Mexican Navy officials display confiscated cartel radio kit for the press, Veracruz, 2011. Video: Reforma.
Authorities in Mexico like to make a big show whenever they dismantle part of the hidden communications network that cartels use to stay ahead of law enforcement. Mexican federal officials claim they have razed 306 radio antennas and 225 repeaters over the past six years. There's just one problem: Nobody's quite sure where that confiscated kit is today.
Mexico's Attorney General's Office (PGR) has no record of the whereabouts of the 531 antennas and repeaters reportedly seized between 2008 and 2014, as Animal Politico reports. In fact, the PGR claims none of that hardware ever officially entered its custody, according to Animal Politico's Paris Martinez, who has been tracking this story for years and who I've spoken with previously about illegal telecommunications in Mexico.
The Mexican Army and Navy are often behind these sorts of busts, but it's the Public Prosecutor's Office, an arm of the PGR, that is tasked with prosecuting cases involving illegal radio networks, which can sprawl hundreds of miles from the US border deep into Mexico's brambly interior. After authorities collect evidence—not just antennas and repeaters but handheld radios, cell phones, laptops, even the solar panels that power backcountry nodes that form the backbones of cartels' illegal communication infrastructures—they hand everything over to the PGR. That's how it's supposed to work, at least.
It's the latest twist in the saga of what's come to be known as "Radio Narco." The whereabouts of Felipe del Jesús Peréz García and nearly 40 other IT specialists who have gone missing in Mexico since 2008, believed to have been kidnapped by cartels to build and service their clandestine radio networks, are still unknown. It's now also uncertain where parts of those networks that authorities said they seized ultimately ended up, if they were even confiscated in the first place.
A telecommunications engineer interviewed by Animal Politico offered one possible theory: perhaps scrappers salvaged the aluminum, metal, and steel that might have formed over 500 antenna and repeater towers. As for the actual communications components? Radio silence.