Are Mexican drug cartels kidnapping IT workers to build a comms network?

9 Mar 2015

Nearly 40 IT specialists have disappeared in Mexico since 2008 and many of their families believe they’ve been kidnapped by two of the country’s most dominant drug cartels, Los Zetas and the Cartel del Golfo.

A new report for Motherboard details what is known about the missing workers – dubbed Los Desaparecidos (The Missing) – and outlines the theory that organised crime syndicates are enslaving specialists to build and service their hidden communications network. 

“I’m sure the missing specialists were forced to build this infrastructure,” said Felipe González González, president of the Senate security commission from 2006 to 2012. “It was people with the same profile (that have been kidnapped).”

No group or individual has taken responsibility for the missing IT workers. No ransoms have ever been set, and it’s unknown what sort of conditions they’ve been kept in.

The gangs, which can boast an annual revenue that runs into the billions, are said to be using these comms networks to co-ordinate drug shipments, militant-style offences, and track the movements of authorities. Army forces have destroyed or confiscated thousands of pieces of equipment in the north-eastern part of Mexico, where the cartels operate.

Not everyone agrees with the theory, however. Some experts say the wealthy cartels could easily hire experts to construct the necessary infrastructure – a far safer option than kidnapping civilians who could risk their security.

“I would suggest that enslaving hacker squads would get you in major trouble as a cartel, since these innovative, smart individuals would turn the tables on you the first chance they got,” said Robert J Bunker, an adjunct research professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College.

“Would the Zetas really rely upon and force slaves to build and maintain encrypted communications infrastructure? Way too much risk involved.”

Mexican desert image via Shutterstock

Dean Van Nguyen was a contributor to Silicon Republic