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In Mexico, the military recently dismantled some sophisticated telecommunications networks. They were built and controlled by organized crime. The networks provided cartel members with cellphone and radio communications across four Mexican states. Military officials say the private channels were used by the cartels to coordinate drug shipments, monitor their rivals and orchestrate attacks. NPR's Jason Beaubien has the story from Monterrey, Mexico.
JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: The latest cartel communications network seized by the Mexican army provided coverage along almost 500 miles of the Texas border and extended nearly another 500 miles into the interior of Mexico. Soldiers seized 167 antennas, more than 150 repeaters and thousands of cell phones and radios that operated on the system. Some of the remote antennas and relay stations were powered with solar panels.
In announcing the operation, a spokesman for the Mexican army here in Monterrey, Major Margarito Mendez Guijon, said the clandestine system allowed organized criminals to communicate throughout the entire northeast of Mexico.
MARGARITO MENDEZ GUIJON: (Foreign Language Spoken).
BEAUBIEN: Major Mendez said the network had been dismantled by the army so that it no longer functions and immediately cut off the cartel's communication. Military officials did not specify which gang had built the network, but it stretched over territory that's solidly in the hands of the Zetas cartel.
In mid-November, the army shut down a smaller system run by the Zetas in Coahuila near the Texas border and, in September, the Mexican navy pulled down 12 antennas allegedly put up by the Zetas in the Gulf Coast state of Veracruz.
The Zetas were formed by members of the Mexican special forces who deserted to work as enforcers for the Gulf cartel in 1999. They later split from the Gulf cartel to set up their own criminal organization.
Scott Stewart, a former special agent with the U.S. State Department and now an analyst with the private intelligence firm Stratfor, in Austin, Texas, says given the Zetas' military background, it makes sense that they'd want to have their own radio and cell phone networks.
SCOTT STEWART: This is command control communication.
BEAUBIEN: He says the Zeta commanders would use this system to control their troops on the ground.
STEWART: This is battlefield control for when they're having skirmishes. This is control for avoiding this roadblock, that roadblock, getting on their net, telling them that you've got a patrol coming. The Mexican marines are in such and such a sector headed this way.
BEAUBIEN: Even if these various communication networks of the Zetas were encrypted, Stewart says Mexican and U.S. intelligence agents were certainly monitoring them. He says Mexican authorities must have decided that, at this stage of the drug war, crippling the Zetas' internal communication is more important than eavesdropping on those conversations.
The Zetas are the only cartel in Mexico to have their antennas publicly destroyed by the government, but Stewart says other gangs may also have their own private communication systems. He says there have also been systems like this built by rebels in Colombia.
STEWART: In other places in other countries, we've seen organizations like the FARC set up their own radio communications network with repeaters for use in the jungles and the mountains.
BEAUBIEN: Stewart says these networks are relatively simple to build and often use commercially available equipment, but the Zetas still needed technicians and engineers to design, construct and maintain their system. And it appears that they got at least some of this expertise through kidnapping.
Over the last two years, at least 13 cell phone network technicians have been abducted in northeastern Mexico. None of them have returned alive. Two radio communications specialists working for the state-run oil company, Pennex, disappeared in 2010. They were later found dead. The other 11 remain missing.
In the northeastern state of Coahuila, Blanca Martinez works with a support group for family members of the disappeared. She says, in 2009, a group of Nextel technicians who were repairing cell towers in Tamaulipas were abducted from their hotel. Martinez says it wasn't a normal kidnapping.
BLANCA MARTINEZ: (Foreign Language Spoken).
BEAUBIEN: She says, in all of the cases of telecomm workers, there hasn't been a demand for ransom. Martinez says this is quite unusual in kidnappings. Wives of several missing Nextel workers say they believe their husbands are still being forced to work for the cartels.
Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Monterrey, Mexico.