in El Salvador.

It's a cryptic reminder of just how adaptable criminals networks are in the face of law enforcement's increasingly sophisticated surveillance toolkit. It might be 2014, but a good deal of the channels of communication that make organized crime go, in Central America and beyond, run on snail mail.

This is a true alphabet. This is like a Rosetta Stone.

The handwritten notes are made up of seemingly random combinations of letters and symbols, El Heraldo reports. Sometimes they order assassins to kill. Other times they lay out extortion plans, or coordinate the movement of contraband and weapons.

Still other times, according to El Heraldo's report, which is based on multiple interviews with security officials involved in the interception and decryption of willas, the notes serve as morale boosters, offering words of encouragement to gang members: Stand firm, and for god's sake, no infighting.


Earlier this year, the Spanish-speaking news site La Tercera got access to a willas "key" that Chilean officials found stuffed inside a convicted drug dealer's wallet in 2010. The documents explain how the coded alphabet can be used both to compose encrypted messages and to make sense of incoming willas.

Click over for a detailed look at the symbology, if you're curious. For now, here's an excerpt from the intercepted key, via La Tercera:

The idea is to avoid using spaces, so it will be impossible for the investigative police (PDI) to decipher. They won't know that we are communicating, and it will be impossible to understand, unless they get this piece of paper, which you can't just have anywhere; you have to hide it.

Macarena Cañas, a prosecutor tasked with cracking that key, told La Tercera that the thing was a full-on dictionary, and thus unlike any handwritten encryption system ever seen. "This is a true alphabet," Cañas said. "This is like a Rosetta Stone."

Likewise the willas phenomenon seen today in Honduras. It's a decidedly analog means of circumventing the signal-blocking technology used by Honduran authorities in efforts to sever lines of communication between prisoners and the outside world.

El Salvador, for its part, has passed similar legislation to jam the smuggled cellphones in its jails. Down in Brazil, as we've reported, smuggled mobile phones are virtually rewiring the national prison system. If officials there also clamp down on prisoner phones, it would stand to reason that the imprisoned captains of criminal industries could simply brush up on their code and get  to writing.

It all boils down to this: If the cops go high tech, the gangs go low, embracing willas. Sneaky as hell and time tested, the coded notes, for all we know, get the job done. (They're also not dissimilar to the coded languages that top-tier Mexican crime syndicates use to communicate over encrypted radio networks.)

It's not just pen and paper, either. Willas are also being sent over Facebook and the cross-platform instant messaging service WhatsApp, the El Heraldo report adds.

But then sometimes, there's a crack in the code. That intercepted key, mentioned above? Back in March, Chilean authorities were able to make sense of the alphabet, and finally nail their prime suspect.