Jump to content
Washington Football Team Logo
Extremeskins

You HAVE to read this article... especially if you like drugs or computers.


Zen-like Todd

Recommended Posts

Ok, changed my mind... here it is, for you guys who are too lazy to click on a link.

The Technology Secrets of Cocaine Inc.

By: Paul Kaihla

Issue: July 2002

Print Article | Email This Article

Colombian cartels have spent billions of dollars to build one of the world's most sophisticated IT infrastructures. It's helping them smuggle more dope than ever before.

On a rainy night eight years ago in the Colombian city of Cali, crack counter-narcotics troops swarmed over the first floor of a low-rise condominium complex in an upscale neighborhood. They found no drugs or guns. But what they did find sent shudders through law enforcement and intelligence circles around the world.

The building was owned by a front man for Cali cocaine cartel leader José Santacruz Londono. Inside was a computer center, manned in shifts around the clock by four to six technicians. The central feature of the facility was a $1.5 million IBM AS400 mainframe, the kind once used by banks, networked with half a dozen terminals and monitors. The next day, Colombia's attorney general secretly granted permission for U.S. agents to fly the mainframe immediately back to the United States, where it was subjected to an exhaustive analysis by experts from the Drug Enforcement Administration and various intelligence agencies. The so-called Santacruz computer was never returned to Colombian authorities, and the DEA's report about it is highly classified. But Business 2.0 has ferreted out many of its details. They make it clear why the U.S. government wants the Santacruz case kept quiet.

According to former and current DEA, military, and State Department officials, the cartel had assembled a database that contained both the office and residential telephone numbers of U.S. diplomats and agents based in Colombia, along with the entire call log for the phone company in Cali, which was leaked by employees of the utility. The mainframe was loaded with custom-written data-mining software. It cross-referenced the Cali phone exchange's traffic with the phone numbers of American personnel and Colombian intelligence and law enforcement officials. The computer was essentially conducting a perpetual internal mole-hunt of the cartel's organizational chart. "They could correlate phone numbers, personalities, locations -- any way you want to cut it," says the former director of a law enforcement agency. "Santacruz could see if any of his lieutenants were spilling the beans."

They were. A top Colombian narcotics security adviser says the system fingered at least a dozen informants -- and that they were swiftly assassinated by the cartel. A high-level DEA official would go only this far: "It is very reasonable to assume that people were killed as a result of this capability. Potential sources of information were compromised by the system."

The discovery of the Santacruz computer gave law enforcement officials a chilling glimpse into the cartels' rapidly evolving technological sophistication. But here's what is truly frightening: Since the discovery of the Santacruz system in 1994, the cartels' technological mastery has only grown. And it is enabling them to smuggle more dope than ever before.

The drug lords have deployed advanced communications encryption technologies that, law enforcement officials concede, are all but unbreakable. They use the Web to camouflage the movement of dirty money. They track the radar sweeps of drug surveillance planes to map out gaps in coverage. They even use a fleet of submarines, mini-subs, and semisubmersibles to ferry drugs -- sometimes, ingeniously, to larger ships hauling cargoes of hazardous waste, in which the insulated bales of cocaine are stashed. "Those ships never get a close inspection, no matter what country you're in," says John Hensley, former head of enforcement for the U.S. Customs Service. Most of the cartels' technology is American-made; many of the experts who run it are American-trained. High-tech has become the drug lords' most effective counter-weapon in the war on drugs -- and is a major reason that cocaine shipments to the United States from Colombia hit an estimated 450 tons last year, almost twice the level of 1998, according to the Colombian navy.

In a sense, the cartels are putting their own dark twist on the same productivity-enhancing strategies that other multinational businesses have seized on in the Internet age. Indeed, the $80 billion-a-year cocaine business poses some unique challenges: The supply chain is immense and global, competition is literally cutthroat, and regulatory pressure is intense. The traffickers have the advantages of unlimited funds and no scruples, and they've invested billions of dollars to create a technological infrastructure that would be the envy of any Fortune 500 company -- and of the law enforcement officials charged with going after the drug barons. "I spent this morning working on the budget," the head of DEA intelligence, Steve Casteel, said recently. "Do you think they have to worry about that? If they want it, they buy it." That's an especially troubling thought just now, as the Bush administration pressures Congress to expand the $1.3 billion anti-narcotics plan for Colombia and to allow the U.S. military to take a more forceful role in the savage fighting between Colombia's left-wing rebels, right-wing paramilitary units, and the drug-trafficker allies of both.

Archangel Henao is the man whom authorities credit with much of the drug runners' recent technological progress. According to Colombian and U.S. narcotics officials, Henao heads the North Valley Cartel, the largest and most feared criminal organization to emerge from the chaos that gripped Colombia's underworld after the old Medellín and Cali cartels were broken up in the 1990s by the country's military -- with extensive U.S. help. Officials say that Henao, a heavyset 47-year-old born with a withered left arm, controls Buenaventura, the principal port on a stretch of the Pacific coast that is the launching point for most of the cocaine and heroin smuggled into North America from Colombia. His North Valley Cartel foot soldiers are known for dismembering the bodies of their enemies with chain saws and dumping them into the Cauca River. The U.S. Treasury Department has banned Henao from doing business with U.S. companies because he is a "drug kingpin," and the DEA publicly calls him one of Colombia's biggest traffickers. He has never been convicted of a drug-related offense, although a DEA official says the agency is "trying to build an indictment" against him.

Henao's cartel is a champion of decentralization, outsourcing, and pooled risk, along with technological innovations to enhance the secrecy of it all. For instance, to scrub his profits, he and fellow money launderers use a private, password-protected website that daily updates an inventory of U.S. currency available from cartel distributors across North America, says a veteran Treasury Department investigator. Kind of like a business-to-business exchange, the site allows black-market money brokers to bid on the dirty dollars, which cartel financial chiefs want to convert to Colombian pesos to use for their operations at home. "A trafficker can bid on different rates -- 'I'll sell $1 million in cash in Miami,'" says the agent. "And he'll take the equivalent of $800,000 in pesos for it in Colombia." The investigator estimates the online bazaar's annual turnover at as much as $3 billion.

Henao and other cartel leaders recruit IT talent from many sources, intelligence officials say. The traffickers lure some specialists from legitimate local businesses, offering scads of cash. They also contract with Israeli, U.S., and other mercenaries who are former electronic warfare experts from military special ops units. Cartel leaders have sent members of their own families to top U.S. engineering and aeronautical schools; when the kids come home, some serve as trusted heads of technical operations. Most of the high-end gear the cartels deploy comes from household-name multinational companies, many of them American; typically, front companies purchase equipment from sales offices in Colombia or through a series of intermediaries operating in the United States.

The talent and tools are among the best that money can buy, and it shows. For instance, Henao's communications have become so advanced that they have never been intercepted, Colombian intelligence sources say. The last clear view inside the organization's technical operations was provided in 1998, when a small army of Colombian police arrested Henao's top IT consultant, Nelson Urrego. That bust soon led to the discovery of an elaborate communications network that allowed Urrego to coordinate fleets of North Valley Cartel planes and ships that were smuggling 10 to 15 tons of cocaine each month.

The network's command center was hidden in a Bogotá warehouse outfitted with a retractable German-made Rhode & Schwarz transmission antenna about 40 feet high, and 15 to 20 computers networked with servers and a small mainframe. The same kind of state-of-the-art setup existed in communications centers at Urrego's ranch in Medellín, at an island resort he owned, and at a hideout in Cali. Seized invoices and letters show that Urrego or his associates had recently bought roughly $100,000 worth of Motorola (MOT) gear: 12 base stations, 16 mobile stations installed in trucks and cars, 50 radio phones, and eight repeaters, which boost radio signals over long distances.

The range of Urrego's network extended across the Caribbean and the upper half of South America. He and his operatives used it to send text messages to laptops in dozens of planes and boats to inform their pilots when it was safe to go, and to receive confirmations of when loads were dropped and retrieved. According to one intelligence official who analyzed Urrego's network, it was transmitting 1,000 messages a day -- and not one of them was intercepted, even by U.S. spy planes.

When Urrego typed a message into his computer, it created a digital bit-stream that was then encrypted and fed through a converter that parceled the data out at high frequencies. Digital communications over a radio network can be put into a code much more easily than voice transmissions, and thus are far tougher to intercept and decipher. "There's going to be a delay in sending and receiving messages," says a surveillance expert who does code-breaking work for the DEA and CIA, "but it's going to be fairly friggin' secure."

The cartel's fleets still had to dodge surveillance aircraft like the dozen or so P3 Orions that U.S. Customs flies over Colombia. But by bribing officials and drawing on an elaborate counterintelligence database maintained by the cartels, Urrego learned the operations schedule of the planes. According to a former narcotics operative in the U.S. Army's Southern Command, cartel pilots routinely map the radar coverage of U.S. spy planes by putting FuzzBuster radar detectors in their drug plane ****pits and logging the hits. "They'd use every piece of data to build a picture, just like a jigsaw puzzle," the retired officer explains. "A piece of data could be 'One of our airplanes was flying on this azimuth at this altitude, and his FuzzBuster went off,' which means he was being painted by the radar. So they put that piece of data in the computer. Then another airplane was flying on that azimuth at that altitude, and his FuzzBuster did not go off. As they put that data together, they'd build a picture of the radar signature."

Law enforcement officials believe that much of Urrego's system has simply been reconstituted -- with upgrades based on the latest advances in communications and encryption gear.

A lanky man with deep bags under his eyes sits in a cinder-block office within a heavily fortified army base. He may have the most dangerous job in Colombia. He is a top special operations commander, and he probably knows more about the drug cartels' technological prowess than anyone on the outside. He rarely gives interviews, but late one Saturday night, he agrees to discuss one of his special areas of expertise: Archangel Henao.

Lately, the commander says, he has been studying how Henao's cartel uses technology for what amounts to corporate espionage and competitive advantage against business rivals. The North Valley Cartel has waged a war against other smuggling groups over a variety of issues, including control of the port of Buenaventura. The commander recites a litany of recent assassinations and bombings. In February 2001, for instance, North Valley Cartel operatives commandeered a Bell helicopter used by the government in coca fumigation programs and pressed it into service in an attempted assassination of a rival trafficker. The rival was in jail in Cali at the time, so the hit men flew over the prison and dropped a homemade bomb containing 440 pounds of TNT. The detonator failed, but had the bomb gone off, it would have killed more than 3,000 people, the commander estimates. Within a month of that attack, the intended victim's organization retaliated with a flurry of hits -- among them, a submachine-gun ambush of four North Valley Cartel figures in a Cali hospital cafeteria. (In February, Henao's brother-in-law, a top North Valley Cartel capo, was poisoned to death in a maximum-security prison.)

Many of the targets in the power struggle, the commander says, were located by signals intelligence -- things like pager and e-mail intercepts, transmitters planted on vehicles, or bugs hidden in homes and offices. "This is a technological war," he says.

Actually, it has been for a long time -- as the mysterious story of the Santacruz computer suggests. According to Carlos Alfonso Velásquez Romero, a now-retired colonel who commanded the elite unit that discovered the computer, one of the principal IT gurus behind the system was Jorge Salcedo Cabrera, a former army intelligence operative and electrical engineer who crossed over to the underworld. The Santacruz computer wasn't his first big technological splash. When the Colombian government launched the unit that Velásquez would later head, it established a toll-free tip line for information about Cali Cartel leaders. The traffickers tapped the line, with deadly consequences. "All of these anonymous callers were immediately identified, and they were killed," a former high-ranking DEA official says.

Henao's cartel built on this and other prior technology initiatives, in part by creating what amounts to a narco research and development program. One early fruit of that effort, intelligence officials say, was an advanced version of a cheap boat called a semisubmersible. Shaped like the Civil War-era Monitor, the small craft cruises below the waterline, except for a conning tower where one of its two-man crew pilots the boat. The vessel has underwater propulsion, radar, and short-band radio towers. And it's virtually invisible to even the most sophisticated spy gear. "You basically need a visual sighting to detect one, because you're not going to pick them up in a radar sweep," says Hensley, the former U.S. Customs enforcement chief.

Semisubmersibles, however, are unstable, and narcotics officials think the cartels have lost several at sea -- one reason that the traffickers upgraded to submarines. According to the head of the Colombian navy, Adm. Mauricio Soto, the North Valley Cartel and other organizations have used real subs for years. Authorities believe that the Cali Cartel purchased a Soviet sub in the early '90s, and that its crew accidentally sank it off Colombia's Pacific coast during its first smuggling run, probably because they lacked the 10 skilled people needed to operate it.

More recently, the cartels have built their own subs, with help, Soto suspects, from Italian engineers who stayed in Colombia after overseeing the construction of the navy's own fleet of commando submarines two decades ago. Henao, for instance, is believed by military and intelligence officials to have a small fleet of mini-subs -- used for, among other things, hauling dope to those toxic waste freighters. So far, Colombian authorities have found only two drug subs, both of which were under construction. The most recent one, discovered 21 months ago outside Bogotá, was a 78-foot craft that cost an estimated $10 million. Intelligence sources say it belonged to Henao's North Valley Cartel. A Colombian official says Henao wanted a vessel that could carry several more tons than the Buenaventura mini-subs and travel as far as 2,000 miles -- say, to the coast of Mexico or Southern California.

Arrayed against this formidable technological arsenal is, well, not much. The commander of the narcotics agents in the Buenaventura area is a world-weary man who rarely ventures outside his military compound not far from town. He never goes into Buenaventura itself. Traffickers have put a price of 35 million pesos (about $17,000) on his head. "Life is cheap here," he mutters. He displays boxes and boxes of seized high-tech gear. Even personnel at the bottom of the cartel food chain have Israeli night-vision goggles, ICOM radio frequency scanners, and Magellan GPS handhelds.

The commander says an informant told him about mini-subs off Buenaventura months ago. But neither he nor his men have ever seen one. His outfit doesn't have the equipment to detect underwater craft.

Nor does the commander know many details about the Santacruz computer bust that first alerted officials to how technologically advanced his adversaries had become. He is unaware, for instance, of one of the biggest reasons U.S. officials want details of the system and the murders of U.S. intelligence sources it triggered kept top secret. Jorge Salcedo Cabrera, the main IT whiz who set up the Santacruz computer, eventually became an informant against cartel bosses. The DEA declined to comment on Salcedo. But according to several intelligence officials, he is now living in America at taxpayer expense, under the witness protection program.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I have never agreed with the way we have fought the "war on drugs." Seems a stretch to think we'd be successful when we have a budget and they don't. We have to follow rules and laws and they don't.

There is a way to defeat the cartels, though. What could the US use to go against the money and technology of drug runners? The military. To get serious in this "war" you would have to view the influx of drugs as an "attack" on America. Is that a stretch? Perhaps ... but don't call it a war if you're going to fight it with cops on the streets at the back end. It is clear by now that isn't going to work.

IMHO the only way to fight drugs is at the source. I would propose we ask for permission from the Colombian government to send enough troops/workers to there to get rid of the cocoa crops and replace them with something else.

We could pay them a sum similar to what we spend in our phony "war." If they refuse ... do it anyway. Destroy the crop. Go back periodically to assure that the crops aren't re-started.

OK, is this a bit too "extreme"? I'm sure you can (and will) respond with a thousand reasons why this would be madness. Maybe you'd be right. Maybe it is going a step too far. But it's one way to tackle this problem that would work. I've grown weary of throwing heaps of money at the problem when we KNOW it won't work.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Up through the fifties, you could buy Heroin over the counter without a prescription. It was sold as a pain reliever and manufactured by Bayer. Didn't we shoot down a plane carrying a small group of Christian missionaries last year because somebody suspected it might be a plane carrying drugs. All this war rhetoric is ridiculous. We've spent billions on it and the problem has just gotten worse. Right-wingers who want even more of the same remind me of liberals who called welfare reform advocates nazis. We ought to start treating drug addiction as a medical problem rather than a criminal one, and allow addicts to get prescriptions similar to programs in the UK and elsewhere. It's supposed to be a free country. If you're stupid enough in this day and age to take drugs, as long as you do it at home, keep it out of sight from the rest of us, and don't drive or operate heavy machinery, be my guest -just please don't reproduce!! And no, I've NEVER taken drugs.

The CATO institute did a study a few years back and found that the biggest winners in the "war on drugs" were VIOLENT CRIMINALS!!! Why, you ask? Because minimum mandatory sentencing was obliging state and federal prisons to incarcerate so many non-violent drug offenders that they often had to parole violent offenders to make room for all the druggies.

As long as there is demand, there will always be a supply. We could nuke Colombia, and other countries/cartels would pop up overnight. We slowed the drug flow from Indo-China, and South America took off; we broke the back of the Medellins, and the Cali cartel popped up overnight. We have the strictest anti-drug laws of any 1st world country, and we have the most drug-related violence.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Just like Bob Knight said several years ago you identify where the drugs are coming from put the nations on notice if the cant or wont help eradicate the problem napalm the fields the next day.

And liberals be d@mned

Shame we dont have an american patriot with SwordFish skillz to put a major dent in the drug issue.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Originally posted by NavyDave

Just like Bob Knight said several years ago you identify where the drugs are coming from put the nations on notice if the cant or wont help eradicate the problem napalm the fields the next day.

It would be nice if that was something that could realistically be done, but in a place like Myanmar (used to be known as Burma) there are areas where the government has no control and if US warplanes go into the area, I can guarantee the Chinese and Indians would both be very upset. Now you can say that you would also like to nuke China or India, but with current global realities that also isn't too practical.

One of the best solutions may be to legitimize it and tax the hell out of producers and sellers to subsidize medical care for those who choose to use the poison. Unless the money potential and profit is removed from the system, then there will always be someone with an incentive to produce the drugs and try to sell them to the US.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

"José Santacruz Londono"

That is one cool name.

True, heroin was sold by Bayer. But Bayer does not have the greatest reputation as a corporation. They also tested new drugs on Jews in concentration camps. Sounds like a great policy to me.

The truth is that if heroin and crack were sold at your corner pharmacy, the country would be in a lot worse shape than it is right now.

Crackheads are not the type of people you'd want to be seen associating with. The reason why they're such morons is because they are ADDICTED TO CRACK.

That might be something unknown to drug advocates, but once you use an addictive drug, it's over. You'll do anything for your next fix.

Instead of simply having the drug underworld to deal with, we'd have businessmen and housewives hooked on coke and smack, much the same as cigarettes.

Ask the families of the 71 kids who died in the plane crash a couple of days ago what they think of drugs. Can you imagine what the skies and the roads would be like if drivers, pilots, and sailors were hooked on coke?

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I can't believe that you really think that if some or all drugs were legalized that everyone would automatically turn into an addict. Using that same logic, then everyone housewife and businessman should be alcoholics because they are able to drink.

A country like Holland, where they liberalized drug laws to a great degree not only has a much lower incidence of drug abuse than in the US, but is also the lowest in Europe. Similarly, if drugs were taxed and monitored by the government, then it would be much easier to control usage by teenagers. If you talk to most high school students, they will tell you that it is easier to get illegal drugs than it is to get alcohol. Drug liberalization may not be the answer to all the problems, but it surely would offer some solutions that are not being seen with the current "War on drugs".

Link to comment
Share on other sites

When prohibition was repealed, HL Menken, a well known wet during the period, went to a local establishment, they offered him a beer or something harder, he refused and ordered a glass of water. After drinking it he said, 'that's the first glass of water I've had since that damn ammendment passed'.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

"If you talk to most high school students, they will tell you that it is easier to get illegal drugs than it is to get alcohol."

I find that hard to believe. Most teenagers have older friends who are more than willing to help a chum out by getting booze for them. It's legal and sold everywhere. You have an older friend ... you're in. With drugs you have to have a connection with someone running an illegal enterprise. With that established it may be AS EASY ... but I can't see where it would ever be EASIER and in many cases a little harder with ore risk.

I'm not necessarily opposed to someone who wants to "burn one" on occasion if they choose, but legalization is a step I'm not sure Id like to see taken. And definately not with harder narcotics like coke, smack, meth, etc.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Using that same logic, then everyone housewife and businessman should be alcoholics because they are able to drink.

My friend, alcohol is not physically addicting. There is not one physically addicting substance in it. However, there ARE people who become hooked on it, mentally, not physically, and it ruins a lot of lives.

Cigarettes aren't illegal because they don't impair any physical or mental capabilities, despite the fact that they are addicting.

Now can you imagine what the country would be like if drugs that incorporate both these elements (physical and menal impairment and physical and mental addiction) were made legal?

Kids would be getting hooked on smack, coke, and school boy at parties all the time. Alcohol is at virtually every party involving high schoolers.

If hard drugs were legal, you can bet your as$ that they'd be flooded with narcotics too.

Imagine this exchange between Jimmy, who is 15, and Bobby who is 18.

Jimmy: I gots uh party coming up tonight wiff many pimp-tight looking biAtchez, an' I wuz wondering if ya could gank me some smack otay buh-weet

Bobby: Sure, I'll gank ya some smack. Make sure ta git all yo' niggas hooked so they'll gank from me some mo'. w0rd!

Not good for the "future of America" to be hooked on smack.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

This is just my $0.02, but prohibition doesn't work. It didn't work for alcohol, it doesn't work for drugs and it wouldn't work if they outlawed abortion tomorrow.

And BTW, Orangeskin, alcohol is physically addicting in much the same way heroine and nicotine are. Long-term alcohol abuse changes your body's chemistry, such as increased epinephrine and decreased magnesium. Check it out here: Alcoholism

I think the most promising solution is to deal with drugs in a similar manner to how we deal with cigarettes. Make them as expensive and safe as possible by regulating and taxing the hell out of the industry. Sell or prescribe the addicting drugs in varying levels of strength, so that someone who wanted to kick heroine could get weaker and weaker doses over a long period of time. Use the tax revenues not only to provide for the common defense and promote the general welfare, but also to cover the eventual medical expenses of the health problems associated with these substances. Get smarter about preventing and coping with addiction.

there's no perfect solution, but it isn't a perfect world. I know I'm sick of sending billions of dollars out of the US every year to smugglers and hitmen. The Taliban made millions of dollars a year just looking the other way while the poppy farmers and traffickers grew the poppies in Afganistan and sold the heroin in America. No matter where you stand politically, what's going on right now isn't working. Lets try something different.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Archived

This topic is now archived and is closed to further replies.

  • Recently Browsing   0 members

    • No registered users viewing this page.
×
×
  • Create New...