- The FBI and its partners duped international criminal organizations with a fake encrypted messaging app.
- The FBI reviewed more than 20 million messages from suspected criminals using the app.
- The messages show accused drug traffickers stuffing shipments of tuna cans, bananas, and pineapples with cocaine.
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The FBI reviewed more than 20 million messages as part of an international sting operation announced Tuesday that duped suspected criminals into using an encrypted chat app controlled by the agency.
Agents learned through those conversations some of the more creative ways that overseas drug traffickers try to move product, which include stuffing drugs into boxes of bananas, hollowed-out pineapples, and tuna cans.
The FBI said informants provided suspected criminal organizations around the world with 12,000 devices equipped with the FBI-controlled messaging app, which is called ANOM. Operation Trojan Shield, as it’s called, gave law enforcement an opportunity to learn the inner workings of international drug and firearms trafficking organizations.
Court documents first reported by Motherboard’s Joseph Cox show just how closely law enforcement was able to monitor suspected criminals’ plans through an app they were made to believe was secure. The documents include examples of the “criminal conversations” the FBI reviewed.
The court documents quote two people identified by the usernames Ironman and Real G who used the ANOM app in May 2020 to discuss how they would transport drugs between Colombia and Hong Kong. Ironman told Real G that there was no corrupt official at the Hong Kong port to clear a shipment, and asked how the cocaine would be shipped.
In response, Real G sent a photo of packages of suspected cocaine and said it would be shipped in crates of bananas.
“They cover this with a layer of banana,” the user said, according to the court documents.
The court documents show that in October 2020, an organization arranged to transport cocaine from Ecuador to Belgium in a shipping container hidden among cans of tuna. US agents who worked in Brussels searched the container alongside local police and found 613 kilograms of cocaine inside, and an additional 1,523 kilos of the drug were found in a different container headed to Antwerp, according to the documents.
In April 2021, the FBI learned that a criminal organization was planning to ship cocaine from Ecuador to Spain using a container filled with refrigerated fish, according to the documents. Law enforcement from Spain searched the container when it arrived into the Port of Algeciras and found 1,401 kilos of cocaine.
A month later, the FBI and law enforcement in Spain intercepted a shipment to the same port and found 1,595 kilos of cocaine stuffed into hollowed-out pineapples, according to the documents.
“The conversations detailed above are a small sample set pulled from more than 20 million messages that FBI reviewed of Anom’s criminal users,” FBI Special Agent Nicholas I. Cheviron wrote in a court document seeking a search warrant for Google headquarters in Mountain View, California. “From those messages, more than 450,000 photos have been sent detailing conversations on other encrypted platforms discussing criminal activity, cryptocurrency transactions, bulk cash smuggling, law enforcement corruption, and self-identification information.”
Those communications included alleged “plots to kill, mass drug trafficking and gun distribution,” Australian police said in an announcement Tuesday.
Information gleaned from the app ultimately led to the arrests of 800 people in Australia and across Europe, according to the FBI and Europol. In addition to the drugs, law enforcement also seized 55 luxury vehicles and more than $48 million in various currencies as part of the operation, Europol said in its release.