Firstly I'll point out that most of the sources on these stories are from the U.S. Government, usually our military. So you will have to forgive that they conflate a communications network with a radio network. While they both may use radio, they are not comparable to the BBC. This conflation is probably deliberate. It's not hyperbole, they're trying to sell the idea of how technologically advanced some of these cartels are. Top quote Colonel Bob Killebrew:
"...it’s quite possible to build, a network for a low-level handheld radio carried by a taxi driver that can be picked up, re-transmitted, boosted up, and sent anywhere you want to send it, and even encrypted..."Despite the hard sell I was still imaging the "network" as a couple guys with walkies-talkies. Then I found images of seized equipment. Go ahead and Google it. They have piles of self-supporting radio towers, solar panels, Motorola ICOM type radios, and microwave relay hardware. In 2011 the Mexican army reported that they had seized a total of 167 antennas, 155 repeaters, 166 power sources, 71 pieces of computer equipment and 1,446 radios. The equipment came from numerous cities in the states of Veracruz, Nuevo León, Coahuila, San Luis Potosí and Tamaulipas. Yes, this is a network, and it's enormous. Mexico is the 14th largest country on earth in square miles and the cartels have better network coverage than Nextel. More here.
The network's mastermind is reputed to be Jose Luis Del Toro Estrada. He was arrested by the DEA in McAllen, TX in 2008. He pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute cocaine in federal court and walked after serving 4 years. His plea agreement was breathtaking. He confirmed the network operated in most of Mexico's 31 states and parts of northern Guatemala , that they both bought and rented towers, repeaters and in one case a tower on top of a police station in Veracruz. But even minus Estrada, the cartel pressed on kidnapping talent and continuing to build out their network faster than the government can tear it down. More here.