For today’s Mexican cartel Facebook and an IP address is as invaluable as machine guns and armour-piercing bullets, says Brad Barker, president and founder of US intelligence contractor, HALO corporation.
In Barker’s view, ‘cyberspace’ is the new battleground and social media is the weapon of choice, of course backed by actual weapons, killers, and transport for shifting drugs and humans.
The problem for US law enforcement is that Mexican drug cartels have been quicker than them to embrace social media, such as Facebook but also blogs, for intelligence gathering, Barker told the AusCERT conference in Queensland.
Media and social media is the weapon of “mass effect”, said Barker.
“They’re killing people, they’re using media to get their word out. It’s media that’s the payload,” he said.
Facebook has allowed cartel members to automate intelligence gathering processes that would have taken trained intelligence gatherers years to acquire.
As evidence of his claim, Barker pointed to the La Familia Mexican cartel which recently incorporated Facebook into its ‘mode of operation’ for human trafficking. The cartel would plant a teenager, illegally brought in to the US from Mexico, in an expensive US private school as part of a human trafficking program.
“The kid attends class, gets good grades, joins sports teams, gets popular. They get on Facebook, they Friend everybody. I Like you, I Like you, I Like you,” he said.
What sounds like a convoluted method of intelligence gathering is in fact highly efficient, said Barker.
As the social network built up, La Familia “shot-callers” in Mexico were logging in to the plant’s Facebook page and scouring it for human trafficking targets.
“And they said, bring me her, bring me her and bring me her,” he said, with the kidnapping decision based on visibility, value and vulnerability.
“They’re doing this remotely from a foreign country with agents in the US, and they’re using Facebook to automate the process of target selection.”
Another turning point for Mexican cartels’ use of technology occurred after the confusing standoff between Anonymous and the Zeta cartel over an allegedly kidnapped Mexican blogger who had an affiliation Anonymous.
Anonymous’ threat to expose members of the cartel was met with the response that 10 people would be killed for every person whose details it leaked. The blogger was released but Anonymous backed down and chose to sit on the information they claimed to hold.
“Anonymous, a hacker group - very powerful - basically bailed on Operation Zeta. And now the Zetas ... went up against the most sophisticated hacktivist group in the world and prevailed.”
While not everyone would agree with Barker’s assessment of Anonymous, the Zeta’s triumph “sent a very serious message to law enforcement in the region that these guys are standing virtually uncontested.”
More importantly, the event inspired the Zetas to invest in IT training that would be used to silence Mexican bloggers.
“The Zetas got confident and started to outsource some training for how to do IP trace routing. They learned how to tag, track, locate and eliminate the people that were blogging the cartel’s activities,” said Barker.
“It was chocking off their revenue streams... They had to put an end to it. And how did they do it? The same old way they have been: by killing people in a public way and torturing them and then writing notes to the media in their own blood that this is what happens to you if you blog about the Zetas.”