Technicians servicing cell towers in Mexico face additional job hazards when they encounter illegal add-ons placed there by drug cartels. In its investigation, Reuters learned workers routinely encountered “narco-antennas,” hostile militants, demands for “security payments,” and stolen batteries and copper wire. While many reports indicated that service crews were fearful of the cartels, others noted a cordial relationship based on a shared desire for a good signal.
Both the Mexican government and telecom companies have been aware of the co-opted towers for years but have done little to address the situation. “There is a sense of powerlessness,” said Duncan Wood, director of the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute in Washington. Wood added that he believed that Mexican officials and telecoms “cannot respond to issues like this because [they] are afraid of the consequences from groups that essentially enjoy impunity.”
With the election of a new leader in 2018, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador chose not to pursue an aggressive approach to dealing with the cartels, favoring “hugs, not bullets” as his motto. “We must continue confronting organized crime…There is no longer protection for anyone, as there was before,” Lopez Obrador stated. “We are committed to achieving peace and we have made progress in combating, in reducing, crime.”
“Lopez Obrador has sent a message to all of Mexico, including the private sector… that he doesn’t want a confrontational situation with the cartels,” said former DEA chief of international operations, Mike Vigil. “Telecom companies are caught between a rock and a hard spot,” he concluded.
Many of the people involved with the Mexican drug cartels rely on two-way radios that require a network of antennas. It is usually easier to claim space on a legitimate tower rather than constructing their own. A modified cell tower also draws less attention to itself than a tower constructed for the sole use of the cartels.
Reuters noted that the strong likelihood of having to deal with the cartels has been a deterrent for telecoms looking to operate in Mexico. The tolerance exhibited by the Mexican government makes servicing cell towers in Mexico an unpredictable, and potentially unprofitable, enterprise.