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Mexican Cartel Sets Up “Narco-Antennas,” forces locals to pay for WiFi service

photo of a wi fi tower under a blue sky

Criminal group charged $20-$30 a month to about 5,000 people as gangs diversify into sectors other than the drug trade

In the embattled central Mexico state of Michoacán, a criminal cartel known as Los Viagras has reportedly set up makeshift internet antennas, dubbed “narco-antennas,” and forced local residents to pay for the wifi service or face the threat of violence, according to prosecutors. The group, described as a cartel faction, used stolen equipment to create the system and charged approximately 5,000 people elevated prices ranging from 400 to 500 pesos ($25 to $30) a month. This extortion tactic allowed the cartel to potentially earn about $150,000 per month.

Prosecutors revealed that people were terrorized into contracting the internet services at excessive costs, under the claim that they would be killed if they did not comply. The Michoacán state prosecutor’s office did not report any deaths related to this threat. Law enforcement officials seized the equipment, including makeshift antennas and routers with the labels of the Mexican internet company Telmex, owned by businessman Carlos Slim. One person was detained in connection with the case.

Mexican cartels have a history of using shadow networks of radio towers and makeshift internet to communicate within criminal organizations and evade authorities. However, the recent trend of cartels extorting communities by setting up their own communication infrastructure is part of a larger pattern. According to Falko Ernst, a Mexico analyst for Crisis Group, the numerous armed criminal groups in Mexico are evolving beyond drug trafficking and are increasingly becoming de facto monopolists of various services and legal markets. Cartels are gaining control over territories and establishing fiefdoms, engaging in activities such as charging taxes on basic goods, infiltrating local industries, and holding territory through violence. The criminal landscape in some areas has expanded to include a broad range of markets beyond the drug trade.

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