Mexican drug cartels are winning the battle of technology leaving the U.S. in the dark. As critical communication techniques used to communicate information such movement, planning and operations are continuously exploited in a behind the scenes game of deception between cartels and U.S. Agencies, led by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The cartels that have traditionally relied on purchasing information and COMSEC from corrupt U.S. agents, but have now opened an up a new front based on free enterprise. They’ve become early adopters of innovation.

In the U.S. the federal government relies heavily on a bureaucratic and mandated process to adopt technology, most of it is not adaptable or timely in its arrival in the field. Yet on the other side of the border cartels are leaving the U.S. in the dust with a diffusion of cheap and dynamically continuous innovations in secured and unsecured digital communication, unmanned aerial surveillance, location spoofing, network deception and even developed a national radio network and employed Bluetooth skimming as a means of digital piracy.

Cartel field engineers nonchalantly troubleshoot installations in Nogales, Mexico. Image courtesy of Buck Clay.

Cartels have been able to accomplish these feats through of course their own well-budgeted operations and the use of their own people. Although as an illegal operation, they have also implemented a unique form of human trafficking and have kidnapped the people required to do the job. This tactic is only one of many the cartels haves adapted from other global extremist organizations, which has been successfully employed in  Iraq, Nigeria, Syria and many other nations. This does not mean any of these organizations is connected in any way and having meetings, it simply means that a successful strategy to meet their ends is common. It’s as simple of a commonality as multiple cultures developing fire if an easy fix to a complex problem works, it works and cartels as well as extremist all read the news and encounter the same issues.

Mexican drug cartels have developed their own means to communicate. Cartels have emplaced their own brick and mortar networks to overcome line of sight issues along the topographically challenging borderlands. The networks emulate the advanced standard in communications networks on low encryption cellular communication through a string of antennas, repeaters, base stations. These are often, but not always tied into authorized networks for camouflage and signals boosting. These networks are then used to communicate up-to-date information on U.S. Agency movement from spotters in the field to their own command and control centers.

Part of the network found in Nogales, Arizona. Image courtesy of Buck Clay.

U.S. confidence in the drone of unmanned aerial surveillance systems has also fallen victim to the cartels. American adaptability on the integration of technology has been continuously sidetracked by politics and pandering but is more often encumbered with a think and act globally policy which negates understanding or accountability on localized deployment. While the cartels have identified U.S. drones as a threat and have developed a successful strategy and adopted a standard local creolization. Meaning that the cartels have maximized information gathered from open-source intelligence (OSINT), to develop effective drone countermeasures. That is when the U.S. is not winning that fight for them in failed deployment plans, such as the $360 million, 8-year failure to deploy drones on the border.

Cartels regularly GPS spoof the location of the drones, by sending fake GPS data to the drone’s GPS receiver. Other methodologies employed by the cartels include deliberate hacking of the drones, direct jamming of the frequencies employed by the drones, places false heat signatures on the ground and using decoys to misrepresent actual cartel movement. The cartels have also employed their own drones for surveillance and counter-drone operations, wherein the cartels will intentionally disrupt the flight path, or will simply smash a cheaper smaller drone into a U.S. surveillance drone.

Video courtesy of CNN.

Cartel technology is low maintenance and compatible, often deployed on the Mexican side of the border where the corruption of enforcement officials ensures that the placement of their digital antenna does not tamper with.  The systems deployed by the cartels are also low in complexity, and provides a relative advantage over the U.S., in that they do not have to comply with any FCC or other signal regulations. Cartel signal operations are reliant only upon the creativity of their organization, and they most often are. The types of technology deployed in the field do not come off of an assembly line; most devices are installed in repurpose equipment or installed on regulated. This adaptability has allowed for the cartel to begin moving north of the border, specifically into U.S. neighborhoods to deploy their technology.  The placement of their tech often goes unnoticed and can happen in the middle of the day under the guise of a handyman or installer. This methodology is possible as many devices may be installed on private property or agents in the field may not know what to look for. These actions leave the U.S. again, as innovation laggards, and the cartels as leaders in digital innovation whose devices have only one requirement, to function.

Featured Image – Cartel scouts overwatch the Mariposa Port of Entry from a hillside in Nogales, Mexico. These scouts relay real-time information on U.S. Customs and Border Patrol actions. Image courtesy of Buck Clay.