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More Details On Drug Cartel's Clandestine Communications Network 84

Posted by timothy
from the odd-shaped-fruits-of-the-drug-war dept.
K7DAN writes "The AP reports that Mexico's drug cartels have built their own sophisticated two-way radio communications system using computer-controlled linked and local repeaters on mountain tops, walkie-talkies, mobile transceivers and and base stations. The solar powered system covers vast areas of Mexico that are unserved by cellular phone network and has the advantage of being more difficult to trace." This article adds much more substance about the technology than was included in the report several weeks ago of the seizure of thousands of this network's components; from the description in this article, the earlier headline overstated the case by saying that the network had therefore been "shut down."
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More Details On Drug Cartel's Clandestine Communications Network

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  • by SJHillman (1966756) on Tuesday December 27, 2011 @11:13AM (#38502876)

    Can you hear me now? Good.

  • by Muckluck (759718) on Tuesday December 27, 2011 @11:14AM (#38502892)
    People get creative. In this case, the sale of the drugs provides the incentive and the network throughout a non-cellular covered area is the resulting creativity. WE (the technically oriented community) should be doing this as well with 802.11 networks. I imagine a day where everywhere you go, you can stay connected for general (non-secure) data transfer / searches, etc.
    • by betterunixthanunix (980855) on Tuesday December 27, 2011 @11:25AM (#38502996)

      WE (the technically oriented community) should be doing this as well with 802.11 networks

      THEY (the FCC) have rules that make such a thing difficult outside of densely populated areas. Point-to-point wifi links across long distances are doable under the FCC's rules, but low-gain antennas (read: not-highly-directional) can only legally be used to transmit at low power. Even point-to-point links can be difficult if the conditions are bad: vegetation, rain, etc.

      If you have an amateur radio license, you can transmit at higher power levels...but then you are subject to Part 97 rules, which forbid conducting (most) business over amateur radio systems. This effectively means that you could not log on to Amazon; even if that were allowed, you would not want to do it, because the rules also forbid encrypting most communications. Part 97 also prevents you from communicating with people who are not licensed, which would make any such network useless to most people. If it were not for such rules, amateur radio operators would have enabled national wireless Internet service long ago.

      • WE (the technically oriented community) should be doing this as well with 802.11 networks

        THEY (the FCC) have rules that make such a thing difficult outside of densely populated areas. Point-to-point wifi links across long distances are doable under the FCC's rules, but low-gain antennas (read: not-highly-directional) can only legally be used to transmit at low power. Even point-to-point links can be difficult if the conditions are bad: vegetation, rain, etc. If you have an amateur radio license, you can transmit at higher power levels...but then you are subject to Part 97 rules, which forbid conducting (most) business over amateur radio systems. This effectively means that you could not log on to Amazon; even if that were allowed, you would not want to do it, because the rules also forbid encrypting most communications. Part 97 also prevents you from communicating with people who are not licensed, which would make any such network useless to most people. If it were not for such rules, amateur radio operators would have enabled national wireless Internet service long ago.

        Actually, the biggest limit is the FCC 1 watt barrier for unlicensed broadcasting at just about any frequency. Can't get too far on 1 watt unless you have an Amateur Radio license and/or a very large antenna.

        • by wganz (113345)

          The entry level Technician class ham radio operator license is stupid easy to get now days which gives you 2M and 144cm. Goto www.QRZ.com/ht/ and use their free online practice tests from the bank of FCC questions and you should be able to pass the test in 3 weeks of practice. The test is $15 for a 10 year license. I have talked to Boulder, Birmingham, and Houston from the Dallas area using a simple Yagi antenna on a 10' PVC pipe with 55 watts on 2M.

      • by div_2n (525075)

        Actually, you can legally have up to 1 watt (30 dBm) output into an antenna such that the gain doesn't cause your EIRP to exceed 4 watts (36 dBm). If you're output is lower, your gain on your antenna can be higher (i.e. high powered directional).

        Now, if you want to operate illegally and say pump 1 watt into a 26 dBm gain directional antenna, you certainly can and will only face an issue if and only if the FCC is called to investigate strange interference issues or if you get real stupid and do something tha

    • by spacepimp (664856)
      Why not use the recently opened white space spectrum which has roughly 3 mile range vs the limited range of WiFi? Lower throughput currently, but that can be remedied.
      • by Type44Q (1233630)

        recently opened white space spectrum which has roughly 3 mile range

        Range is a function of a lot more than mere wavelength, if I'm not mistaken (things like transmitting power, antenna height/placement and topography come to mind...).

      • by sgt scrub (869860)

        Because it is earmarked to be sold to someone who will gouge you for the privilege of using it.

        • by spacepimp (664856)
          I thought the fact that it was open meant anyone could use it without licensing. Similar to how and why we can use wifi? I would expect the broadcast strength to be limited howevet ad a result.
  • Not terribly hard (Score:5, Interesting)

    by betterunixthanunix (980855) on Tuesday December 27, 2011 @11:16AM (#38502910)
    I have seen various elements of this system assembled by amateur radio operators; the equipment is not terribly hard to find. Getting all the components together does take a level of organization...which the cartels would have to have, considering the business they are in.

    What is really impressive is how long they were able to keep a system of that size secret for so long.
  • by PPH (736903) on Tuesday December 27, 2011 @11:18AM (#38502934)
    We don't need no stinkin' 4G!
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday December 27, 2011 @11:26AM (#38503014)

    If the mexican authorities really wanted to shut down this network, they simply would have to do a bit of flying in those areas with a SIGINT plane and map out all the transceivers. Then send the GPS coordinates to helicopter teams who will destroy the gear. All the talk about "concealment" is basically rubbish, as these atennas are not concealed at all if you have a directional receiver and a cheap spectrum analyzer in your hands.
    I assume this one of these publicity stunts where the authorities "demonstrate how they crack down", when 99% of the illegal business continues without any disruption.
    The very fact that these drug cartel even perform "show of force", hang mayors and policemen dead from bridges, set up their own checkpoints and so on demonstrates that the drug lords have already taken over a large portion of the mexican state.

    • by betterunixthanunix (980855) on Tuesday December 27, 2011 @11:46AM (#38503232)

      they simply would have to do a bit of flying in those areas with a SIGINT plane and map out all the transceivers

      This may not be as simple as you think. If I were a cartel, I would use directional antennas wherever possible and try to minimize propagation in unwanted directions (like upward where a helicopter might receive it). Something like this, perhaps:

      http://www.wlanparts.com/product/MT263004NH/900MHZ-SECTOR-ANTENNA-H-POL-125DBI-120-DEG.html [wlanparts.com]

      Take a look at the vertical beamwidth; that is going to be a pretty weak signal from the air, unless you are lucky enough to find a side lobe of some kind (and even then, your helicopter would have to be moving pretty slowly). Now, I do not know what sort of frequencies the cartels were using or what their specific needs were (maybe they needed something with less of an LOS requirement than 900MHz), so I could be wrong about using directional antennas. It may also be the case that the repeaters do not continuously transmit and that the cartels keep their communications to an absolute minimum, and so hunting for the repeaters from the air may be a difficult thing to do.

      • Plus, there is an assumption that these networks are up 24/7. If the are used on an as needed basis, flying a SIGINT plane may not turn up very much...
        • If you giving credence to the American version, the computers attached to the re-trans could easily only allow transmission of signals after an authenticated handshake, that would make them much less likely to be caught transmitting and by using spread spectrum techniques much less noticeable when they are transmitting.

      • by multimediavt (965608) on Tuesday December 27, 2011 @01:52PM (#38504694)

        they simply would have to do a bit of flying in those areas with a SIGINT plane and map out all the transceivers

        This may not be as simple as you think. If I were a cartel, I would use directional antennas wherever possible and try to minimize propagation in unwanted directions (like upward where a helicopter might receive it). Something like this, perhaps: http://www.wlanparts.com/product/MT263004NH/900MHZ-SECTOR-ANTENNA-H-POL-125DBI-120-DEG.html [wlanparts.com] Take a look at the vertical beamwidth; that is going to be a pretty weak signal from the air, unless you are lucky enough to find a side lobe of some kind (and even then, your helicopter would have to be moving pretty slowly). Now, I do not know what sort of frequencies the cartels were using or what their specific needs were (maybe they needed something with less of an LOS requirement than 900MHz), so I could be wrong about using directional antennas. It may also be the case that the repeaters do not continuously transmit and that the cartels keep their communications to an absolute minimum, and so hunting for the repeaters from the air may be a difficult thing to do.

        Actually, the old WWII huff-duff [wikipedia.org] method would be cheapest and a lot more clandestine way of finding the transceivers. They could easily recruit ordinary citizens (like the British did) to sit at home and report directional and signal strength data from various locations to triangulate the locations of said transceivers. Given that most of these transceivers would be fixed rather than mobile, it would not take long to find and eliminate them.

        • by cusco (717999)
          Easily? I don't think you realize how frightened people are of these dirtbags. There are areas where people won't even admit that their son is in the military, you're certainly not going to find volunteers. In many areas these are the main (or only) employers as well, and in Chiapas (different group) anyone collaborating with the central government is in for serious trouble as well.
        • by TheCarp (96830)

          > Given that most of these transceivers would be fixed rather than mobile, it would not take long to find and eliminate them.

          Ahem... and....

          given that it would not take long to find and eliminate them.... it also wouldn't take long before most of these are mobile... just as drones can be used to find them, these transmitters can be affixed onto drones... or some kids can be paid to drive cars around in shifts.

          This is a silly arms race, and the logical extension of the drug war. It just continues like thi

      • by LWATCDR (28044)

        SIGINT aircraft are very good at picking out that sort of thing. Even using a directional will not help a lot.
        1. The repeaters need an omni to pick up the handhelds. Frankly a directional pointing right at your gathering points would make them easier to find.
        2. the farther you are from the transmitter the farther the bottom of the lobe will be from the horizon. Not to mention that the lobe it's self would spreads in the vertical. So even if they use a directional they will still be detected.
        Something like t

    • by rhsanborn (773855)
      I think they'd be better served not destroying these networks, but monitoring them. It wouldn't be that hard to put some transceivers out there on the authorities side and do some rudimentary triangulation, and listen in to their conversations. They could even go a step further and start sending bad information. Even if encrypted, these systems have a weak point in that there have to be a lot of devices to run such an operation. So finding someone with a key(s) shouldn't be too extraordinarily difficult.
      • by mjwalshe (1680392)
        Yes you would have thought that inserting you own messages in to the system would be a good tactic or deliberately give the impression that the Cartels dickers (the spotters) had sold them out.
    • by ClintJCL (264898)
      Seeing as it's easier, cheaper, and uses less energy & resources to buy a transceiver and set it on a mountaintop than to fly a sigint plane and follow-up helicopter: Congratulations. You've found a way to futily waste taxpayer money. It certainly is going to cost more to rid that stuff than to deploy it. I've got an idea: Maybe they should declare a war on drugs!
  • by vlm (69642) on Tuesday December 27, 2011 @11:30AM (#38503060)

    Anyone have actual news about this? The linked article was fluffy-lite. I'm curious if they were using a trunking system, if so, which one, or just classical repeater and remote RX site design. Seems odd they wouldn't mention brand names in the story. Motorola trunking? LTR? Maybe the cartel is the first really successful OpenSky trunking deployment? I've often thought the only way to get OpenSky to Really work successfully would involve pointing automatic rifles at the vendors heads, or perhaps reviving the roman era decimation procedure in full detail, both areas of expertise for the cartels. Maybe no trunking and just a bunch of old linked repeaters?

    It sounds from the fluffy article like all commercial gear, like you could buy off ebay for your tow truck company, not .mil FHSS and satellite stuff.

    If you want to listen to technology like this without becoming an amateur pharmaceuticals supplier you can buy a modern trunking scanner. Or if you want to work on similar gear as an operator, again, without becoming an amateur pharmaceuticals supplier, you can get your ham radio license.

    I'm curious if it was a business hit vs the cartels own stuff. Right now in the USA you can talk to your local trunking radio provider and purchase more or less identical service for your small business. Its possible the only small business purchasing from some trunking provider in .mx was the cartel. Theoretically they've got common carrier protection, but I could see them getting siezed if their main/only customer was criminal. That would suck to go out of business because your main customer was crooks, but I guess thats life in .mx

  • by davetv (897037)
    I am not even going to read the article. It is silly. Want to set up, let say a "clandestine" encrypted network .... easy .... use your iphone thingy and get the "clandestine mexican drug cartel encrypted network app".
    • by davetv (897037)
      What did Alexander Graham bell invent after the telephone ...... the other telephone .......
  • by happyfeet2000 (1208074) on Tuesday December 27, 2011 @12:29PM (#38503702)
    If you go to the popular (well, poor) neighborhoods in northern Mexico you'll find thousands of young people, joining the cartels. The young people that don't, are idolizing the narcoculture: headache inducing narcocorrido music, big pickup trucks, cowboy attire, violent and arrogant behavior, etc. This has stopped being some clandestine business run by old families specializing in recreational agriculture export activities and has become an attempted takeover of society by the organized crime, at a level that makes Al Capone look like a beginner. In the controlled states most business and middle class independent professionals have to pay protection money to these guys or else. Bank employees provide all the required information. What about the police, army, government? Everybody knows they are in the payroll. It's more like Mexico during the later phase of 1910's revolution where all the young people joined one General or the other to survive while plundering, killing, raping, etc. Today the situation in the affected areas is controlled by terror. Psychological studies of the people doing terrorist activities have shown they're mostly "normal" people adapting to a new economic environment. In other words, young people are being recruited by the organized crime because the current economy is not providing quality jobs. I'll spare you the usual rant about the US-supported neoliberals elites blocking popular movements, but the fact is those elites want to go back to a semifeudal society controlled by the Church and Old Money, and are stopping any development that could empower the general citizens. If you've tried to do business in Mexico you realized how everything seems to be prohibited, or excessively controlled. What happens when you cannot honestly make a living? You do it unhonestly. And the elites have been doing a good job stunting critical education and lowering the level of popular culture through the TV chains like Televisa, so instead of becoming aware of who the real enemy is, young people unleash their frustration against their own.
    • by rrohbeck (944847)

      Since Mexican society is deteriorating (depleted oil resources, no will to fix the political system), people do what they have to do to survive and feed their kids.
      It's been stated by a number of people that the narco gangs are the best-organized groups to take over when the system starts to fail. Police is no longer much of a factor and the military is the last bastion. For how long?

    • by Abreu (173023)

      Sad but true.

    • What happens when you cannot honestly make a living? You do it unhonestly.

      FFS... WTF do they teach you fscking yanks these days... the opposite (antonym) of honestly is DISHONESTLY...

    • by garaged (579941)

      It stoped being "clanestine" some 30 years ago, in México AND in USA

    • by lanner (107308)

      Why is this not modded up to 5 yet? Someone please help this out.

  • "They're doing what any sensible military unit would do," said Robert Killebrew, a retired U.S. Army colonel who has studied the Mexican drug cartels for the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank. "They're branching out into as many forms of communications as possible."

  • the US govt does nothing. Honestly a few drones targeting these and blowing them up will do a lot to disrupt the cartels comms. I am certain the Mexico Govt will happily let us do that.

    Makes me wonder if the "war on drugs" is actually an excuse just to jail random poor people if the cops dont like them.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      the US govt does nothing. Honestly a few drones targeting these and blowing them up will do a lot to disrupt the cartels comms. I am certain the Mexico Govt will happily let us do that.

      Makes me wonder if the "war on drugs" is actually an excuse just to jail random poor people if the cops dont like them.

      You guessed right. Here is who profits from having well-heeled and violent cartels on our border:

      1: Private prisons. You realize how many people are locked up in detention centers? That is a lot of moola going to the private corrections companies... who turn right around and "suggest" judges should have better conviction ratios, or else they will be replaced by those who do come next election. There is a whole industry around locking people up, and everyone profits except the arrestee. 1/3 of people u

      • by Nexus7 (2919)

        Indeed. The drug cartels continue to exist because of parties who benefit from having them around. Not the least the compromised parts of Mexico's government, in addition to interests on the US side.

      • by cusco (717999)
        You forgot the bankers. They make over (probably well over) $150 billion a year on "private banking" (aka money laundering) every year. It's so profitable that Clinton's treasury secretary went to work for CitiCorp's private banking branch and engineered the takeover of Banamex, known as "the drug smuggler's bank of choice", with its very valuable customer list.
    • That is assuming that you could locate their repeater stations, which may not be as simple as you think. They could be using directional antennas, or at least antennas with a small vertical beamwidth that would make locating the stations from the air difficult. I am sure that US signals intelligence agencies could find the stations regardless of their configuration, but surely those intelligence resources can be put to better use than tracking down drug cartels (regardless of how violent they may be). Th
    • by rrohbeck (944847)

      I have a feeling the Mexican government has a problem admitting that its own troops can't handle the situation.
      And what makes you think that what didn't work in Afghanistan will work in Mexico? You can't stem large scale societal deterioration with military force.

      • by cusco (717999)
        You can't stem large scale societal deterioration with military force.

        No, but you sure can cause it, which seems to have been the entire purpose of the Iraq exercise.
      • by Lumpy (12016)

        You dont do it like Afganastan.

        Locate a Cartel headquarter or farm. carpet bomb 1 square mile around it. I'm talking sending in 5, B-52's with a full load of 1000 pound bombs, turn that location into the surface of the moon.

        Find another cartel location, repeat. dont ask for the countries permission. Central america and south america. Kill everyone and everything for 4 square miles centered on the farm or cartel location.

        Honestly, the pussy footing we did in Iraq and Afganastan is ineffective.

        • A far cheaper solution would be to turn half of Kansas into poppy farms and half of Florida into Coca farms. Subsidize them like corn and sell the FDA-grade drugs in supermarkets and vending machines at subsidized prices. I guarantee that the illegal drug trade in the U.S. will be gone with 5 years, and the international rings will switch to completely legal flights out of the U.S. into staging countries. Fire the goddamn ATF and balance the budget with the taxes on drugs.

          But no, carpet bombing with B5
          • by Lumpy (12016)

            Because that is easier to sell to the Republicans than legalizing. The republicans cant understand that Legalization will solve a Lot of these problems AND create a huge tax revenue stream as you have to tax it.

            They can only see that "drugs are evil" we must kill to protect ourselves from the drugs.

            Therefore, the logical answer is to blow the hell out of everything. Nuking is bad as it's too close to the United states and will will suffer fallout. Unless we use Neutron bombs that just kill everyone in

  • the advantage of being more difficult to trace.

    What? Haven't these people heard of doppler radio direction finding?

    Sure there is no caller ID, but this is radio not telephone.

  • Those idiots!
    They should never have shut that down. Sure, it might have been used to support drug cartels etc. and so on, but it is one of the most advanced communications systems available.
    Go find a cellular provider that runs their entire infrastructure on solar power, and who has their network de-centralized (meshed) such that it's difficult to take down.
    There is no mistaking it, the drug cartels have developed a superior communications system, and it was just shut down. I'm going to build my own v
  • And another will just pop up to replace it. The people in the black market have a very profitable job and they have plenty of tax free money to burn to get it done. While i agree we shouldn't let it just stay open, we need to look at the larger scope of the problem. I'm pretty sure we aren't winning the drug war. I for one do not like my tax dollars being used to lock up drug dealers with no violent crime.
  • The article says "There, the 8-foot-tall (2-meter-tall) dark-green branches of the rockrose bush conceal a radio tower painted to match."

    So how come AT&T, Sprint, Verizon, etc. can't hide THEIR damn equipment.

    Let's get some Mexican telecom engineers. Apparently they can get the job done....

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