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Evolved Capabilities in Mexican Drug Trafficking: A 21st Century Profile of Transnational Organized Crime
Charles E. Pickard
The combined illicit revenue collected by the seven major Drug Trafficking Organizations (DTOs) based in Mexico is staggering. By most estimates, it could be as much as $30 billion per year, a figure which exceeds the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of nations like Iceland, El Salvador, and Uganda. With such ample financing at their disposal, the Mexican DTOs can devote substantial funding to ensuring the success of their trafficking operations. The key mechanisms utilized to achieve this goal can be grouped into the categories of concealed transportation, violence, and bribery. Through methods of concealed transport via land, sea, and air routes, traffickers are often successful in bypassing the scrutiny of law enforcement on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. Violence is used extensively by the DTOs (albeit primarily in Mexico) to protect their operations against the encroachment of rival organizations, from the interference of government authorities, and from media scrutiny. Bribery is also used extensively to pay off corrupt government officials in both Mexico and the United States, establishing a clientelistic relationship that defines the Mexican DTOs as organized criminal groups and not terrorist organizations, despite their occasional characterization to the contrary. In carrying out their operations, the Mexican DTOs have evolved in three key areas: communications, the use of explosives, and aerial capabilities. The following paragraphs will briefly highlight aspects of the evolution of these advancements in order to demonstrate that nations like the United States and Mexico face significant challenges and considerable threat from transnational criminal organizations like Mexican DTOs because they are well-funded, dynamic, and quick to leverage prevailing technological advancements.
Communications play a key role in the operations of Mexican DTOs, whether they are smuggling loads of narcotics or coordinating violent attacks against rival groups, Mexican federal authorities, or journalists who dare to cover them. Gone are the days in which DTOs in Mexico relied solely on simple VHF radios for operational communications. Starting in 2004, Los Zetas, American-trained Mexican military commandos (then the enforcement arm for the Gulf Cartel DTO and later a DTO in their own right), began employing the skillset of a Texas radio store owner to build advanced communications infrastructure in Matamoros, Mexico, allowing the Gulf Cartel to monitor rivals, Mexican authorities, and the U.S. Border Patrol. In 2006, Los Zetas began expanding their radio infrastructure along the Texas-Mexico border, then south to Guatemala, before spreading into the Mexican interior to cover the whole of the organization’s territory. In line with their military roots, their communications network featured resilient networks of camouflaged, tower-based repeaters that could run on solar power, regional command and control centers, and software-controlled radio systems with encryption features. Between 2008 and 2012, as Los Zetas expanded their network and worked to replace radio infrastructure that had been taken offline by Mexican authorities, dozens of communications engineers and specialists began to disappear, suspected to have been kidnapped and enslaved to maintain and improve Los Zetas’ communications network. It can also be surmised that since DTO smuggling routes have long penetrated deep into American territory (smugglers on foot have been apprehended nearly eighty miles north of the international border in Arizona), it is also likely that the DTOs have advanced communications capabilities and infrastructure established inside the United States. This is supported by the fact that teams of DTO scouts have been discovered in camouflaged military-like observation posts on top of Arizona mountain peaks, equipped with radios and cell phones that can be charged with solar power and used to guide smugglers away from approaching law enforcement in the valleys below. There is little doubt that as communications technologies continue to improve and incorporate ever-increasing privacy features – for example, internet-based chat program applications that utilize end-to-end encryption, like WhatsApp, Telegram, and Signal, are already being used by illicit actors to effectively communicate beyond the reach of major government security services – Mexican DTOs will continue to utilize cutting-edge communications technologies in networks that will be difficult for law enforcement to exploit on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.
The 2011 White House Strategy to Combat Transnational Organized Crime states that the Mexican DTOs “are escalating their violence to consolidate their market share within the Western Hemisphere, protect their operations in Mexico, and expand their reach into the United States.” While most DTO-related violence in Mexico thus far has involved firearms, explosives have also played a notable role in the arsenal of DTOs, particularly in their efforts to match firepower against Mexican military forces that were deployed against them in the years following the election of President Felipe Calderón. For example, in 2009, a previously secret U.S. government cable from the U.S. Consulate in Monterrey (now open source via WikiLeaks) notes an escalation in the Mexican DTO use of U.S. and Korean-made military hand grenades against civilians, military, law enforcement, media, and the U.S. Consulate in Monterrey. Beginning in 2008, DTOs also began using explosives to greater effect in vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs). While their first use of VBIEDs has been attributed to three incidents in the 1990s (each of them are thought to have been part of a campaign directed against the Sinaloa Cartel by their rivals in the Tijuana Cartel), a 2013 study identifying twenty-one VBIED deployments by DTOs in Mexico between 2008 and 2012 demonstrates that their recent use has been both more extensive and broadened against non-DTO targets. Notable amongst these was a July 15, 2010 La Línea (enforcement arm of the Juarez DTO) VBIED, which successfully targeted first responders in the heart of Juarez, only a few miles from El Paso, Texas. The device, which utilized a main charge composed of 22 pounds of Tovex (a water-gel explosive common in mining and industry in Mexico), was notably initiated via a cell-phone, and was intended to draw U.S. attention to alleged collusion between the Mexican government and La Línea’s rivals in the Sinaloa Cartel. The format of the attack and initiating system used in the bomb indicated that Mexican DTOs had graduated to a much more advanced level of bomb building and deployment – akin to insurgent devices used in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Colombia – leading to suspicions that insurgent advisors from Colombia may have been utilized to advance La Línea’s IED capabilities. The attack was also a clear indication that the enforcement arm of a DTO was prepared to use terrorist-style tactics to try to address grievances at an international political level. Both of these indications fall in line with what Hilary Matfess and Michael Miklaucic discuss as the growing convergence of illicit networks across international borders, represented both in the potential interactivity that took place between groups and in the hybridization of Mexican DTO tactics and intentions. The discovery of a Redeye shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missile in DTO custody on April 16, 2016, in Nuevo Casas Grandes, Chihuahua, provides additional evidence that the DTOs will continue to innovate ways to leverage weapons involving explosives to their advantage.
In the realm of concealed transport, Mexican DTOs have proven skilled in many formats. The number of smugglers caught annually in the vicinity of the U.S.-Mexico border is indicative that pedestrian and vehicle-borne methods remain effective. The discovery of 224 cross-border tunnels between 1990 and 2016 demonstrates that subterranean options remain popular.
Maritime-based incursions also continue to be utilized. Commercial trucking represents the most utilized and effective mode of DTO smuggling, as the large volume of daily cross-border truck traffic makes careful scrutiny of every vehicle virtually impossible, even with more recent advancements in X-ray screening. Aerial methods also represent a DTO smuggling mode that the U.S. government has historically found difficult and costly to counter. Beginning in 1978, the U.S. Air Force initiated the Tethered Aerostat Radar System (TARS) program to identify illicit incursions from light aircraft flying at low altitudes across the southern border. Smugglers working for the Mexican DTOs responded by pivoting to the use of ultralight aircraft. While increased U.S. Customs aircraft patrols in the 1990s appear to have been effective in suppressing some ultralight incursions into U.S. airspace, U.S. Customs & Border Protection officials believe ultralights regained popularity in the late 2000s. As the number of detected ultralight incursions doubled between fiscal years 2009 and 2011, the U.S. government allocated $100 million for enhanced ultralight detection capabilities. Still, 534 suspected ultralight incursions were detected in the subsequent five year period, with no data available on how many may ultralights may go undetected.
More recently, advancements in unmanned aerial systems (UAS), or ‘drones’ have not gone unnoticed by DTO smugglers. UAS are teeming with potential to provide illicit organizations with aerial surveillance, transportation, and offensive weapons capabilities. As UAS have gained popularity in the licit consumer market in the last few years, resulting decreases in cost and improvements in their ease of use has made them increasingly accessible to illicit organizations. Mexican DTOs began utilizing UAS delivery systems as early as 2010, and are likely to increase their use in various roles as rapid advancements in UAS technology make them increasingly capable (longer battery life, increased range and payload capabilities) and more affordable. For example, in one four-day period, in November, 2017, U.S. Border Patrol (USBP) agents spotted – at their own admission, by chance – thirteen UAS suspected to be carrying drugs over a small stretch of the international border south of San Diego. As of January 2018, USBP agents lacked a UAS response protocol, much less methods and equipment to detect and interdict them. In addition to transporting illicit cargo, UAS will undoubtedly allow Mexican DTO’s to conduct reconnaissance and counter-surveillance, allowing the adjustment of smuggling routes or operational tactics and timings in real-time.
UAS also provide Mexican DTOs the capability to deploy offensive weapons like firearms and improvised explosive devices. Hobbyists began proving as early as 2012, that firearms can be effectively mounted and accurately fired from consumer-grade UAS platforms. More recently, in October 2017, four men associated to a Mexican DTO were arrested by Mexican Federal Police in Valtierrilla, Guanajunto, with a consumer-grade quad-copter UAS that had been rigged with an IED capable of being initiated by remote control (RCIED). The complete weapon was estimated to have cost less than $300, including IED construction costs. In recent years, Islamic State (IS) terrorists have demonstrated considerable proficiency in using UAS to deploy air-dropped IEDs on military targets in Iraq and Syria. While the aforementioned UAS-based RCIED discovered in Mexico appears to be much more crude in design than some which have been deployed recently by IS in Iraq and Syria, the Mexican DTOs’ ample funding and propensity to rapidly acquire technological expertise (e.g. in communications technology) means that UAS outfitted with deadlier and more precise IEDs could be in the arsenal of Mexican DTOs in the near future, if they are not there already.
The previous paragraphs only scratch the surface of the operational capabilities of the seven major DTOs based in Mexico. Yet the brief examples provided here are instructive in the evolution and adaptability of three key elements that have been central to Mexican DTO operations. Communications clearly play a vital role in DTO operations and have evolved in the last three decades from simple VHF radios, to cellular smart phones, and digital, encrypted, software-controlled radios that are operated on networks of DTO-established radio infrastructure. DTO use of explosives has also evolved from greater use of military grenades, to advanced VBIED capabilities that blur the lines between transnational organized crime and terrorism. Finally, DTO use of aerial smuggling platforms have pivoted in response to U.S. government countermeasures, evolving from the use of light aircraft, to ultralight aircraft, and now include UAS, which hold tremendous potential for smuggling illicit goods in virtually any context and environment, especially as the capabilities of UAS platforms continually increase while their costs simultaneously fall. Aside from transportation of illicit goods, UAS require no special modifications to serve as ideal surveillance platforms to allow DTO smugglers to guide smuggling operations and avoid law enforcement.
Perhaps the most striking of all the Mexican DTO elements discussed here is the weaponization of UAS with IEDs. While the UAS-borne IED recovered from DTO suspects in Valtierrilla in October 2017 was relatively crude, IS terrorists in Iraq and Syria have demonstrated that considerable sophistication and targeting accuracy in IEDs dropped from UAS are not difficult to attain. Mexican DTOs will soon achieve equivalent capabilities if they have not done so already. This capability to accurately deploy IEDs from altitudes where UAS are unlikely to be detected or interdicted by exposed targets on the ground represents a revolutionary leap forward in the execution of offensive operations; one that could be used with devastating effect by Mexican DTOs – or any other actor or organization – to target rivals, military, law enforcement, media, government officials, or civilians who are targeted for assassination. Together, these examples of advancements in communications, explosives, and aerial/UAS capabilities provide clear evidence that transnational criminal organizations like the Mexican DTOs represent a formidable and ongoing threat to the national security of nations like Mexico and the United States.
The author wishes to acknowledge Michael L. Burgoyne for his encouragement and assistance in editing and preparing this paper.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the City of Tucson, the Tucson Police Department, or the State of Arizona.
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 William Booth, “Ciudad Juarez car bomb shows new sophistication in Mexican drug cartels' tactics,” The Washington Post, July 22, 2010, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/07/21/
 Hilary Matfess and Michael Miklaucic, “Introduction: World Order or Disorder?” in Beyond Convergence: World Without Order (Washington, D.C.: National Defense University, Center for Complex Operations, 2016), ix-x.
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