The man who got the FBI’s fake messaging app off the ground says pulling off one of the biggest police stings in history wasn’t the only goal

Operation Trojan Shield
The FBI partnered with law enforcement around the world to target suspected drug and gun traffickers with a fake messaging app.

  • Authorities arrested hundreds of suspected criminals after tricking them into using an FBI-controlled chat app.
  • The former prosecutor who oversaw the operation told Insider the sting warned criminals that encrypted technology can’t hide their wrongdoing.
  • He wouldn’t expand on whether extremist groups that organize over encrypted apps should heed the warning, too.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The arrests of more than 800 suspected drug and gun traffickers last week in one of the biggest police stings in history wasn’t the only goal of the FBI developing a fake encrypted chat app for criminals, according to the former prosecutor in charge of the operation.

The FBI partnered with law enforcement around the world to get 12,000 devices loaded with a fake encrypted messaging app into the hands of suspected criminals – and then read every word. Monitoring the FBI-controlled app, called ANOM, gave law enforcement an opportunity to learn the inner workings of transnational drug and firearms trafficking organizations.

Andrew Young, the former assistant US attorney who oversaw Operation Trojan Shield, told Insider a primary goal of the operation was to send a message to suspected criminals that encrypted technology will not protect them.

“Building the evidence on all these other people, and all the arrests and the seizures, and certainly the murders that were prevented was incredible,” Young said. “But one of the main goals was actually sort of that public relations goal: to show that the FBI is willing and able to do something like this, and that there’s no reason to think they aren’t doing it now or again.”

Young wouldn’t expand on whether domestic extremist groups that organize over encrypted apps, like the Boogaloo Bois and Proud Boys, whose members have been tied to the January 6 insurrection, should interpret Operation Trojan Shield as a sign the FBI could be monitoring their communications.

“That’s harder for me to say just because I’m not in their minds and I don’t know what they think, or what they intend to do, or what they should do to be better at what they’re trying to do,” Young said.

“I think what they should take from this is that law enforcement is not just going to sit back and say, ‘This isn’t a solvable problem so we just can’t do anything about it at all,'” he added. “There’s creative people and innovative people within the government and within law enforcement who are trying to solve these problems, and they’re going to continue to work at it regardless of whatever platform they have.”

Cocaine was shopped in tuna cans, Operation Trojan Shield
Drug traffickers hid cocaine in tuna cans while shipping it internationally, the FBI learned through Operation Trojan Shield.

How one of the biggest police stings in history got its start

Young was the Justice Department’s lead prosecutor on the ANOM case until August 2020, when he left to take a job at the law firm Barnes & Thornburg. He told Insider how what began as a investigation into a small-time gambling ring morphed into one of the biggest police stings in history.

“One of the best achievements of this entire operation was that it never got out,” Young said, given that more than a dozen nations participated.

The case got its start when investigators looking into the organizer of a gambling ring in 2015 realized the man was actually making most of his illegal proceeds from drug trafficking, according to Young. The man kept the gambling and drug businesses siloed, and used an encrypted communications device to be especially secretive when it came to the trafficking, he said.

That led the Justice Department to set its sights on Phantom Secure, a company they believed was creating encrypted devices and marketing them toward criminal enterprises that used them to freely share details about their operations. In 2018, Vincent Ramos, the chief executive of Phantom Secure, pleaded guilty to leading a criminal enterprise that facilitated the transnational importation and distribution of narcotics. He was sentenced to nine years in prison.

At that time, Young’s team considered using the Phantom Secure technology for wiretaps, but he said it fell through.

“Then we were at the stage where you can just shut everything down and move on to something entirely different, or think, ‘Is there something left here to do?'” Young said. “That’s around the time we were presented with a device and the opportunity to have a covert operation. That was the early, early stage of the idea.”

After overcoming the logistical and bureaucratic obstacles to getting the operation off the ground both in the US and in Australia, Young’s team learned through the FBI-controlled app how criminal enterprises communicate and ship illegal drugs internationally – often times by hiding it in shipments of food items, like hollowed-out pineapples or tuna cans.

Information gleaned from the app had led to the arrests of more than 800 people in Australia and across Europe as of last week, 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.

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To help fight COVID-19, Mexico is going to give away the mansions of 2 once-powerful drug kingpins

el chapo guzman
Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán, center, arrives at an airport in Long Island during his extradition to the US, January 19, 2017.

  • Mexico’s president recently a “mega raffle” with 22 prizes valued at $12.5 million, the proceeds of which will be used for COVID-19 vaccines.
  • Among the goods being given away are mansions that belonged to two of Mexico’s most well known cartel bosses: Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán and Amado Carrillo Fuentes.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Ciudad Juarez, MEXICO – The million-dollar houses of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, formerly boss of the Sinaloa Cartel, and Amado Carrillo Fuentes, deceased boss of the Juárez Cartel, will pay for COVID-19 vaccines for Mexicans.

Mexican government recently announced it will hold a “mega raffle” on September 15 with 22 prizes and a total value of $12.5 million, including the two former drug lords’ seized mansions.

President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said the money raised from the lottery will go “back to the people.”

“All of the money raised is going to be delivered to the people and help to buy [COVID-19] vaccines and medicines and to give away some scholarships” he said at his daily morning press conference on May 27.

The houses failed to sell when previously raffled by the Institute to Return Stolen Goods to the People, or Indep, which Lopez Obrador created to redistribute seized assets.

Amado Carrillo Fuentes
Amado Carrillo Fuentes, far left, in a photo found in one of his houses after a raid.

Carrillo Fuentes’ former residence is located in the exclusive Mexico City residential neighborhood of Jardines del Pedregal and is valued at about $4 million, according to Indep.

The property, seized more than 20 years ago, is over 32,000 square feet and has an indoor pool, nine bedrooms, several Jacuzzis and saunas, a wine cellar, and a party salon. According to the listing, Fuentes’ house is fully furnished.

El Chapo’s property is located in Culiacán, the capital of Sinaloa state on Mexico’s west coast and his cartel’s home turf. It was where Guzmán escaped arrest in February 2014 by using a secret tunnel under a bathtub. Public records don’t say if the tunnel is still there.

El Chapo’s house has two bedrooms, a living room, dining room, garage and a front garden, according to the public listing. Although more modest, it is valued at $200,000, a high price for Sinaloa’s real-estate market.

The lottery also includes a historic box at the Estadio Azteca, the iconic Mexico City stadium that holds over 87,500 people. The box has its own story: It is where then-President Miguel de la Madrid handed the World Cup trophy to Diego Maradona in 1986, crowning Argentina champion.

Estadio Azteca
Mexico’s Estadio Azteca.

According to the listing, the stadium box is “in an excellent location” and has a 20-person capacity, a bathroom, and four parking spaces. The box is valued at $1 million and would be held until 2065.

In 2019, Mexico offered six other homes seized from Guzmán. Only three sold, bringing in a total of $227,844. One of them, the steel-enforced safe house where Guzmán sheltered after his first prison escape in 2001, went for $107,530.

The government held a similar raffle in September 2020 in which the top prize was the presidential jet, but the $130 million Boeing 787 Dreamliner failed to sell.

Lopez Obrador decided to hold another lottery where 100 winners would get $1 million in cash, but that also failed when only 30% of the tickets were sold. There have been no more attempts to sell the plane.

Drug lords’ mansions

mexico marine drug cartel
A Mexican marine lifts a bathtub covering a tunnel in one of Guzmán’s homes in Culiacan. The tunnel leads to the city’s drainage system.

Guzmán was one of the most notorious and elusive of Mexico’s drug kingpins until his final arrest in Mexico in 2016. He was extradited in 2017 and convicted in a US federal court in 2019 on 10 charges, receiving a life sentence in a US federal “supermax” prison.

In 2009, Forbes magazine ranked Guzmán at number 701 on its annual list of billionaires, with an estimated net worth of $1 billion. (A woman believed to be Guzmán’s eldest daughter has a fashion line called “El Chapo 701,” referring to his ranking.)

Guzmán owned six houses in Culiacan alone. Most are middle-class properties, but they all have one thing in common: a hydraulic system installed under the bathtub to lift the tub and provide access to the municipal sewage tunnels he used to escape.

He also owned an apartment in Mazatlán, Sinaloa’s most famous tourist beach. The property is part of the Miramar apartment complex and is where he was last captured. The complex became a tourist attraction and remains Mexican government property.

El Chapo also built a picturesque luxury hacienda for his mother, Consuelo Loera, in the town of Badiraguato in the mountains of Sinaloa, where Guzmán was born. The hacienda has four rooms, a large kitchen, and a small chapel in the back.

Mexico Sinaloa Badiraguato Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador sign billboard
A billboard welcoming Lopez Obrador ahead of his visit to Badiraguato, February 15, 2019.

After a violent attack by a group believed to be Guzmán’s enemies in 2016, Consuelo Loera left the property, which remains abandoned.

Carrillo Fuentes – known as ‘El señor de los cielos,’ or “the lord of the skies,” for using planes to smuggle tons of drugs into the US – died 1997 during plastic surgery to change his appearance.

Many of Carrillo Fuentes’ properties have met the same fate that Guzmán’s now face. His more luxurious residences – among them a 2,000-square-foot apartment and a 6,000-acre ranch – were in Argentina, where he lived for a year in 1996.

In 2018, Argentina auctioned his three properties there, selling them for a total of $14 million.

He had several other properties in Mexico, including an arabesque-like mansion in Hermosillo, in the northern state of Sonora, and a luxurious mansion in southwestern Jalisco state; the latter was known as “Casa Versace” after the Italian brand established its first Mexican boutique in 1994.

Carrillo’s property in Sonora was recently demolished by the state government, while Casa Versace was bought by a private owner and turned into a reception hall.

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The end of pandemic-related lockdown is bringing a wave of cocaine to Puerto Rico

Coast Guard Caribbean cocaine Puerto Rico
Coast Guard cutter Heriberto Hernandez crew members offload over 200 kilograms of cocaine, valued at over $5.6 million, at Coast Guard Base San Juan, March 2, 2021.

  • A surge in cocaine seizures indicates that routes through Puerto Rico are reactivating after pandemic-related dormancy.
  • Puerto Rico has strategic value for traffickers moving drugs to the US because of its status as a US territory.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Puerto Rico is seeing a surge in cocaine seizures, indicating that drug flows are being reactivated after months of dormancy amid pandemic lockdowns and that the island is on track to tally a record drug haul in 2021.

The latest seizure occurred on April 17, when the United States Coast Guard intercepted a speedboat traveling along the coast of Aguadilla that was carrying 400 kilograms of cocaine, El Nuevo Día reported.

According to Puerto Rican authorities, the total amount of cocaine seized was up by nearly half year-on-year through March and 64% through mid-April.

On April 8, Puerto Rico tallied a record cocaine haul, according to the Associated Press. Puerto Rican Police Commissioner Antonio López reported the seizure of 2.4 tons, valued at $50 million. López explained that the drugs were being transported in speedboats off the southeastern town of Yabucoa.

One month beforehand, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) reported the seizure of almost two tons of cocaine, also in Yabucoa.

According to InSight Crime’s press monitoring, around six tons of cocaine have been seized from January to late April along the island’s Caribbean Coast. This compares to 15.6 tons for 2019, already one of the highest totals on record, according to data from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

In its most recent National Drug Threat Assessment, the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) mentioned that Puerto Rico is used as a transit point by Dominican, Colombian and Venezuelan drug traffickers, as well as Mexico’s Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG).

The island offers strategic value for traffickers moving drugs to the United States due to its status as a US territory. Once the drug shipments enter Puerto Rico, they are more easily transported to the continental United States, as Puerto Ricans can transit freely and do not have to go through customs controls.

InSight Crime analysis

Coast Guard Caribbean cocaine Puerto Rico
Coast Guard crew members offload 302 kilograms of cocaine valued at $8.5 million in San Juan, Puerto Rico, January 28, 2021.

Puerto Rican authorities believe that the spike in cocaine transiting the island is due to the months of restrictions on transit amid the pandemic, the testing of new trafficking routes and the backlog of accumulated drugs.

“[Due to the confinement], drug traffickers had difficulties in moving merchandise. The consequence may have been that the drugs accumulated and they are looking for ways to enter the drugs,” Lt. Felícita Coreano, director of the Puerto Rico’s United Rapid Action Force (Fuerzas Unidas de Rápida Acción – FURA), told El Nuevo Día.

According to the DEA, cocaine shipments enter Puerto Rico almost entirely by sea. The shipments are mostly sent by speedboats and fishing vessels from Colombia and Venezuela. These boats usually make a stop in the Dominican Republic, where the drugs are collected by criminal networks who then move them to other destinations, including Puerto Rico.

However, in its latest report, the DEA warned of a new speedboat route directly connecting Venezuela to Puerto Rico and bypassing the Dominican Republic. This route could be behind the increasingly large shipments found in the US territory.

“[The drug traffickers] are looking to expand and find new shipping routes,” Habib Massari, a drug policy expert in Puerto Rico, told El Nuevo Día.

Investigations conducted by InSight Crime in the Caribbean indicate that a number of criminal networks in Puerto Rico provide logistical services for international traffickers, especially Dominican groups.

Dominican groups are responsible for coordinating drug shipments from Puerto Rico to the United States ­- particularly to northeastern states – via shipping containers, messenger services, private planes and “mules.”

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A new DEA map shows where cartels have influence in the US. Cartel operatives say ‘it’s bulls—‘

drugs mexico cartels
Mexican soldiers stand guard next to packages of marijuana at a military base in Tijuana, June 13, 2015.

  • The Drug Enforcement Administration’s latest report on illicit drugs and drug trafficking details what the agency says is cartel influence in the US.
  • Security experts and cartel operatives in Mexico dispute the DEA’s depiction, however, arguing the links are more tenuous than the DEA describes them.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Ciudad Juarez, MEXICO – The US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) recently released its annual National Drug Threat Assessment, in which it maps out the states where Mexican drug cartels have gained “influence.”

Asked about that depiction of cartel presence in the US, security experts and cartel sources told Insider “it’s bullshit.”

The DEA’s report says Mexican transnational criminal organizations, or TCOs, “maintain great influence” in most US states, with the Sinaloa Cartel and Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generacion showing the “biggest signs of expansion.”

A map included in the report shows the Sinaloa Cartel, Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generacion, Cartel del Golfo, Organización de Beltran-Leyva, and Los Rojos as the most “influential” drug organizations with presence in Texas, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Chicago, New York, Florida, Kansas, Colorado, Hawaii and Puerto Rico, among other states.

“Mexican TCOs continue to control lucrative smuggling corridors, primarily across the SWB [Southwest Border], and maintain the greatest drug trafficking influence in the United States,” the report says.

DEA map cartel influence in US
Major Mexican organized-crime groups’ areas of influence in the US, according to the DEA’s 2020 National Drug Threat Assessment.

But operatives for the Sinaloa Cartel and Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generacion interviewed by Insider said their criminal organizations maintain “only clients or helpers” across the border and “not members of our organization.”

“You would never see anyone in the US saying they are part of the organization [Sinaloa Cartel], because that is bulls—. The members and leaders of the organization are in Mexico, not in the US. What we have there are clients or associates, people helping transport, or gang members working with us,” a Sinaloa Cartel operative told Insider.

The operative explained that most of the gangs or “associates” in the US work as independents.

“We wholesale to them and what they do to that merchandise is their problem. We don’t give a f—. They can loose it, sell it, snort it, whatever, as long as they pay up,” he said.

One of the most prominent cases used to prove Mexican cartels’ presence in the US was that of Pedro and Margarito Flores, two brothers from Chicago accused of importing cocaine for the Sinaloa Cartel.

Pedro and Margarito Flores
Pedro Flores, left, and his twin brother, Margarito Flores, in undated photos from a wanted poster released by the US Marshals Service.

The Flores brothers admitted to smuggling at least 1,500 kgs of cocaine for the Sinaloa cartel into the US every month between 2005 and 2008. According to their guilty pleas, they also sent more than $930 million in “bulk cash” back to the cartel in Mexico.

US authorities allege the brothers were part of the Sinaloa Cartel, but a phone call of a negotiation with then-Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman that was made public during Guzman‘s trial in 2018 revealed Flores brothers bargaining over the price of a 20 kg shipment of heroin.

“Do you think we can work something out where you can deduct five pesos from those for me?” said a man identified as Pedro Flores.

“How much are you going to pay for it?” said the other man on the call, allegedly Guzman.

‘It just doesn’t make sense’

Philadelphia cocaine drug bust
A fraction of the cocaine seized from a ship at a Philadelphia port on display at the US Custom House in Philadelphia, June 21, 2019.

Alejandro Hope, a security analyst in Mexico and former official with CISEN, Mexico’s top security intelligence organization, said the DEA warns of Mexican drug cartels being active in the US in order “to keep asking for money.”

“It’s DEA’s bulls—. They have been doing this for years, and it just doesn’t make sense. Cartels today are not structured [like] a hierarchy organization, but more like a decentralized network,” Hope told Insider.

“The logic behind the DEA [report] is to argue there is an invasion of external forces so they can justify more budget and support from the US,” he said.

Neither DEA headquarters nor its offices in Texas and Arizona responded to requests for comment on the map.

The report describes the Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generacion as “one of the fastest growing cartels” and says the organization “smuggles illicit drugs into the United States by accessing various trafficking corridors in northern Mexico along the SWB including Tijuana, Juarez and Nuevo Laredo.”

“The cartels dominate the drug trade influencing the United States market, with most cartels having a poly drug market approach that allows for maximum flexibility and resiliency of their operations,” the report states.

The report doesn’t describe how these organizations maintain their presence in the US.

“The DEA has a problem with semantics. What does influence actually mean? What does presence even mean? An associate is no other thing but a client,” Hope said.

US drug market mexican cartel control DEA map
The cartel areas of influence map from the 2016 National Drug Threat Assessment.

An operative for Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generacion said the organization maintained a large group of members in Mexico who are “mostly on the armed side of the operations,” while most contacts in the US were clients.

“Most of what we can call members of the Jalisco organization are on the arms [side], like sicarios, and some producers that are on a payroll, but everyone else is either a client we are selling to or an association to have access to certain route” for distribution in the US, he said.

Some intelligence officials believe Mexican cartels do have a real presence on US soil but function differently there.

“The substantial difference is that drug criminal enterprises are not displaying force at the border with the US because it is not needed. We should take into account that keeping a low profile is good for their activities and business, just as any other corporation,” said a high-level foreign intelligence official in Mexico who asked for anonymity.

The official said cartel associates in the US have something like membership, even if they aren’t part of the cartel structure, and “are using the brand” to prove their drugs’ quality.

“We need to consider that they act just as another transnational company, with their level of organization, distribution, reach, and territory control. They do have a presence in the US in how their drug has a brand backing up certain quality,” the official said.

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Police in Spain have seized the first ‘narco sub’ built in Europe

Spain narco sub
A semi-submersible vessel designed to transport up to two tons of drugs, known as a “narco sub,” seized by Spain’s National Police in February 2020.

  • On March 12, Spanish police announced the seizure of a 9-meter semi-submersible vessel designed to transport up to 2 tons of drugs.
  • It was the first known narco-submarine to have been built in Spain or in Europe and indicates that knowledge needed for building the vessels is possibly being exported.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Authorities in Europe – already overwhelmed by a flood of cocaine arriving in cargo ships – now must face another smuggling method that has bedeviled law enforcement in the Americas: the “narco-submarine.”

On March 12, Spain’s National Police announced the seizure of a 9-meter semi-submersible vessel designed to transport up to two tons of drugs. The submarine was still in the process of being assembled when it was discovered in a warehouse in the country’s coastal province of Málaga.

It was the first known narco-submarine to have been constructed in Spain, according to police. Europol officials later confirmed that it was also the first seized sub have been built anywhere in Europe, saying that vessels intercepted in the past had been manufactured in Latin America.

The seizure came as part of an anti-drug operation carried out by Europol, with help from authorities in Spain, the Netherlands, Colombia, Portugal, the United Kingdom and the United States.

The trafficking group – which operated out of Spain’s northeastern Catalonia region and was composed of Spanish, Colombian and Dominican nationals – moved cocaine, hashish and marijuana across Europe. Between April 2020 and February 2021, a string of operations helped break up the network, resulting in 52 arrests and the seizure of over three tons of cocaine.

InSight Crime analysis

Spain narco sub cocaine drug smuggling
The Spanish civil guard tows a sunken submarine in northwest Spain, November 26, 2019. Authorities said it was the first time a sub was found to be used in drug trafficking in Spain.

The discovery of the first narco-submarine manufactured in Spain indicates that knowledge needed for building the vessels is possibly being exported.

Drug submarines have traditionally sailed up the Pacific from Colombia to the United States. The vessels first appeared in the late 1990s but really took off about a decade later, with improved designs and construction. Difficult to detect and able to carry large cocaine loads, the submarines continue to be a favored trafficking method.

During the first eight months of last year, 27 semi-submersible vessels were seized, Colombian Adm. Hernando Mattos reported. Fourteen were detected in Colombian waters, and another 13 in international waters.

Traffickers based in Europe, meanwhile, have principally relied on using shipping containers and human smugglers, known as drug mules, to distribute cocaine across the continent.

In 2019, however, the first submarine to cross the Atlantic was intercepted off the coast of Spain. And now the first narco-sub building site has been found in that country.

While the vessel was likely to be used to move drugs around Europe, rather than to make a long-haul trip, it is possible that South American traffickers have been sharing their technical expertise with counterparts in Europe.

At an online seminar earlier this month, InSight Crime co-director Jeremy McDermott said that the technology and manufacturing know-how needed to construct drug submarines are being exported by criminal groups.

As drug seizures targeting shipping containers have risen, narco-submarines could become more attractive to traffickers, despite their high construction costs.

If that is the case, European authorities should prepare for anti-submarine operations such as those seen in the United States, where dramatic videos of guardsmen jumping on speeding vessels are not uncommon.

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Mexico’s tourist corridor is becoming a dream destination for drug traffickers

Playa del Carmen Quintana Roo Mexico police soldiers beach
Municipal police stand guard on the beach in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, January 17, 2017.

  • Recent high-profile drug plane interceptions suggest the once tranquil Mexican state of Quintana Roo is growing as a drug-trafficking hub.
  • Most of the drugs are likely smuggled on to the US, while some are shipped to Europe or remain in Mexico for domestic production.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

A recent string of high-profile drug plane interceptions suggests the once tranquil Mexican state of Quintana Roo is being increasingly relied upon as a drug trafficking hub.

On February 5, local media reports claimed a Cessna-type jet suspected of being used by drug traffickers had been found partially incinerated after it landed in the community of Nuevo Tabasco, close to Quintana Roo’s border with Campeche.

Military officials were present at the site, as it was suspected drugs transported by the plane might have been hidden in mountains surrounding the illegal landing spot, according to local media outlet, Quadratín Quintana Roo.

The report added that the aircraft had been detected by Mexico’s air force earlier that morning, before it was found partially destroyed hours later.

Last year, the state saw a number of irregular landings linked to drug trafficking.

In October, Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador confirmed in a morning press conference that a plane carrying 1.5 tons of cocaine had landed at Chetumal Airport in southern Quintana Roo just hours earlier.

López Obrador reported that three suspicious jets had been detected entering Mexican airspace before they were swiftly pursued by members of the nation’s military and Secretary of National Defense. While one plane landed in Chetumal, with authorities subsequently detaining a member of its crew, the remaining two aircraft managed to evade authorities.

Mexico soldier Cancun
A Mexican soldier patrols a street in Cancun, August 19, 2007.

Military sources suggested the planes could have arrived in the state from Colombia or Venezuela, according to Sol Quintana Roo.

Last July, the state’s then-police chief, Alberto Capella, tweeted that a plane suspected of being involved in illicit activities had strikingly landed on a public highway in the municipality of Chunhuhub.

After consulting military sources, Milenio reported the Hawker 700 jet had initiated its journey in Venezuela, before landing on the Mexican road in broad daylight, where a truck was awaiting its descent. The media outlet added that authorities later found both vehicles abandoned, discovering just under half a ton of cocaine worth over $5.2 million left in the deserted truck.

Drug planes from Argentina and Colombia also disembarked in Quintana Roo last year.

Authorities intercepted an aircraft piloted by two Bolivian nationals traveling from Argentina to Mexico’s largely touristic Cozumel island in January 2020, seizing around a ton of cocaine in the process.

Some of those making such flights have reportedly managed to transport their illicit loads onward overland.

Most crews have evaded capture, despite being traced and pursued by authorities.

Just beyond Quintana Roo’s southern border, Belize has also seen such flights land illegally, as drugs are increasingly trafficked northward. On January 29 of this year, a clandestine aircraft carrying over 90 kilograms of suspected cocaine disembarked in the nation, with nine people detained following its descent, media outlet Amandala reported.

InSight Crime analysis

Mexico Cancun soldiers mall shooting
Mexican soldiers in a mall following reports of gunfire, in Cancun, January 17, 2017.

Illicit flights disembarking in the state have largely carried sizeable shipments of cocaine, ultimately fueled by record production of the drug in a host of South American countries including Colombia, Bolivia and Peru.

While 2021 has only seen one such flight disembark in Quintana Roo so far, last year eight aircraft linked to drug trafficking were reported to have made irregular landings in the state, preceded by 2019’s staggering total of 14, according to the Quadratín Quintana Roo.

However, the media outlet added that Mexico’s air surveillance system – controlled by the nation’s air force – reports an average of three irregular flights made within the state’s boundaries per week.

Although cocaine has passed through Quintana Roo for decades, security analyst Alejandro Hope told InSight Crime that an increased number of drug flights landing in the state in recent years may be a product of the tightening land border between Mexico and Central American countries, as well as former US President Donald Trump’s pressure on the Mexican government to act in this respect.

Most of the drugs that are successfully transported on from Quintana Roo ultimately reach the US, while some are shipped to Europe or remain in Mexico for domestic production, according to Hope.

The analyst added that those who receive the cocaine in Quintana Roo may be linked to the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (CJNG). The drugs may also be collected by residual members of the Gulf Cartel and Zetas, who have been known to operate in the state, Hope suggested.

InSight Crime reported on how Quintana Roo has seen an increase in violence related to organized crime of late, with independent cartels battling for control over lucrative drug distribution points. Such battles have been spilling over into events attended by tourists, allegedly including a music festival in Tulum last October.

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Trump’s crackdown on the US-Mexico border has been a moneymaker for border agents working with traffickers

FILE PHOTO: A police officer gives a leaflet with information about coronavirus disease (COVID-19) to a person entering to Mexico from the United States, in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico March 29, 2020. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez
A police officer gives a leaflet with information about COVID-19 to a person entering Mexico in Ciudad Juarez, March 29, 2020.

  • President Donald Trump has cracked down on the US-Mexico border throughout his time office, increasing enforcement and putting up new barriers to entry.
  • But instead of stopping illicit traffic across the border, those tighter restrictions have likely facilitated the corruption that criminal groups rely on to move drugs and people into the US.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Ciudad Juarez, MEXICO – President Donald Trump’s crackdown on the US-Mexico border hasn’t stopped illicit traffic crossing it or deterred officials who secretly help it across.

Mexican drug cartels have been paying more money to more US agents than ever before in order to move drugs and people across the border, according to documents and sources who spoke to Insider.

The Trump administration has spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to virtually close the border. Trump has built and often bragged about 400 miles of new border wall, installed dozens of surveillance cameras manned by the military, and boosted the number of border agents.

But none of that has had the desired effect: Traffickers have paid millions of dollars to US border agents to keep drugs and people flowing throughout Trump’s time in office.

“We pay as much as $10,000 to a migra [Border Patrol officer] only to look the other way while we are using a tunnel to smuggle drugs and to tell us of new trends on surveillance,” said a Mexican woman in charge of smuggling operations for a drug cartel in El Paso, Texas.

As Trump tightened surveillance on the border, their costs went up.

border wall
Contractors erect a section of 30-foot high border wall along the Colorado River in Yuma, Arizona, September 10, 2019.

“We used to pay no more than $5,000 to a single agent a month or every two months, but now we are paying twice that every month for a migra to give some information,” the woman told Insider.

The cartel operative, who asked not to be identified to avoid retribution, said cartels not only have ties to the Border Patrol but to CBP officers at the international bridges as well.

“Some of them provide us with the shift role so we know who is gonna be working where on that week and plan our shipment. That way we know if one of the agents working [with us] is gonna be on a shift and exactly on which lane number,” she said.

In addition to bribes with money, cartels use young girls, according to a Mexican diplomatic source, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly.

“They are bribing CBP officers on ports of entry with girls. The girls start hanging out with them and they convince the officers to let illegal cargo through,” the source said.

The cartel operative in El Paso confirmed that was a method to entice border agents.

Border agents “love alcohol and women,” she said. “We started inviting some of the agents to party across the border, in a house we have in Juarez [in Mexico], and we set him up. At the beginning the officer working for us started because we were threatening him with showing his pictures with an underage girl to his wife, but later he learned to love money.”

FILE PHOTO: A woman touches a family member through the border fence between Ciudad Juarez and El Paso, United States, after a bi-national Mass in support of migrants in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, February 15, 2016. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez
A woman in Mexico touches a family member through the border fence between Ciudad Juarez and El Paso, after a bi-national Mass in support of migrants, February 15, 2016.

Stricter controls at the border are directly responsible for an uptick in corruption cases, most of them related to organized crime, according to David Jancsics, a professor at San Diego State University and author of the 2020 report “Corruption on the US-Mexico border.”

“Tighter border security may further increase the level of this type of bribery. A trust-based strategic conspiracy between the corrupt partners is already the dominant form of border corruption in the United States,” Jancsics said.

Jancsics’ report estimates that workers with the Department of Homeland Security accepted $15 million of bribes over a 10-year period.

“By the logic I would say with Trump the corruption must be worse than before, but it’s very difficult to say. We only know of people arrested, which are small numbers – the tip of the iceberg,” said Jancsics.

During the Obama administration, cases of misconduct among border officers dropped steadily. But since 2017, when Trump took office, cases have reached a five-year high, according to a recent internal Customs and Border Patrol report.

There were 286 total arrests during fiscal year 2018 – 268 CBP employees arrested twice, one employee arrested four times, and one employee arrested five times.

The charges include drug smuggling, bribery, theft, and sharing classified government data, records show.

“As an Agency charged with law enforcement activities, CBP regards any violation of law by its employees as being inconsistent with and contrary to its law enforcement mission,” the CBP report states.

During 2020, at least a dozen CBP employees were arrested on suspicion of working directly with criminal organizations at the border, according to media releases.

Trump and border patrol
President Donald Trump with US Customs and Border Protection officers at McAllen International Airport in McAllen, Texas, January 10, 2019.

In August, a Border Patrol agent in Arizona was arrested on suspicion of trafficking drugs for a Mexican criminal organization. The same month, a US border agent was arrested in Juarez and accused of smuggling 30 rounds of ammunition, a loaded firearm magazine, and a bulletproof vest.

In September, six border agents were arrested on suspicion of stealing cocaine and marijuana from dealers to sell in the US. That month, a CBP officer in Laredo was arrested in connection with four murders and one kidnapping.

Customs and Border Protection did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Jenn Budd, a former Border Patrol agent in San Diego, said corruption is part of Border Patrol culture.

“To my knowledge, no other agency is as bad as the Border Patrol in terms of corruption. Since Trump took office he has empowered corrupt agents. They feel Trump is one of them and they can do whatever they want,” Budd said.

Budd worked with former border agent Raul Villarreal, who was arrested in Tijuana in October 2008 and convicted four years later of running a human-smuggling ring that brought hundreds of immigrants across the US-Mexico border illegally.

“It still is very common for Border Patrol supervisors to smuggle drugs or people using their own official vehicles. There are agents that have cartel connections before even entering BP,” Budd said.

Budd, now a whistleblower about Border Patrol corruption, thinks management is responsible for corruption and abuse inside the agencies.

“I’ve been advocating in Washington for the Border Patrol and CBP [to] be managed by an external agency. That would be the only way out,” Budd told Insider.

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