Smugglers With GPS-Connected Buoys Defy the U.S. Coast Guard
It's simple—put cocaine in a buoy, add a GPS tracker and drop it into the Pacific
Despite the use of advanced technology by authorities to combat drug smuggling to the United States, organized crime groups in Latin America are still using basic technology to elude them.
Authorities in El Salvador say that drug trafficking groups from South America are increasingly relying on Global Positioning System technology to better monitor drug shipments passing through Central America and eventually landing in the United States.
Drug trafficking groups are waterproofing cocaine packets and attaching them to floating buoys equipped with GPS devices, writes La Prensa Grafica. The technology then emits a signal allowing it to be located using a preset reference code loaded onto the apparatus.
El Salvador’s Anti-Narcotics Division, part of of the National Police (PNC), says that drug trafficking networks are increasingly hiring Ecuadorean boatmen to transport shipments via maritime routes to points off the coasts of El Salvador, Guatemala and Costa Rica in the Pacific Ocean—which supports more recent evidence that Ecuador is increasing its role in the drug trade.
The shipments are then “abandoned” at these specific points in the Pacific. Afterwards, according to the Anti-Narcotics Division, traffickers send the coordinates of the shipment via the GPS satellites straight to the mobile devices or computers of others in their network.
These tools allow crime groups to monitor shipments from thousands of miles away. While GPS technology is available to anyone, it is primarily used by fishermen. For organized crime groups, the cost of the technology is small compared to the revenues that the cocaine shipments generate.
PNC Director Howard Cotto told La Prensa Gráfica that drug traffickers typically use GPS tracking to allow for drug packages to be picked up later in the Pacific undetected. This system of moving product, Cotto says, is a key advantage that has contributed to a recent surge in the use of GPS technology by drug trafficking groups.
After the recent arrest of the Ecuadorean Washington Prado Alava, alias “Gerard”, Colombian police described his operation as “the most sophisticated and technically advanced criminal organization on the Colombian Pacific coast.” Yet further examination shows that the technology used by his criminal operation amounts to little more than GPS locators and waterproof drug packages.
Prado, who has been dubbed the “Pablo Escobar” of Ecuador, was unknown to the public before his arrest and yet allegedly was responsible for moving 250 metric tons of cocaine to the United States over four years.
Boarding officers from the U.S. Coast Guard cutter ‘Stratton’ take suspected smugglers into custody. U.S. Coast Guard photo
InSight Crime analysis
Regardless of advances in technology used to combat drug trafficking, the fact of the matter is that low-tech, everyday gadgets such as GPS and smartphones, as well as several other factors, are helping contribute to the continuing flow of drugs into the United States from Latin America.
In a recent investigation by the Associated Press, reporters spent two weeks on the U.S. Coast Guard’s Stratton cutter, the Coast Guard’s most advanced ship, which sits about 500 miles south of the border between Guatemala and El Salvador in the Pacific Ocean. To combat the recent cocaine boom happening in South America, the United States has introduced new intelligence technology to intercept cocaine shipments.
Specialists on the Coast Guard’s Cutter Stratton analyze data from radar, infrared video and now the newly introduced, Boeing-made Scan Eagle drone. However, even with such high-tech gadgets, a surge in Colombian cocaine coupled with a lack of manpower means intercepting drug shipments remains a difficult task.
Cocaine is booming in South America. In March of this year, the U.S. State Department released its 2017 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report. The report suggested that the amount of cocaine coming out of the region was far higher than had been previously estimated. Furthermore, the most recent U.S. estimates show that Colombia produced 188,000 hectares of coca crops in 2016, which is 20 percent higher than in 2015 and a staggering 80 percent higher than the average annual estimate between 2008 and 2015.
According to the AP’s report, nearly 70 percent of the cocaine consumed in the United States travels through the eastern Pacific Ocean. Even with this knowledge, the AP found that the nearly six million square miles that stretch from the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico to the eastern Pacific are patrolled by just three to five Coast Guard vessels.
The report equated the size of the job to like “having a few police cars watch over the entire” continental United States.
Despite the small amount of vessels, the Coast Guard has had some successes. In August 2015, the Coast Guard dropped off 33 metric tons of cocaine in San Diego worth more than $1 billion. It was the “biggest single offload of narcotics” in the Coast Guard’s history and was the result of “23 separate confrontations” with drug traffickers in the Pacific Ocean, according to the Los Angeles Times.
In 2016, they seized more than “240 tons of cocaine with a wholesale value of $5.9 billion, arresting 585 smugglers,” according to the AP report.
However, Admiral Paul Zukunft, commandant of the Coast Guard, at the time admitted that “despite the Coast Guard’s technological superiority, four drug-running boats are thought to get through for every one caught.”
As the Coast Guard battles limited human resources and the cocaine surge coming from South America, basic technology is becoming increasingly important, and effective, for drug trafficking organizations. And GPS isn’t the only simple technology that organized crime groups are utilizing to carry out their criminal activities.
In June 2016, El Salvador inmates were reportedly using the WhatsApp messaging service on smartphones to carry out extortion operations. The importance of the messaging service is even more evident in Brazil. In May 2016 a judge ordered Brazilian telecom companies to suspend WhatsApp service nationwide after the company refused to turn over data related to an ongoing drug trafficking case.