On Wired Danger Room, Robert Beckhusen tells how Mexican drug cartels, notably the Zetas, kidnap skilled radio engineers and force them to build out elaborate communications networks — one comprised 167 antennas. The engineers are kidnapped and usually never seen again, and are presumed to have been murdered.
For at least six years, Mexico's cartels have relied in part on a sophisticated radio network to handle their communications. The Zetas hide radio antennas and signal relay stations deep inside remote and hard-to-reach terrain, connect them to solar panels, and then link the facilities to radio-receiving cellphones and Nextel devices. While the kingpins stay off the network — they use the internet to send messages — the radio network acts as a shadow communication system for the cartels' lower-level players and lookouts, and a tool to hijack military radios.
One network spread across northeastern Mexico and dismantled last year included 167 radio antennas alone. As recently as September, Mexican marines found a 295-foot-high transmission tower in Veracruz state. And while the founding leadership of the Zetas originated in the Mexican special forces — and who might have had the know-how to set up a radio system — relatively few of the ex-commando types are still active today.
One engineer, named Jose Antonio, was kidnapped in January 2009 while talking on the phone with his girlfriend outside a mechanics shop. He worked for ICA Fluor Daniel, a construction company jointly owned by U.S.-based Fluor Corporation and ICA, Mexico's largest construction firm. Antonio's family contacted the authorities, but were instead visited by a man claiming to be an ICA employee along with two Zetas. "They said they were going to help us, and that our contact would be ICA's security chief," said the kidnapped engineer's mother. But the group's message was implicit: Don't pursue this, or else. The cartel members were later arrested, but Antonio never returned.