Mexico’s notorious drug cartels possess a secret communications weapon to complement their arsenal of assault rifles and machine guns: the messaging service WhatsApp.
United States Attorney General William Barr said in July last year that criminal organizations are making use of applications such as WhatsApp and Telegram to coordinate their criminal activities because their encryption makes it extremely difficult if not impossible for authorities to monitor the communication.
Now, federal security officials have told the newspaper Milenio that drug traffickers in Mexico use WhatsApp as their main means of communication. The unnamed security cabinet officials said they’ve discovered that criminals prefer to make calls via the app because they know that authorities can’t listen in on their conversations.
Judges can authorize the tapping of suspects’ phones – authorities’ primary espionage technique for years – but by using WhatsApp, cartel members and other criminals can avoid eavesdropping by Mexico’s intelligence agencies, Milenio said.
One example of a drug cartel’s use of the Facebook-owned messaging service was during a federal security operation last October aimed at arresting a son of convicted drug trafficker and former Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.
According to Milenio, the Sinaloa Cartel used WhatsApp to organize its aggressive response to the capture of Ovidio Guzmán López, who was subsequently released to avoid even more bloodshed on the streets of Culiacán.
Messages leaked by recipients show that the cartel offered people 200 pesos (US $10) to join the operation to free the suspected trafficker, while WhatsApp was also used to order gunmen to stop their attacks once Guzmán López had been released.
The inability of authorities to intercept the cartel’s communication in real time due to its encryption gave the criminal organization a tactical advantage, Milenio noted.
Four months prior, the U.S. attorney general said at an international cyber-security conference that an unnamed Mexican drug cartel had used WhatsApp to coordinate the logistics of drug shipments and plan the murders of several police officers.
Barr said that if authorities had been able to legally access the cartel’s communication on the app, the lives of the police could have been saved.
If law enforcement authorities don’t have the capacity to obtain legal access to encrypted communication, the chances of waging a successful war on drugs is reduced, he said.
A study last year revealed that 77 million Mexicans use WhatsApp. Most are aged between 21 and 30.
Source: Milenio (sp)