DEA Praises Increasing Drug Seizures in Ecuador

The US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) recently presented an award to Ecuador’s Interior Ministry in recognition of the country’s drug interdiction efforts, signaling its approval of increasing drug seizures by Ecuadorian authorities…

Read this piece in its entirety at InSight Crime.

Mexico, Colombia Groups Compete for US Heroin Market

Criminal organizations based in Mexico are challenging the traditional dominance of Colombian groups over the heroin market in the eastern United States, signaling shifts in drug production and trafficking patterns in both Latin American countries…

Read this piece in its entirety at InSight Crime.

Five Takeaways from the 2015 National Drug Threat Assessment

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has released the latest version of its annual National Drug Threat Assessment, which highlights several ongoing trends related to organized crime and the drug trade in the United States:

1. Increasing concern about heroin.

This year’s report, like the 2013 and 2014 versions, ranks controlled prescription drugs (CPDs) as the most dangerous category of substances, pointing out that “every year since 2002 the number of deaths attributable to CPDs has outpaced those for cocaine and heroin combined.” However, a crackdown on black market prescription drugs may have had the unintended consequence of helping push down heroin prices, prompting some prescription opioid users to switch to heroin as a substitute. In addition, the DEA reports that seizures of heroin in the United States have almost doubled since 2010, indicating an increase in supply particularly from Mexico. The growing problem of heroin abuse has made national headlines recently, and several prominent figures have called for the federal government to do more to address the issues of opioid addiction and heroin trafficking.

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2. Dominance of Mexican crime groups in the wholesale drug market.

The DEA assesses that “[t]here are no other organizations at this time with the infrastructure and power to challenge” the control of Mexican transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) over the U.S. market for drugs like like marijuana, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine. The Sinaloa cartel maintains a nationwide presence as “the most active supplier” of illicit drugs in the United States. At the same time, the DEA points out that the Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG) “is quickly becoming one of the most powerful TCOs in Mexico and in some cases rivals Sinaloa cartel trafficking operations in Asia, Europe and Oceania.” A top Mexican law enforcement official recently claimed Sinaloa and CJNG are the only two “operating and functioning” drug cartels in Mexico, but as the maps below show, the reality is much more complicated.

3. Decentralization of drug trafficking networks. 

The landscape of Mexico’s underworld seems to have undergone an evolution similar to that experienced in Colombia in recent years. Formerly hierarchical groups have fragmented into increasingly fluid networks that are more resilient to the loss of top leaders. As the table below shows, most major Mexican criminal organizations have ties to several U.S.-based gangs, who in turn distribute drugs for more than one cartel. According to the DEA, Colombian groups that have traditionally controlled the heroin and cocaine trade on the East Coast have begun to distribute those same drugs using Mexican suppliers. The assessment also reports that Dominican organizations, which tend to be more hierarchical, serve as mid-level distributors of heroin and cocaine for both their Mexican and their Colombian counterparts.

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4. Expanding presence of Asian organized crime.

According to the DEA, “Asian TCOs operate mainly on the West Coast, but are increasingly spreading their operations throughout the United States.” Asian crime groups also reportedly have a growing presence in other countries in the Americas. The DEA assesses that these organizations “dominate the US market as the primary suppliers of MDMA,” also known as “ecstasy,” which is often “imported from China to Canada, or produced in Canada, and then smuggled into the United States.” Like other organized crime groups, Asian TCOs also traffic in other drugs and precursor chemicals, and “are involved in a variety of illicit and violent activities in addition to drug trafficking,” including the arms trade, human and sex trafficking, cybercrime, fraud and money laundering.

5. Adoption of new money laundering techniques.

While the DEA reports that “bulk cash smuggling is still the most widely-reported method used by TCOs to move illicit proceeds,” trade-based money laundering schemes like the Black Market Peso Exchange also remain popular. In addition, “exploitation of casinos for money laundering has increased as US casino companies have expanded internationally, opening branches in China, the Philippines, and Latin America…Money launderers exploit this system by placing or structuring drug proceeds into a US casino and then withdrawing the money at an international branch.” The report also mentions virtual currencies, which are largely unregulated by government entities, as an increasingly common means of laundering money.

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Report Reveals Colombia’s “Shadow Mass Surveillance System”

Colombian law enforcement and intelligence agencies have been significantly expanding their ability to intercept electronic communications for more than a decade with help from private firms in the US, Europe, and Israel. According to a new twopart report by the human rights group Privacy International, these companies have helped Colombia construct a “shadow mass surveillance system in the absence of clear lawful authority, safeguards against abuse and opportunities for public scrutiny.”

“There is a big gap between the general public knowledge about the capabilities of the State and the real technical capabilities of surveillance the State has and employ[s],” Carolina Botero, an investigator from the Colombian technology advocacy group Fundación Karisma, wrote in an email. “We know a lot of what happens in the US, UK or Europe in general. [Former US national security contractor Edward] Snowden did a great job revealing this information. In the meantime there is little knowledge of the capabilities in the south.”

The report raises concerns given the increasing threats faced by various public figures in Colombia. At least 40 activists, journalists, politicians and community leaders were killed last year. Past experience suggests that expanded surveillance capabilities may have helped catch major criminals. But they don’t seem to have made Colombia a safer place for freedom of expression. Instead, these technologies have sometimes been used to target those in need of protection.

According to Privacy International, Colombia’s intelligence and law enforcement services began quietly building the country’s first mass surveillance platform in 2005. The Integrated Recording System, or IRS, was created for bulk monitoring of 3G mobile phone communications. Colombia’s security agencies later obtained a system known as the Single Monitoring and Analysis Platform, or PUMA, which intercepts data on a mass scale from “backbone” telecommunications cables and funnels it to monitoring centers located around the country.

The initial set-up of the IRS and PUMA systems was provided by Verint, an Israeli-American company that reportedly helped the US National Security Agency install similar technologies to monitor the communications of American citizens. Verint has also been accused of exporting its mass surveillance technology to Central Asian governments with well-known reputations for political repression.

In 2013, an Israeli company called NICE Systems won a $26 million contract with its Colombian partner Eagle Commercial to expand PUMA into “Super-PUMA,” including upgrading the system to handle newer 4G traffic. Leaked emails surfaced a few months ago showing NICE Systems also acted as an intermediary in a $335,000 sale of spyware from the Italian firm Hacking Team to the Colombian police. The emails further indicated the U.S Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) uses Hacking Team products capable of monitoring “all the traffic” from Colombia’s internet service providers.

The Privacy International report also describes how the DEA helped the Colombian government develop a targeted telecommunications interception system called “Esperanza” in the early 2000s. The Colombian company STAR Inteligencia & Tecnología provided much of the technology, sometimes using products from the US-based security contractor Pen-Link and UK-based Komcept Solutions.

Esperanza enables targeted surveillance that relies on active “tasking” by human users and supposedly requires specific judicial authorization, such as a warrant. However, Privacy International notes that “even the most tightly regulated of lawful interception systems in Colombia, Esperanza, has been subject to abuse by government agencies.” In 2009, it was revealed that the now-disbanded Administrative Department of Security (DAS) had illegally spied on hundreds of public figures including politicians, judges, journalists, and activists, allegedly using the Esperanza system. The head of the agency at the time, Maria del Pilar Hurtado, was recently sentenced to 14 years in prison for her role in the scandal.

In addition to enabling bulk surveillance of Colombians’ communications, private corporations from the US, Europe, Israel and elsewhere have offered the country’s police an array of “tactical” surveillance gear, like audio and video recording devices that look like child car seats, credit cards and other everyday objects. Many foreign companies also sell IMSI catchers, also known as “stingrays” or “cell site simulators,” which can intercept cell phone communications and track the location and movements of a large number of users.

Privacy International says that rather than helping Colombia obtain accountable and legally-authorized communications interception capabilities, some tech firms have contributed to “overlapping, unchecked systems of surveillance that are vulnerable to abuse.” The report recommends the Colombian government conduct better oversight of how these technologies are being used. It also recommends exporter countries and the international community exert greater controls on the companies supplying these products. “No more than a handful of individuals within the industry appear to have adequately considered the human rights impact of their businesses,” it reads.

The decades-long armed conflict in Colombia has left more than 200,000 dead and millions more displaced from their homes, with widespread atrocities committed by both state and non-state actors. Botero wrote that having lived through such violence had led many Colombian citizens to “truly believe that national security is more valuable than other rights,” including privacy. However, Botero says that a final ceasefire between the government and the main rebel group, which may come soon, would leave “no more excuses for Colombians to resign privacy any longer.”

“There’s no doubt that even if one is not doing anything illegal, there are decisions one takes privately and shouldn’t be forced to disclose to random government analysts,” Botero wrote. “There is a false dilemma when we are forced to choose between security and privacy particularly when security is not an end in and [of] itself.”

U.S. Support for Mexico’s Drug War Goes Beyond Guns and Money

In spite of widely acknowledged and rampant corruption in Mexico’s security and law enforcement institutions, implicated in the September disappearance of more than 40 college students, the United States continues to supply the country with well over $100 million per year in military and police assistance, including world-class weapons, training and intelligence

This piece was co-authored with Angelika Albaladejo. Read it in its entirety at Truthout.