HomeNewsAnalysisThe Zetas Take to the Air
ANALYSIS

The Zetas Take to the Air

MEXICO / 9 DEC 2011 BY TIM WILSON EN

With the second seizure of a large-scale radio system belonging to Mexico’s Zetas, it’s clear that the group has established its own, independent telecommunications networks. But it’s also clear that it is a long way from perfecting them.

Judging by the recent haul of telecommunications equipment in the northeast, and another in Veracruz in September, the Zetas had the beginnings of an interesting system. In these and previous take-downs, the capabilities for a completely independent wireless communications network were in place: antennae, repeaters, power sources (including solar panels), laptop computers, and both cellular and radio handsets.

Notable in the most recent seizure were 354 Nextel radio phones -- a higher radio take than in previous busts. The seized Nextel radios work on Nextel’s Conexion Directa network, a digital two-way radio “push-to-talk” cellular service that allows for free private calling with selected users. This service is difficult to hack, yet functions much like a police or taxi dispatcher. Up to 100 users can be connected free of charge, with capabilities extending even to cross-border calling. Anything less secure would put the group in an odd situation, i.e., worried about getting hacked itself.

However, it’s also clear from the seizures that the Zetas may not have the firmest grasp of the technology just yet.

Given the transmitter equipment being seized by the Mexican military, for example, it is obvious that the Zetas cartel has also been buying commercial-grade telecommunications gear and establishing their own open-band transmission system with basic encryption -- completely independent of Nextel’s licensed spectrum.

Even with software-based security protocols bolted on to the system, it is likely that the Zetas are exposing themselves to “man-in-the-middle” eavesdropping by Mexican authorities. From a purely technological perspective, this would be difficult to do on the Nextel system, as cellular networks -- and certainly Motorola’s iDEN technology, which Nextel uses -- have rigorous security features, but it would be considerably easier in the unlicensed “white space” used for basic radio.

That said, the way around wireless encryption isn’t to hack it -- that’s just too hard -- but to know it, usually through what is called “social engineering,” which is essentially having access to human information. In the case of wireless technology, this means knowing the standard practices of technicians and thus creating the necessary safeguards to thwart break-ins.

Think of it like the encrypted Wi-Fi networks, which have solid technology but can still be hacked – if you have the right information. According to security experts contacted by InSight Crime, this is a common problem for all countries in Latin America, because usually it is the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) who are responsible for configuring the routers and access points of their users, and they often repeat practices. In other words: they manage from predefined configurations, including passwords, allowing criminals to hack routers of a given type, potentially compromising others using the same ISP.

Now apply this to cellular networks. Given that Mexican authorities might have access to Nextel’s system, or simply know how to hack it based on an understanding of industry protocol, we should expect that the Zetas’ next move will be to set up a self-encrypted, autonomous communications network, even though the technology itself might be less robust. With that, they will most likely reach their target of a fully-functioning, independent comms network, if they haven’t already.

Tim Wilson is a Canadian journalist with a special interest in Mexico and Central America. His blog can be found at La politica es la politica.

share icon icon icon

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.

DONATE

What are your thoughts? Click here to send InSight Crime your comments.

We encourage readers to copy and distribute our work for non-commercial purposes, with attribution to InSight Crime in the byline and links to the original at both the top and bottom of the article. Check the Creative Commons website for more details of how to share our work, and please send us an email if you use an article.

Tags

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.

DONATE

Related Content

GUATEMALA / 23 NOV 2012

Authorities say that seven people killed at a Guatemalan clinic were bodyguards for a local Zetas boss, suggesting…

MEXICO / 31 AUG 2012

A leaked report in Mexico affirms that the US officials attacked by Mexican Federal Police last week were CIA agents,…

MEXICO / 13 APR 2018

The US Federal Bureau of Investigation just added one of Mexico's most legendary gangsters, Rafael Caro Quintero, to its list…

About InSight Crime

THE ORGANIZATION

Unraveling the Web of Elites Connected to Organized Crime

27 JUL 2021

InSight Crime published Elites and Organized Crime in Nicaragua, a deep dive into the relationships between criminal actors and elites in that Central American nation.

THE ORGANIZATION

InSight Crime’s Greater Focus on US-Mexico Border

20 JUL 2021

InSight Crime has decided to turn many of its investigative resources towards understanding and chronicling the criminal dynamics along the US-Mexico border.

THE ORGANIZATION

Key Arrests and Police Budget Increases Due to InSight Crime Investigations

8 JUL 2021

With Memo Fantasma’s arrest, InSight Crime has proven that our investigations can and will uncover major criminal threats in the Americas.

THE ORGANIZATION

Organized Crime’s Influence on Gender-Based Violence

30 JUN 2021

InSight Crime investigator Laura N. Ávila spoke on organized crime and gender-based violence at the launch of a research project by the United Nations Development Programme.

THE ORGANIZATION

Conversation with Paraguay Judicial Operators on PCC

24 JUN 2021

InSight Crime Co-director Steven Dudley formed part of a panel attended by over 500 students, all of whom work in Paraguay's judicial system.