This article originally appeared on Motherboard.
The shop is unremarkable. It sits on the edges of McAllen, Texas, servicing car alarms and selling off-the-shelf electronics like walkie talkies on the cheap. When the US Drug Enforcement Administration's Special Operations Division raided the place in the fall of 2008, they didn't find any of the trappings associated with the narco life. No bricks of coke, stacks of cash, or bales of ditch weed. No caches of AK-47s, and no cheetahs.
But the bust, as Damon Tabor reports in a great long read over at Pop Sci, did land authorities perhaps the most valuable jackpot yet in contemporary counter-narcotics efforts: Jose Luis Del Toro Estrada, the 37-year-old mastermind behind a secret communications network that linked legions of foot soldiers and mid-level henchmen with Mexico's Gulf Cartel and its security arm, a group of US-trained ex-commandos known as Los Zetas, who'd eventually splinter off entirely to form their own ruthless organized crime syndicate. It seemed like a big catch.
Weeks prior, DEA agents swept through Del Toro Estrada's McAllen residence. The raid, part of Project Reckoning, an 18-month DEA push to dismantle the Gulf Cartel, turned up little more than the clutch of pink flowers that Del Toro Estrada had hung over the front door of his white-brick ranch house. He was arrested anyway — the DEA, acting on intelligence strung together from over 200 agencies, knew Del Toro Estrada was complicit, somehow, in Gulf's business — and the ensuing investigation pointed agents to the shop on the outskirts of town.
'This system enabled the cartel to smuggle narcotics by the ton into the US, as well as billions of dollars in drug money back into Mexico.'
It became clear that the store was likely a front, and its owner, who operated under the handle "Technico," was in fact Del Toro Estrada, according to the US District Court Southern District of Texas - Houston Division. The shop wasn't any old radio shack, and Del Toro Estrada was anything but a marquee capo. But here was a guy who almost single-handedly took Mexican organized crime into the information age, and whose shop was essentially the nerve center of the so-called Narco Radio, a clandestine telecommunications network that covers most of Mexico. Del Toro Estrada was the admin at the controls of a resilient radio mesh that for all we know still allows untold thousands of drug dealers, runners, assassins, and kidnappers to talk to one another and organize their organized crime.
We still don't know how or why Del Toro Estrada was originally selected to build out a shadow communications infrastructure for the Gulf Cartel, variously known as The Company. But we do know that his technical chops were instrumental to the ultraviolent crime syndicate's meteoric rise to power over the last few years, and that his expertise subsequently has the Zetas edging out rivals, namely the Sinaloa Cartel, on the frontlines of information warfare.
"He was the cartel’s in-house geek, the head of IT, and he had used his expertise to help engineer its brutal rise to power," writes Tabor.
Del Toro Estrada's vast, covert network was sophisticated insofar as it was — and remains — decidedly low tech. He used commercially available software (including digital inversion software, which scramble radio chatter into garbly nonsense) and components like two-way radios and signal repeaters. He planted repeaters on top of volcanoes and, in one instance, atop a police station in the Gulf Coast state of Veracruz. Among other things, he rigged up a system of hidden cameras that spied on Mexican authorities and kept watch over the gang's stash houses.
All told, he engineered a telecommunications grid that's proved tough to weed out, let alone temporarily jam. Walkie talkies, of course, are far less susceptible to being traced, tapped, or otherwise compromised compared to even burner cell phones. Radio gear is also cheaper than mobile phone technologies, and serves as a rugged lookout in both urban and rural environments; if there's any hunch of eavesdropping by law enforcement, street-level Zetas operatives, walkie talkies in hand, can simply toggle to another frequency or deploy voice-scrambling code.
We've previously reported on this elaborate shadow communications and surveillance network, which has gone live partly on the backs of enslaved info-tech laborers. ("Network" is actually a misnomer; there are many, and they're going up as quick as they're razed by anti-drug authorities. They're huge, too. A single network that was busted a few years back fanned across northeastern Mexico and comprised 167 radio antennas.) In short, the Zetas plug their remote signal relay stations and antennae into solar panels before linking the kits to radio-receiving phones and Nextel devices.
It's never been the preserve of kingpins, who send messages over the internet. But it's perfectly suited for their underlings to talk to one another, intercept virtually all signals in a given areas, and reap huge profits.
"This system enabled the cartel to smuggle narcotics by the ton into the US, as well as billions of dollars in drug money back into Mexico. Most remarkably, it had provided The Company with a Gorgon-like omniscience," Tabor continues. That's the sort of command-and-control bandwidth that Carl Pike, deputy head of the DEA's Spec Ops, said provides the cartel with the bandwidth to track not only the movements of individual drug loads, but also the movements of all players in the drug distribution milieu, including cops and agents on both side on the border.
“It essentially linked all the different members of the cartel — the people doing the trafficking and the people doing the protection—so there was a communication between them,” Pike told Tabor.
Del Toro Estrada's network was a textbook killer app, but after so long he couldn't hack it by himself. Eventually he hired his own crew of communications specialists to do all sorts of R&D, program new gear, and perform thankless upkeep.
Meanwhile, the Zetas were hit harder and harder by counter-narcotics ops like Project Reckoning. In December 2011, Mexico busted up a stand of private telecom stations owned and operated by the Zetas. Just last week, Mexican authorities in Perote, Veraruz, killed 10 suspected Zetas members in a gunfight.
Hits like these are symbolic. The Zetas do not wield as much power as they did just two years ago, when the syndicate's boss, Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano, was gunned down by Mexican officials at a pick-up baseball game. The gang has been reeling ever since. But if anything, the arrests cover up the real problem, namely at the peak of its power, the gang had on its rolls a host of spies tasked with bringing integrated technologies to bear on its forays into social media, and reportedly even leveraged mapping software to keep tabs on authorities.
According to a Mexican attorney general report, this created an intelligence framework "without equal in the Americas."
All with cheap, readily available gear.
That's in stark contrast to Jaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, the recently captured Sinaloa Cartel boss. Chapo personally invested large sums of money into state-of-the-art counterespionage technologies, but only to protect himself from the authorities on his heels, as the Associated Press reported. Chapo's 13-year fugitive run came crashing down, quietly, via a routine cell phone wiretap.
Chapo, of course, was raised a farmer; the Zetas were borne of an elite paramilitary outfit. That's why it makes good sense to hear that the gang made use of inexpensive hardware and software to bring order among their ranks over their own, private airwaves.
"This is battlefield control for when they're having skirmishes. This is control for avoiding this roadblock, that roadblock, getting on the net [and] saying you've got a patrol coming, the Mexican marines are in such-and-such a sector heading this way," Scott Stewart, a State Department special agent turned analyst for private intel firm Statfor, told NPR.
The irony is that Del Toro Estrada's system didn't tell him that the DEA's Spec Ops squad was on its way. It failed him when he needed it most, but only temporarily. In June of 2012, he pled guilty in a Houston court to a single charge of conspiring to sell cocaine, according to the official Project Reckoning affidavit, and walked out a free man. The mastermind responsible for rewriting the book on modern cartel communication, bringing a Big Data sensibility to Mexican organized crime's broadening portfolio, and providing the Zetas' goons with the logistical support to carry out an unfathomable amount of rapes, murders, and kidnappings, had served less than four years in lock up.
Thing is, we have no idea where he is, or if he's even alive. Is he "E.Q.", the anonymous Mexican comms expert who recently testified in US Court in El Paso that the DEA gave him $125,000 to build and encrypted radio network? Is he back with the Zetas, overseeing a secret data-parsing cadre of nerds at the headquarters of C4, the Mexican equivalent of 911? Is he still living in the US, perhaps under witness protection? Or is he going about his business in plain sight at his white-brick ranch in McAllen? Is he still operating out of that unremarkable shop? We might never know.
But his whatever-works precedent will hang in the air for years to come, especially now as borderland criminal enterprises embrace data-driven models, with all the attending social media terror campaigns and the specter of drone surveillance and delivery. Del Toro Estrada laid a new foundation. He forged a new paradigm, and he did so with walkie talkies. His lasting legacy lays in this backbone. That's something to talk about.