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Mexican Cartels Are Going High-Tech

The war on drugs isn't just fought with bullets. Recent announcements from Mexican authorities show that cartels are developing increasingly advanced networks of information technology.

by José Luis Martínez Limón
Sep 8 2015, 4:00am

Illustration by Ole Tillmann

This article appears in the September Issue of VICE

The war on drugs isn't just fought with bullets. Recent announcements from Mexican authorities show that cartels are developing increasingly advanced networks of information technology.

More than 40 IT professionals have gone missing in recent years, and security experts' main theory is that cartels are kidnapping them in the interest of building secret communication and surveillance infrastructures.

The criminal organizations almost never contact the family members or ask for a ransom—as is common in other abductions—which makes finding the missing even harder. One of the latest cases, the kidnapping of Felipe de Jesús Pérez García, led the government to offer 1 million pesos (about $62,000) for information leading to his whereabouts, reportedly the first official reward for a missing or kidnapped person in the country.

More recently, authorities dismantled a network of 39 video cameras that were installed by the drug cartels in strategic locations around Reynosa, a city known as a hotspot of contraband along the drug-trafficking route to the US. These cameras, hooked into power and telephone lines, were used to spy on authorities and civilians in 52 "high-impact" zones of the city.

And even though Mexican authorities are starting to address this issue, the corruption tentacles of the Mexican drug mafias seem to have a firm handle on it: According to reports, authorities confiscated 306 radio antennas and 225 radio repeaters from cartels between 2008 and 2014, but not a single government entity—the police, the military, or the Attorney General's office—seems to know where this equipment is now stored.

"Their networks are really cheap and primitive," said Alejandro Hope, an independent security analyst. "What this really shows is the complicity between the cartels and the local authorities, who allow them to set up these communication and surveillance networks."

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