The Drug Cartels' IT Guy
The story of Felipe Peréz, a communications specialist reportedly kidnapped by a Mexican drug cartel, and forced into a shadow hacker squad that engineers the gang's hidden radio network.
The most recent photo of Felipe Pérez, an architect, taken just weeks before he disappeared in Northeastern Mexico in March 2013. He was wearing this shirt the day he vanished. Photo: Tanya Elizabeth Gonzalez Vaya. Used with permission.
It could have been any other morning. Felipe de Jesús Peréz García got dressed, said goodbye to his wife and kids, and drove off to work. It would be a two hour commute from their home in Monterrey, in Northeastern Mexico's Nuevo León state, to Reynosa, in neighboring Tamaulipas state, where Felipe, an architect, would scout possible installation sites for cell phone towers for a telecommunications company before returning that evening.
That was the last time anyone saw him.
Felipe's wife, Tanya, is haunted by his disappearance. "All this time I've spent searching for his whereabouts," she told me. Felipe was 26, with clear hazel eyes and a wide mouth, when he disappeared on March 19, 2013, just under two years ago.
It's a story, or lack thereof, that's common across Mexico. People vanish, and the vast majority of cases aren't solved for years, if they're ever closed at all. Tanya is just one of the bereaved in an expanding web of loved ones and friends left with more questions than answers, and a collective resolve to seek justice for los desaparecidos. They're waiting for the phone to ring.
Only this is, perhaps, not just another kidnapping story.
What happened to Felipe Peréz? One theory suggests he was abducted by a sophisticated organized crime syndicate, and then forced into a hacker brigade that builds and services the cartel's hidden, backcountry communications infrastructure. They're the Geek Squads to some of the biggest mafia-style organizations in the world.
That's how Tanya sees it, at least. She looks at the rash of kidnapping cases across Mexico, many of which have taken place in Tamaulipas, targeted specifically at architects, engineers, and other information technology types, and can't help but think Felipe was one of them. Nearly 40 information technology specialists have disappeared in Mexico since 2008, allegedly nabbed by one of the two dominant gangs in the region, the Cartel del Golfo or Los Zetas.
Both of these cartels make money on diverse portfolios that include drug running, oil theft, extortion, and human trafficking. But we're talking about decentralized profits on the global black market, so it's difficult to put even ballpark figures on how many people are employed by these cartels or their yearly earnings. The general consensus is in the billions of dollars annually, and direct expanded networks that each employ in the mid tens of thousands of employees. To keep the wheels turning on such vast scales, the Golfo and Zetas use their own encrypted radio networks to communicate without authorities listening in. Those networks also intercept chatter from cops, the military, and other security forces. And the cartels need experts to build them.
"It's known that these kind of people get kidnapped," Tanya said, referring to telecommunications specialists like Felipe. "It's real." She tends to think her husband's disappearance "may be related to the knowledge he has."
It's hard to say when "Radio Narco" went live. It was probably sometime in the mid to late 2000s, when the first reports of disappeared cell network workers began trickling out of Northeastern Mexico.
There was José Antonio Rebledo Fernández, an engineer who was working for a construction company jointly owned by Mexican and American firms when he disappeared in January 2009. There was an IBM engineer, Alejandro Alfonso Moreno Baca, who was kidnapped while driving from Monterrey to Laredo, Texas, in January 2011. In 2009, in perhaps the most famous mass kidnapping of specialists, nine contracted cell tower workers vanished in the border town of Nuevo Laredo. The kidnappers, whoever they are, came back later for the crew's vehicles and kit.
According to a report by Animal Politico, an independent Mexico-based investigative media company, about the so-called "slaves of narco," 36 communications specialists had gone missing in the region between 2008 and 2012. There have been no ransoms, and it's unclear what sort of conditions kidnapped specialists are kept in.
"I think they're keeping him alive because he's useful"
We don't know for sure how many hackers have been disappeared since—reliable numbers are hard to come by. Paris Martínez, the investigative journalist who authored the Animal Politico report, told me that's because the former Felipe Calderón administration hid all that information, as part of its gusto for the war on drugs. "He didn't put it out in order to minimize the issue," Martínez said, and, to make matters worse, the current administration of Enrique Peña Nieto, of the Institutional Revolution Party, "has manipulated the information we have." Which is, not much. "There is not a real and trustful source for information beyond the victims and their families."
A current high-ranking Mexican intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue, said the people who have gathered evidence and data related to narcos kidnapping communications specialists "are not allowed to reveal any information."
What we do know is that where people have disappeared, authorities have poked holes in the cartels' clandestine communications complex. According to a former Mexican military expert on narcotics who spoke on condition of anonymity, whom I'll call "G," the military has "destroyed communications centers, communications towers, and even communications repeaters, that service the narcos" in places like Tamaulipas, Coahuila, Veracruz, and San Luis Potosí.
Because the bulk of these networks are installed in places that are difficult to access—in rural, not urban zones—rooting them out is not easy. Antennas and repeaters have been found staked on hilltops and high grounds in the Northeastern part of Mexico, a coveted port-of-entry into America for the Golfo and Zetas. (G considers the Golfo the pioneers of these hidden communications networks, and said the Zetas, a band of ex-Army commandos originally hired as Golfo's assassins, applied Golfo's knowledge of integrated technology to construct a similar secret radio grid after breaking away to form their own criminal outfit.) It could take five days' walking into the bush to find this stuff, according to París Martínez; these stations are so remote, many draw energy from solar panels.
It would be a considerable undertaking to rig up elaborate radio stations in such inhospitable conditions, and across such vast expanses, if it weren't for the fact that these cartels are already out there. This is where they thrive, where they evade authorities, deep in backcountry.
So, when military patrols in those areas do manage to sniff out a cluster of radio gear, G told me, the objective is simple: dismantle everything on the spot. "Destroy them however you can depending on the type of material," he said. "You don't keep it, you don't use it in government communications. You just destroy it."
When the Mexican Army orchestrated a 2011 bust on a Zetas network in Veracruz, officials razed 167 antennas and more than 150 repeaters, and confiscated 1,450 radios, 1,300 cellphones, and 1,350 NexTel gadgets. The kit comprised a communications network that spanned nearly 500 porous miles of Texas border and penetrated another 500 miles into Mexico's brambly, mountainous interior, as NPR reported at the time. It took 70 computers to control the sprawling system, which covered three states: Nuevo León, San Luis Potosí, and Tamaulipas.
Mexican authorities confiscated 76 antennas, 81 repeaters, 655 handheld radios, 400 cell phones, 391 NexTel devices, and 19 computers in Reynosa and Tamaulipas in 2011, according to the Associated Press. And in 2012, the Mexican Army and Navy destroyed seven antennas and 20 repeaters in Sonora, an antenna and a repeater in Chihuahua, 13 antennas in Veracruz, a pair of antennas and a repeater in Tamaulipas, and 50 meters of antennas and a repeater along the Monterrey-Nuevo Laredo highway.
The Mexican Army and Navy both declined requests for comment. The Mexican government also did not respond to my queries for the total number of disappeared specialists and confiscated radio towers and antennas in Northeastern Mexico between 2012 and 2014 by the time this story went to press.
Mexican Navy officials show off confiscated Zetas radio kit to the press, Veracruz, 2011. Video: Reforma/YouTube
Why build sprawling, difficult-to-maintain hidden radio networks? The same reason cartels do anything: profits. For the cartels, better communication means more money, said Tristan Reed, a Mexican security analyst with the global intelligence firm Stratfor. Running a profitable crime syndicate is "a business of who you know," Reed told me. "And being a business of who you know means communication needs to be flawless."
"You need to be able to communicate in an environment where you're constantly having rivals trying to kill you, and law enforcement and military officials trying to arrest you," Reed explained. From high-level capos coordinating drug shipments and militant-style offenses, to small-time neighborhood bosses who need to communicate with scouts who track the movements of the police or military, Reed said crime syndicates must diversify their communications toolkit if they want to keep making money. "Cartels understand the necessity of this."
It's not just radio networks, of course. Those are "just one of many ways they're going to communicate with one another, and it can get very technical, whether it's satellite phones, cell phones, email, or social media," Reed explained. He has even heard reports of video teleconferences taking place among cartel brass. "It's all out there," he told me. "But the makeshift radio networks are definitely impressive. They serve a very critical component of the need to communicate."
And to build and service these networks, the cartels need engineers.
Felipe graduated with a degree in architecture from the Monterrey Metropolitan University, and he always enjoyed designing houses in AutoCAD, the commercially available 2D and 3D computer-aided design software application. Whenever he looked at a house he would turn to Tanya, and say, "La voy a modificar." He would make it better.
He got his start in communications infrastructure working for a construction company that surveyed possible cell tower sites for a larger telco. Felipe was laid off from that company before Grupo Construgest, S.A., an active telecommunications company, hired him. From there, he began working on architectural drawings for cell towers.
"Then, little by little, he was taking control of projects," Tanya explained. "In some of them he was a supervisor."
Felipe was at Grupo Construgest for four years before he disappeared. Tanya told me he had previously done similar work for other major mobile phone operators in Mexico, including Telcel, Unefon, and Movistar. None of these companies, including NexTel, responded to requests for comment, and Jesus Tinajero Morales, Felipe's boss at Grupo Construgest, could not be reached for comment.
Felipe was a serious person, even "self-centered," in Tanya's words. But the demands of Felipe's job meant he had to talk to lots of people, and move around the region a fair bit. "He managed the whole project," Tanya explained, from permit negotiations to the actual architectural drawings of the proposed radio sites. Before he could survey potential tower sites the day he vanished, Felipe had to seek permission from the city council to build. He also regularly had to petition and collect signatures from the locals wherever Grupo Construgest had plans to build antennas; Tanya told me a lot of residents weren't happy at the thought of looming radio towers cropping up on their land.
But Felipe was a quiet man, through and through. In Monterrey, he played el bajo sexto, a 12-stringed guitar, in a traditional norteño band. Felipe was not aggressive, Tanya said. "Not at all." Each day when he got home from work, the first thing Felipe did was spend time with his two children. Sometimes he'd take them to the park, other times he'd pull up videos for them on YouTube.
When he left that morning he had been tasked with returning to Monterrey with GPS coordinates for three potential cell tower installation sites. It was a routine assignment, though not without risk: Felipe was headed into the country, into the heart of Zetas turf, where the situation "is complicated," Tanya said.
Felipe would get the job done as quick as possible then, and be on the road back to Reynosa before dusk.
"If I don't find anything I'll leave," he told Tanya. Then he drove off.
Later, around 1 PM, Felipe phoned Tanya with an update: He'd found good land, ideal for installing towers. But, "there's no one out here," he told his wife. "I'm alone."
After the day's search, Felipe was set to make the two-and-a-half hour drive back to Monterrey. When Tanya called him around 3 or 4 PM to check in, his phone rang and then went to voicemail. When she tried again, shortly thereafter, his phone went straight to voicemail.
Tanya doesn't know anything beyond that. "They never spoke to us about a rescue," she explained, referring to what many citizens believe to be unwillingness on the part of local and national authorities to investigate kidnapping cases. She said the car is still missing.
"I would suggest that enslaving hacker squads would get you in major trouble as a cartel since these innovative, smart individuals would turn the tables on you the first chance they got"
In 2011, the Mexican Senate's security commission acknowledged the cases of disappeared IT specialists. Animal Politico reports how Felipe González González, president of the Senate security commission from 2006 to 2012, held firm during security meetings after the Army and Navy seized cartel radio gear: "I'm sure the missing specialists were forced to build this infrastructure," González said.
"It was people with the same profile," González told me, when asked about what led him to believe cartels were kidnapping specialists like Felipe. González, who left public office in 2012, said information about the conditions kidnapped hackers are kept in is classified.
Robert J. Bunker, an adjunct research professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, isn't so sure the theory that cartels are kidnapping IT talent holds up. He couldn't provide any definitive information on these incidents—not many people can—but said a cartel like the Zetas probably isn't likely to enslave, or even hire mercenary IT talent because the gang can't afford a whistleblower bringing the whole thing down.
"I would suggest that enslaving hacker squads would get you in major trouble as a cartel," Bunker told me, "since these innovative, smart individuals would turn the tables on you the first chance they got." Think Mayday or other distress signals. "Would the Zetas really rely upon and force slaves to build and maintain encrypted communications infrastructure?" he asked. "Way too much risk involved."
Besides, Bunker said, "hackers tend to be prima donnas and anti-system types who don't function well in captivity. They would fall apart mentally if brutalized by cartel enforcers."
Stratfor's Tristan Reed thinks it's feasible. "There are so many reports out there that make you wonder the odds are some have to be true, right?" he said. However he does proceed with caution on the assumptions that are drawn simply because extortion, be it through retributions for failing to make payments or kidnapping for ransom, is "rampant" in Mexico.
"There's no specific demographic now in Mexico that is not targeted for extortion or kidnapping," Reed told me. "And engineers can be just as frequently targeted."
Then again, Reed said this sort of hacking isn't beyond the scope of people with even a basic understanding of how radio works. "While these networks are very technical—they're very efficient, and can spread over very long distances, and be very complex—the technology being used is actually not that sophisticated. It's not something outside of anyone who specializes in radio communications," he explained. "Cartels have billions of dollars. They don't necessarily have to kidnap someone to carry out building the infrastructure."
With that, a twist in the theory: Why kidnap people when you could make them voluntarily join your team? As the high-ranking intelligence official put it, "You can speculate without any limitation that due to the great corruption and co-optation capabilities of organized crime they can hire the best professionals and technicians in the world."
Bunker said it would seem "'buying talent,' especially high tech talent, would be preferential to 'enslaving' it." If a cartel is thinking strategically, he explained, it could pay for college-level computer science and computer security degrees for promising recruits and/or relatives of gang personnel. Funding four or five years for a bachelor's in science, and a few more years for a master's degree, would give you a functioning engineer or computer scientist. It's yet another way for the cartel to secure talent and ensure loyalty to the gang, Bunker told me. Total initial investment? Under $250,000 for tuition, room and board, and stipend, he said, depending on the university. A small expense for gangs that bring in billions of dollars annually.
Tanya isn't convinced. Felipe was kidnapped, she said. "There's simply no other logical explanation."
G, the former counternarcotics official with the Mexican government, said some specialists are still "obligated" to work for the cartels, disappeared against their wills and forced to service Radio Narco. But, increasingly, there are also those who are lured to work voluntarily for the cartels. The gangs either pay for the recruits' advanced degrees, offer them high-salaried jobs, or both.
"There's not only kidnappings," he said. "I certainly know that a lot of criminals are sending their kids, their nephews, family, young people to be educated."
If you are kidnapped, though, G said whistleblowing would get you killed. Send a Mayday, and you're done. "It's true that the Army and other security forces can intercept the network," G said, "but the criminals are the ones who use them. If you send a help message it would be suicide."
This month, Tanya and other members of a Monterrey-based support group for families of missing people will take to the streets, demanding justice for los desaparecidos.
They call themselves Ciudadanos en Apoyo a Los Derechos Humanos, or Citizens Who Support Human Rights, and, along with a similar group from Nuevo León, will march on the local court. Tanya expects 40 or 50 people in total at the public action. One by one they will go in, and ask the public ministry about their cases.
"We ask for justice, only justice," she said. "To see their cases resolved. We want results."
Tanya's imploring the government to figure out what happened because she doesn't necessarily think the telcos should be held accountable for the disappearance of her husband or the other missing IT specialists. "The insecurity problem belongs to the government," she said. "I mean, here in Tamaulipas, anywhere, I think the government is the one who has to make us secure enough to go and work without risk."
In G's eyes, the government and the telcos share responsibility. But perhaps no entity is equipped, in the end, to stop the problem. The telcos have neither the money nor the security necessary to protect against the threat of cartels seeking technical specialists, G told me.
"They can't legally do it," he said. And "it's impossible for the government to have the means, not even the United States or any other country's security forces can offer protection to every communications engineer. The government has certain responsibilities for protecting its people, but they can't be responsible for the security of every citizen. It's impossible."
One thing is for sure: Radio Narco will stay on. G told me about how quickly the cartels would reinstall radio kit after his people made busts and destroyed the gear. It was classic Whac-A-Mole. To stop the illegal installation of radio masts and repeaters, he said, "we need to have people in these areas, where these criminals are, all the time. That's impossible."
We might never know just how many of los desaparecidos should be counted among the dead. An estimated 120,000 to 125,000 people have been killed in Mexico since 2006, according to the Trans-Border Institute, and it's anyone's guess if Felipe is one of them. For now, Tanya waits for the phone to ring, hopeful her husband is still alive despite the time that has passed.
"I think they're keeping him alive because he's useful," she said. "They're all useful people."
With additional reporting by Rafael Castillo, Bernardo Loyola, and Camilo Salas.