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Notorious Mexican drug kingpin nabbed thanks to drones and spyware

Los Zetas gang boss cuffed after surveillance operation

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An alleged leader of Mexico's infamous Los Zetas gang was captured last month using a combination of commercial computer spyware, GPS mobile tracking and aerial drones, according to Mexican reports.

Miguel Treviño Morales – also known as “Z-40” – was captured by the North American country's marines on 15 July.

The US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) lent tactical support in the form of aerial drones while GPS tracking and commercial spyware from FinFisher also played a crucial role, according to Mexican media reports (in Spanish).

The "Hunter Punta Tracking/Locksys" system was used for GPS tracking of vehicles, allowing the military to stay close to its target but unobserved – while a drone was used to provide aerial reconnaissance.

Intelligence officers laid the groundwork first by determining the routes Treviño Morales used, his schedules and the number of bodyguards the feared 42-year-old narcotraficante normally took, before a track-and-capture operation was launched.

The drone used in the operation had infrared cameras that allow filming in the dark, and two motors with noise suppression technology that made it inaudible from the ground even if it was only a kilometre away.

"A similar plane was used by ICE [US Immigration and Customs Enforcement] in Mexico in February 2011, to locate the murderers of [Homeland Security Investigations Special] Agent Jaime Zapata, who was attacked along with a colleague by Los Zetas along the Mexico-Queretaro highway," Mexican newspaper La Jornada adds.

Borderlandbeat, a blog covering the Mexican cartel drug war, has an English language translation of the report here.

Mexican Marines captured Treviño Morales on 15 July in the border state of Nuevo León without a single bullet being fired. Two other men along with Treviño Morales were captured, while $2m in cash, three guns and a cache of ammunition were seized, CBS News reports. At the time of his arrest, Treviño Morales had a $5m bounty on his head from US authorities, while Mexico was offering 30 million pesos ($2.3m).

The tech used to bring Morales to heel

Technical details on how the FinFisher spyware and GPS tracking devices were placed on Treviño Morales' computer and car are notable by their absence. One plausible theory is that they were planted there by an insider, but that is only one of several possible scenarios, including spear phishing.

It is also possible that intelligence from bugged phone conversations, data from FinFisher's software or provided by snoops on the ground was used to make the crucial discovery that Treviño Morales regularly visited his newborn child. The fact that he regularly visited his young offspring, and that when he made these trips he brought along very little backup, were the pieces of information that proved crucial in his capture.

In a statement, the US Drug Enforcement Agency welcomed the arrest and praised Mexican government law enforcement.

Treviño Morales is of one of the most significant Mexican cartel leaders to be apprehended in several years and DEA will continue to support the Government of Mexico as it forges ahead in disrupting and dismantling drug trafficking organisations.

British firm Gamma International develops FinFisher, a law enforcement Trojan that is controversial mainly because of its use by regimes with questionable human rights records. The notoriously media-shy firm declined to respond to El Reg's request to comment on the reported role of its technology in the arrest of Trevino Morales.

Privacy International, citing local reports (in Spanish) reported late last month that the Mexican government had imported FinFisher at more than twice the going market rate; something that has now become a line of inquiry in a corruption investigation.

An investigation by La Reforma newspaper alleges that the Mexican government paid $109.3m for FinFisher licences when it should only have paid between $45.5m and $78m, including training. The paper also alleged that Mexico had paid well over the odds for the Hunter Punta Tracking/Locsys satellite tracking system, which set it back $93.2m.

Los Zetas emerged in the late 1990s, serving as the private army of the Gulf Cartel drug gang before turning on their former bosses and beginning a bloody turf war.

The core founding members of Los Zetas were ex-Mexican military, some with special forces training. Treviño Morales was never in the military himself and rose through the ranks via extreme ruthlessness.

A good account of the capture of Treviño Morales, and background on Los Zetas, can be found in an article by Alfredo Corchado, author of Midnight In Mexico and a Mexico City-based journalist, published in the Daily Beast. ®

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