Drug Smuggling Is Getting a High Tech Makeover

Liquid cocaine in drug mules and intercontinental subs are changing the game for drug cartels.

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Dec 11 2014, 3:00pm

​Image: ​Wikimedia Commons

If you think the Drug Enforcement Administration or any other global narcotics agency can stop the international illicit drug trade, think again. As law enforcement turns to Predator drones, special forces operations, and satellite surveillance to provide round-the-clock tabs on smugglers, it is imperative for narcos to stay ahead of the game—and that's exactly what they're doing.

Technological evolutions like liquid cocaine, hyperspeed boats, and cartel submarines, have completely changed the game when it comes to policing drugs.

The UN estimates that the global drug trade is now worth somewhere between $450 to $750 billion annually. Smuggling those drugs across the globe has evolved from the employment of simple drug mules, to the use ofhighly secretive design and development of intercontinental submarines capable of carrying hundreds of millions of dollars worth of contraband in a single trip.

Add to that a global crisis such as the Russian capture of Crimea which opened up a highly profitable new smuggling route, and drug trafficking is set for the dawn of a new era. Stuff like submarines and drone are beginning to appear as regulars in underworld drug smuggling tradecraft.

Not only is the technology in the drug trade evolving rapidly, but the global drug smuggling ecosystem itself has been undergoing seismic shifts over the past few years. The UN announced that in 2013, Peru had overtaken Columbia, the traditional home of cocaine cartels, as the world's largest producer of the famous white powder-opiate. Instead of being shipped north to Miami, an increasing amount of this South American cocaine is now flowing into West Africa to be processed into crack instead of passing through southern Europe.

Behind a large part of this global trade is the Sinaloa Cartel, or as journalist James Bargent calls them, the "General Electric" of drug trafficking. The enormity of its smuggling empire allows the outfit the resources to develop innovative methods of getting their products from point A to point B.

Drug enforcement agents in America are constantly bewildered by the ingenuity of Sinaloa tools, like the firetruck sized drillers it used to tunnel into America. Yet, despite the effectiveness of expensive systems, drug traffickers have maintained a reliance on human drug mules—they're reinventing the age-old drug caravan.

As researchers from the Journal of Forensic Scien​ce, Medicine and Pathology point out, "there are numerous and highly imaginative forms of smuggling, but one common method for illegal drug transport is intracorporeally in the gastrointestinal tract, usually by swallowing, and to a lesser extent, by rectal or vaginal insertion."

There are two problems with this method of smuggling, however. The drug mule is forced to navigate, for one, through airports, the majority of which are heavily surveilled. And then the person smuggling the drugs is also highly susceptible to death if the drugs spill or leak inside their bodies, rendering the product unextractable.

Liquid cocaine is a novel method for smuggling drugs

That's why cartels are increasingly turning to liquid cocaine. For narco traffickers, liquid cocaine is the future of drug trafficking. "Liquid cocaine is a novel method for smuggling drugs," said the same researchers. "Cocaine powder can be dissolved in a variety of solvents to produce a liquid form which allows later conversion back to powder. Liquid cocaine's radiologic properties are different than those of cocaine powder making it harder to detect on abdominal plain films."

So hard to detect, in fact, that the packets of cocaine remain hidden to trained specialists . Unlike the powder form, the liquid packets have indistinct borders and can therefore resemble regular bowel content. That means a suspected drug mule would have to be processed all the way through to a CT scan in order to confirm the presence of cocaine.

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Airports don't exactly have CT scanners lying around, either. While they do have full body scanners, the level of detail from a full body scan doesn't give you the same thorough imaging a CT scan gives you. According to Dr. Andrew J. Einstein, director of cardiac CT research at Columbia University, those machines lack the sheer power of a CT scan.

"A passenger would need to be scanned using a backscatter scanner, from both the front and the back, about 200,000 times to receive the amount of radiation equal to one typical CT scan," Einstein told me.

One other enormous benefit of liquid cocaine is the ability to incorporate the substance into any other material, like clothing, or in one recent case, a very long hiking rope. The problem is so extensive that Bolivian government officials have even admitted to being wholly unable to detect the presence of liquid cocaine. Instead, the Bolivians are resorting to retraining airport agents to detect smugglers based on their appearance and behaviour.

The problem is beginning to show itself stateside as well with U.S agents recently arresting a man at JFK airport who attempted to smuggle $300,000 worth of liquid cocaine disguise​d as rum.

Drug enforcement agents around the world will continue to face more and more of these attempts until surveillance systems capable of clear detection are built. The prospect of that however seems dim at this point in time and with the resources at their disposal, it's quite likely that the smugglers are already working on the next iteration which will keep them one step ahead.

As officials from Argentina discovered in May, drug smug​glers have already found a way to produce the liquid cocaine en masse. The shipment they tracked down in that particular case was worth over $40 million, and headed right for the US. The crime syndicate mixed liquid cocaine into a shipment of insulating oil with the help of a Mexican chemist.

With this type of ingenuity at play, and the lawlessness of Crimean ports, it's easy to understand how enormous the opportunity to smuggle drugs through new routes like Sevastopol into Europe really is. At this point, global authorities face a growing challenge when it comes to keeping up with the latest technologies and tactics of the world's narco elites.