The evolution of maritime trafficking expertise proves drug traffickers have both motive and means to develop new strategies that ensure delivery of their illicit cargo. Law enforcement agencies’ counter-narcotics sections challenge by placing state-of-the-art equipment and utilizing innovative interdiction methods, underworld characters manipulating legally available technology.
Twenty years ago traffickers used beepers and telephone booths to communicate. Today they take advantage of anonymity provided by pre-paid burner mobile phones and public Wi-Fi internet connectivity. In June 2016 WhatsApp Messenger was used by organized criminal elements within El Salvador’s prisons to conduct extortion schemes, utilizing usually prohibited mobile phones.
Trends show several DTO smuggling schemes in which local fishing boats are retrofitted with sophisticated navigation and communications equipment. A domestic fishing boat does not need excessive alterations that would give away its role in trafficking operations. Fishing boats can comfortably navigate in coastal waters, or travel long distances offshore, without attracting suspicion from law enforcement patrols.
Techno savvy traffickers install electronic trackers and remotely follow their cocaine around the world. One preferred device is a battery operated GPS tracker capable of real time data transmission received on mobile phones, tablets, laptops and PCs. Such equipment allows communications tower triangulation that indicates approximate location. El Salvador’s Anti-Narcotics Division, or Division Antinarcoticos (DAN), highlighted increased use of Global Positioning System technology by South American cocaine traffickers.
The April 11, 2017 arrest of Ecuadorian kingpin nicknamed “Gerard” featured GPS locators and waterproofed cocaine packets, as part of his trafficking scheme. At each stage of the drugs trade cultivation, processing and distribution, Gerard controlled key personnel. He enjoyed close relations with “Los Choneros,” Ecuador’s most nefarious criminal syndicate. According to DIJIN, or Colombia National Police Intelligence Unit, for four years Gerard trafficked two hundred and fifty metric tons of cocaine across borders and seas.
Shipments traveled from Tumaco in Nariño and Valle del Cauca on Colombia’s Pacific coast to Costa Rica, Guatemala, Mexico, Panama and the USA. Gerard received US$50,000 per consignment. Compared to 2016 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR) figures for a similar period, the Ecuadorian kingpin’s smuggled amount equated one fifth of Colombia’s one thousand one hundred and thirty-five point two metric tons of confiscated cocaine.
The former “master boatman,” for Colombia’s Rastrojos criminal organization, is skilled at navigating dangerous parts of the Pacific Ocean especially near Ecuador’s port city Manta. Imaged as a “prosperous fishing entrepreneur” Gerard’s daily commute, around Ecuador’s port city Guayaquil, was by opulent armored trucks. He traveled frequently to Colombia via Ipiales city near the border with Ecuador.
Gerard worked with multifaceted collaborators, including a Captain employed to the National Police of Ecuador. Colombian and Ecuadorian internal security counter-narcotics personnel combined to surveil the trafficker’s movements across Ecuador. The kingpin managed cocaine transportation along Ecuador’s Manabí and Guayas coasts. His syndicate dispatched ten go-fast boats weekly that carried eight hundred kilos of GPS tagged waterproofed cocaine consignments, destined for Costa Rica and Guatemala.
Between 2015 and March 2017 Colombia National Police seized one hundred and fifty metric tons of Gerard’s cocaine. In one of twenty successive police raids US$12 million cash was confiscated. Other evidence details how progressive South American traffickers use GPS based trackers to monitor their cocaine. Consignments dispatched from isolated Latin American launch points routed to the US mainland. Some consignments are air dropped at geographic coordinates on the Pacific Ocean.
The waterproof cocaine packages, linked to privately made buoys, are affixed with GPS gadgets. Such digital devices store preset reference codes or coordinates and rebroadcast the data. Colombian exporters communicate latitude and longitude thru GPS satellite relays to Ecuadorean counterparts’ mobile devices. The receiving helmsman navigates to a position close to Costa Rica, El Salvador or Guatemala’s Pacific Ocean coast for collection. One of the cartels’ favorite GPS tracking device identifies exactly where the shipment is and its speed of movement. The special technology also sends a text message, when there is deviation from programed coordinates.
To limit traffickers’ access to bigger smuggling opportunities and space the Container Control Program (CCP) was launched by the United Nations Office on Drugs & Crime and the World Customs Organization, a combined international initiative designed to deter South American traffickers from commandeering maritime containers. After three years of CCP operations close to twenty-five tons of cocaine were seized at the port of Guayaquil in Ecuador.
Central American counter-narcotics efforts are assisted by the US Coast Guard’s (USCG) most technologically advanced cutter. The vessel shadows Pacific Ocean waters south of the border between Guatemala and El Salvador. USCG specialists monitor radar and infrared images that are compared with data received from the ship’s Boeing manufactured “Scan Eagle” drone.