Underwater drones, messaging applications and cryptocurrencies: drug R&D defies police investigation

A submarine crossed the Atlantic Ocean at the end of 2019, from Brazil to Spain, loaded with 3,000 kilograms of cocaine. It was a self-propelled device, designed by hand, that protruded just 25 centimeters from sea level and that the crew deliberately sank when they arrived in Galicia. It was the first time that the police detected this way of introducing drugs in Spain, an example of how the technological development of drug trafficking has accelerated in recent years, but extends much further: drones, self-driving vehicles or crypto technology.

The attempt was unsuccessful, but it served to learn about the sophistication of the technology that drug traffickers were using to get the caches from one point to another in the ocean, with devices that were used in places like Mexico, but that until then had not been used. detected in Spain.

The Civil Guard intercepted the semi-submersible bathyscaphe on a beach in the Aldán estuary, in Pontevedra. It had a moisture escape device, which prevented thermal detection; a silencer to contain the noise of the engines; and an engine with enough range to traverse 5,000 nautical miles at a speed of 10 knots. It was, according to the judgment of the Provincial Court of Pontevedra, a "naval device that, despite being built in a traditional way, was very efficient."

This type of boat had not been detected until that moment in Spanish waters, but the police calculated that these submarines had been operating for some time, a more sophisticated model than the traditional gliders of the Galician cartels. In fact, in 2006 a device found an abandoned narco-submarine in the Vigo estuary. The novelty, in recent years, however, has been the adaptation of these submarines to unmanned vessels or, as they have been called, underwater narco-drones, unmanned underwater vehicles or UUV (Unmanned Underwater Vehicle).

This same July, the National Police dismantled a network that used several of these vehicles, underwater drones with the capacity to transport between 150 and 200 kilos of drugs, equipped with engines of up to 200 CV, controlled from a console on the other side of the strait and very difficult for agents to detect, since it partially sinks in the water and mixes with the waves.

The police later gave more details of this operation, called 'Kraken', carried out in parallel in Cádiz, Málaga and Barcelona and in which they arrested up to eight people and seized ten different types of vehicles to hide and transport drugs, as well as six drones with up to 12 motors and the ability to cover a range of up to 30 kilometers under water. These were found in a ship in Casteller de la Frontera, in Cádiz. Two were in the manufacturing phase and one was practically finished, which was to be delivered to French customers.

"For the first time, these unmanned submersible vehicles are intervened, which represented an innovative modus operandi for the transport of narcotics and we have managed to dismantle the entire organization," the chief inspector of Udyco, José Antonio Sillero, told Televisión Española. The driver of the vehicle could direct it from an app, tens of kilometers from his house, thanks to a GPS system and a remote control that allowed him to dock it at the desired place on the coast.

Just three years earlier and also in Cádiz, the National Police managed to break up a gang of ten people using a radar system installed in two homes on the Linea de la Concepción to detect the presence of police in the area and to know when to ship the boats loaded with drugs to the coast. The device had two antennas that allowed drug traffickers to know if there was a nearby patrol or helicopters, all in real time. The criminals had hired personnel with specific subject matter knowledge who set up and operated the tracking equipment. The police investigation lasted more than a year and concluded with the arrest of these ten people. The agents seized two radars, 22 weapons, more than 70,000 kilos of hashish, three boats and 230 vehicles that the network used to take the drug from the coast to its warehouses.

In another operation that concluded earlier this year, this time by the Civil Guard with the French anti-drug police, the agents brought down a network of drug traffickers who were transporting drugs in large helicopters. The investigations had started in 2020, when both police forces detected the activity of French drug traffickers on the southern coast of Spain and discovered that this group had entered an unlicensed helicopter on the Andalusian coast from Morocco. The Civil Guard, after days of monitoring, intercepted a shipment of drugs in a helicopter in the town of Torremolinos, which had no established flight plan to the neighboring country. In total, the agents arrested eleven people and seized more than 2.4 tons of hashish and 112 kilos of marijuana.

“We have been infiltrated by a public authority. We advise you to get rid of this phone.” This message circulated in mid-June 2020 among EncroChat users, an instant messaging application that drug traffickers and other criminals had used for years to communicate and in which French and Dutch police forces had been infiltrated for months, in collaboration with police from other countries. "Over the last few months, a joint investigation has made it possible to intercept, share and analyze millions of messages exchanged between criminals," Europol explained in a press release to report that they had dismantled that exclusive communication network.

According to information from this European Agency for Police Cooperation, in recent years the countries of the continent had suffered an increase in crimes perpetrated by organized groups thanks, among other things, to communication through encryption technologies. The French Gendarmerie began investigating this application in 2017, with interventions on phones that had EncroChat downloaded, after discovering that numerous phones seized in operations used this platform. “As of 2020, a Gendarmerie group with more than 60 troops began monitoring encrypted phones and monitoring the conversations of thousands of criminals. The Dutch Police carried out a similar operation in parallel. The EncroChat tracking ended in June 2020, when the company realized that a public authority had penetrated the platform and alerted its users to destroy their terminals,” the note reported.

The application announced its closure days after knowing that it had been intervened, but the damage had already been done. In Spain, the National Police was able to arrest, thanks to the conversations monitored on EncroChat, numerous drug traffickers, some of whom were important, such as Jésus Heredia, alias El Pantoja, who was in pretrial detention at the time and was later released after paying bail. This drug mafia boss in the Strait was arrested again in March of this year.

The end of EncroChat made it possible to introduce to the general public a high-tech communications system, encrypted and only known in certain circles, an example of how drug trafficking, as well as other types of organized crime, use sophisticated systems to communicate , launder money from their juicy businesses or simply contact potential customers.

A report from the drug observatory of the Organization of American States (CICAD) warned in April 2019 that the authorities had detected up to 700 new psychoactive substances in the world and estimated that 400 were being distributed through the 'deep web'. ' or the dark web. In September of that year, the Austrian Police dismantled a drug trafficking network, linked to the Sinaloa cartel and with branches in Germany, Serbia, the Philippines and the Netherlands, which used the deep web to sell its products.

As reported by the EFE Agency at the time, the investigation began when police officers detected that an Austrian citizen repeatedly received packages containing heroin and methamphetamine from the Netherlands and Mexico, respectively. To obtain the packages, that person had made the purchase on the deep web and had made the payments with cryptocurrencies.

This year, the United Nations published a report in which he estimated at 25,000 million dollars the money that drug trafficking networks would have laundered using crypto technology, as a way to circumvent global banking systems and thus alert the authorities. "Organized crime groups in Mexico and Colombia are increasing the use of virtual currencies due to the speed and anonymity of these transactions," the document specified.

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