Suspected drug traffickers organized cocaine-stuffed shipments of tuna cans, pineapples, and bananas over a messaging app secretly run by the FBI

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

  • 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.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

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.

Banana shipment, Operation Trojan Shield
Cocaine is sometimes trafficked in banana shipments.

“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.

pineapple. Operation Trojan Shield
Drug traffickers shipped cocaine in hallowed-out pineapples, the FBI said.

“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.

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ICE knows older Americans are targets for scams that have them smuggle drugs to other countries, but they’re failing to inform and protect them

ICE Agents
In this March 30, 2012 photo, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents take a suspect into custody as part of a nationwide immigration sweep in Chula Vista, California.

  • ICE is aware elderly Americans are targets for scams that have them unknowingly transport drugs.
  • The organization is accused of not doing enough to protect citizens, The New York Times reported.
  • Americans have been imprisoned abroad after being caught transporting drugs.
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US Immigration and Customs Enforcement is aware older Americans are targets for scams that fool them into smuggling drugs into other countries, but often fail to protect them, The New York Times reported.

ICE’s Operation Cocoon, a program created in 2013 to disrupt international drug trafficking rings, allows US officials to share information on potential drug smuggling with foreign agencies in an effort to prevent it.

ICE no longer calls the program Operation Cocoon, though it still exists under the name.

The program, however, has been criticized for not doing enough to keep Americans – especially older Americans -who unknowingly end up transporting these drugs out of foreign prisons.

According to 2016 written testimony from Alan Scott Brown, then-ICE Homeland Security Investigations acting assistant director for investigative programs, “the average age of the couriers was approximately 59, and the oldest of these couriers was 87.”

According to Brown’s testimony, “the oldest unwitting individual HSI encountered during one of our investigations was 97. However, HSI special agents identified him before he left the United States to participate in the endeavor and convinced him to abandon his travel plans because he was going to be another unwitting victim.”

Most scam victims were not that lucky.

It’s not clear how many elderly Americans have been tricked into being drug mules in scams but since 2013, 180 of 400 travelers stopped by law enforcement in foreign airports on suspicion of carrying drugs due to information shared by ICE were American citizens. About 70% of them were older than 60.

The Times reported that in some cases, US officials have allowed older Americans to caught by foreign investigators and then locked up, without ever contacting them to let them know they were tricked into smuggling drugs.

“If somebody from the US government showed up at my father’s house and spoke to my dad and said, ‘Hey, look, we have reason to believe you’re being scammed,’ there’s 100% no doubt he would have dropped it,” Vic Stemberger, whose father is imprisoned in Spain for unwittingly transporting cocaine after being scammed told the Times.

In 2016, ABC News also reported that a 74-year-old Florida man served an 18-month prison sentence in New Zealand after also being scammed into transporting meth.

“I lost a lot,” Ralph Soles said at the time. “When I came home, I didn’t have a home. I didn’t have a home to go home to.”

John Eisert, the assistant director of investigative programs for Homeland Security Investigations, told The Times that older Americans aren’t ICE’s target, but that it can sometimes be difficult to make elderly travelers aware of possible scams.

Eisert said ICE agents have been instructed to warn potential victims before they step onto a plane and unwittingly commit a crime.

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How magic shrooms affect your brain

Following is a transcript of the video.

Narrator: This is the map of a typical human brain, and this is the map of a brain on psilocybin, the psychoactive compound in magic mushrooms. All those new connections you can see don’t just make people trip. They’re also the reason that psilocybin is one of today’s most talked-about drugs in certain medical circles. Worldwide, more than 180 species of mushrooms produce psilocybin, likely as a defense strategy. Scientists believe that psilocybin may dampen the appetite of predatory insects like ants so that they feel full long before eating their way through the entire mushroom. Humans, on the other hand, well, they trip.

Johnson: Psilocybin is a so-called classic psychedelic, so it’s in the same category as drugs like LSD and works in the brain in basically the same way.

Narrator: When you take psilocybin, your gut converts it into another chemical, known as psilocin, which binds to serotonin receptors called 2A, and experts think that’s what triggers what they call neuronal avalanching. It’s essentially a domino effect of different changes in the brain. You’ve got increased activity in the visual cortex, which leads to changes in your perception, and then decreased network activity in the default mode network, which leads to a loss of ego.

Johnson: And that may be why people often report at high doses a profound sense of unity, transcending beyond themselves.

Narrator: But perhaps most importantly, psilocybin increases connectivity among different regions of the brain.

Johnson: Because of that receptor activation, there is a profound change in the way that different areas of the brain synchronize with each other.

Narrator: Think of it like an orchestra. Normally, the brain has different musical groups that each play independently.

Johnson: A sextet there, here’s a quartet there. This one’s playing jazz. This one’s classical, and a number of other ones.

Narrator: But once psilocybin enters, it’s like you suddenly have a conductor.

Johnson: So there is this communication between areas that are normally kind of compartmentalized and doing their own thing.

Narrator: Scientists believe that it’s a combination of these effects that make psilocybin so useful for combating depression and addiction. When new areas in the brain start talking to each other, for example, you might have new insights into old problems. And that’s why some experts describe tripping as a condensed version of talk therapy. And then dissolving your ego, Johnson says…

Johnson: Can be profoundly healing.

Narrator: And there’s actually an increasing amount of research to prove it. In two studies published in 2016, researchers gave cancer patients with depression a large dose of psilocybin, and even six months later, at least 80% of them showed significant decreases in depressed mood. And research on addiction is equally promising. In a study led by Johnson, 15 volunteers took psilocybin to quit smoking, and after six months, 80% of them had kicked the habit, compared to a rate of about 35% for the drug varenicline, which is widely considered the best smoking-cessation drug out there. Yet despite these results, psilocybin is still listed as a Schedule I drug, a category reserved for compounds that have no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. Now, taking magic mushrooms recreationally does come with some risks.

Johnson: So a dramatic example would be driving under the influence of psilocybin or using it in a way that interferes with your job, or your family relations, or your schoolwork, for example.

Narrator: But as far as scientists know, long-term use doesn’t damage the brain in the way that other drugs can, and according to at least one study, it’s actually the safest drug out there. In 2018, for example, just 0.3% of people who reported taking them needed medical emergency treatment, compared to 0.9% for ecstasy and 1.3% for alcohol. Taken altogether, that’s why some states across the country have campaigned to decriminalize psilocybin, including Denver, which, in May of 2019, became the first ever to succeed.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This video was originally published in May 2019.

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Matt Gaetz advocated for drug testing recipients of public assistance, but a new report alleges the lawmaker used ecstasy

Matt Gaetz
The Justice Department is investigating whether Rep. Matt Gaetz had a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old girl and violated federal sex-trafficking laws. Gaetz denies the allegations.

  • The New York Times reported a DOJ probe into Gaetz includes payments made to women.
  • Sources told The Times that Gaetz had used ecstasy prior to sexual encounters with the women.
  • In the past, Gaetz advocated for requiring recipients of public assistance to pass a drug test.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

According to a new report concerning a Justice Department investigation into GOP Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, sources familiar with the events told The New York Times the Florida lawmaker took ecstasy, an illicit drug.

The Times report, which was published Thursday, cited several unnamed sources who said Gaetz paid women via cash apps. Sources told The Times the women said they were paid for sex. Gaetz has denied ever paying for sex and said that all of the allegations against him are false.

Two sources familiar with the alleged sexual encounters told The Times that some people involved, including Gaetz, used ecstasy beforehand.

But during his time in the Florida state legislature, Gaetz advocated for requiring recipients of public assistance to undergo and pass a drug test.

“I strongly support drug-testing for welfare recipients. Applying for welfare is voluntary, if you don’t want to get tested don’t apply,” Gaetz said in a tweet in March 2011. At the time, he was serving in the Florida House of Representatives.

In May 2011, the state legislature passed a bill that would’ve required state welfare recipients to submit to and pass a drug test in order to be eligible to receive benefits.

Gaetz was a supporter of the bill, which was signed into law by then-Florida Gov. Rick Scott.

However in October 2011, a federal judge blocked the bill, and it was eventually ruled unconstitutional for violating the ban on unreasonable searches and seizures. After an appeals process, the law was ultimately dismissed.

Gaetz was elected to US Congress in 2016 and became known as a loyal ally of former President Donald Trump.

According to The Times reporting, Gaetz used ecstasy at some point in 2019 or 2020, while he was serving in the House of Representatives. Members of Congress are not required to undergo drug testing, though some have tried to change that.

The Times latest report came on the heels of an explosive report released Tuesday that revealed the Justice Department is investigating whether Gaetz had a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old girl and violated federal sex-trafficking laws. Gaetz denies the allegations, and the story has taken many turns since.

Have a news tip? Contact this reporter at kvlamis@insider.com.

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How JFK customs searches 1 million packages a day for illegal items

Following is a transcription of the video.

Narrator: About 1 million packages arrive at John F. Kennedy International Airport every day. And just like travelers have to go through customs, so do international packages. The US Customs and Border Protection, or CBP, is tasked with screening all of them. They’re looking for anything that isn’t legally allowed in the US; certain foods, animals, drugs, and counterfeit goods.

JFK is one of nine international mail facilities in the US. It’s essentially the country’s biggest mail room, dealing with roughly 60% of all international packages entering the country.

First, the packages are taken off arriving passenger or cargo planes and transported to the US Postal Service’s mail room on site. They’re sorted and then taken to the CBP mail facility next door for inspection. CBP uses a three-tiered strategy to efficiently search each of these packages; intelligence gathering, nonintrusive inspection, and hand inspection. We followed two units searching for drugs and counterfeit items.

Before a package ever lands in the US, CBP gathers intelligence on the sender, the container, and the aircraft. They’ll check with law-enforcement partners like Homeland Security, the DEA, and the FBI to see if there’s anything of interest. This is how CBP narrows down a million packages to ones that will get flagged for further inspection.

Once a suspicious package is pulled, it goes to the CBP inspection area. This is where human CBP officers get a little help. Here, a four-legged officer, like Alex, will search hundreds of packages in 20-minute runs. These dogs are trained to sniff out seven different drugs.

Michael Lake: The drugs that they are trained for are hash, marijuana, cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, ecstasy, as well as fentanyl.

Narrator: If Alex finds something, he’ll notify his handler by sitting or lying down. If he’s right, he gets his chew toy.

Lake: This is the game that they work for. All right, it’s good play. Here’s a good boy, good boy.

Narrator: And if Alex or one of his furry friends comes in contact with a drug, officers have the antidote Narcan on hand. Nearby, CBP officers are using another nonintrusive search tool: X-rays.

Nathanial Needham: When I first started this, I would literally open up everything ’cause I couldn’t tell what the image was. But eventually, after you do thousands of parcels, opening them up and comparing them to image, now you start getting good. You can identify, oh, that’s this, oh, that’s this. We can let that go because of this.

Narrator: If they see something on an X-ray monitor that looks suspicious, officers will isolate the package.

Needham: Can we pull that one, actually?

Narrator: Isolated packages go through an intrusive search. Officers will cut them open to hand-search for drugs or counterfeit goods.

Needham: I always got taught, basically, expect a package to be something that’s going to your mom, so that if it is good, it’s coming back to your mom the same way that it’s supposed to be.

This is common. It’s, like, from back home. It’s pills, certain kind of vitamins, and they get them from their little pharmacy. I’m pretty sure that this right here is actually a steroid.

Producer: Is that allowed?

Needham: No. The worst part is you don’t know what’s in these capsules.

Narrator: If the officer finds drugs, the package is sent to Murielle.

Murielle Lodvil: That’s 4,000-plus pills here.

Narrator: But if he finds a counterfeit good, it’s sent to Steve. We’ll start with Murielle.

Lodvil: The strangest areas that we find drugs concealed are radio speakers or even car bumpers. For some reason, they love to place cocaine in car bumpers. It’s crazy, where we even find drugs in Play-Dohs. Also books, children books. In between the lining of the pages, you’ll find drugs there.

Narrator: Murielle tests the drugs with a spectrometer called a Gemini. Using lasers, the machine can pierce through packaging and tell what drug is inside.

Lodvil: Right now, I’m gonna test this particular package. It’s telling me that it’s ketamine. It’s used for horse tranquilizer and also painkillers.

Narrator: Murielle will label the drugs based on where they fall among the DEA’s drug schedules, Schedule V being a drug with the lowest potential for abuse or dependence, like Robitussin, and Schedule I being a drug with the highest potential for abuse, like ecstasy.

Lodvil: We have the GBL coming from the Netherlands, and someone in New York is receiving it. Steroid, a Schedule III, coming from Hong Kong. Then we have the carisoprodol coming from India. And then we have the tramadol coming from Singapore.

Narrator: Any scheduled drugs will be seized.

Lodvil: There is no day that we come to work that we don’t find anything. Every day is a sense of importance because of the fact that we taking out those particular drugs from the street.

Narrator: The narcotics unit had over 7,600 seizures in 2018, including 246 pounds of cocaine and over 360 pounds of ecstasy.

Now, back to Steve. He’s the one that gets all the counterfeit goods. That’s anything that infringes on a company’s intellectual property rights, or IPR. Think fake Air Jordans, Gucci purses, or Rolex watches. Companies like Louis Vuitton and Gucci train Steve on the telltale signs for spotting a fake. While most of the tips are kept top secret to protect the brand, there are a few things that Steve could share with us.

Steve Nethersole: The first, when it comes in, is the country of origin. These high-end manufacturers here, Louis Vuitton, Gucci, they’re coming from France, Italy, Spain. The watch is coming from Switzerland. When it’s coming from China, bing, that’s your No. 1 red flag. Then you look at the dilapidated boxes, so that’s two red flags there. A third thing is commingling. The high-end manufacturers never commingle their products, like, in other words, a Gucci inside a Fendi or a Louis Vuitton. These people will stuff watches, a wallet, inside a handbag. And so, they’ll never commingle their products. They are so precise.

Some of the things I could say, like, some of the manufacturers, they don’t put any of this in it, the filler, inside it. They would never do that. We’ll look at the smell. Sometimes it smells like petroleum. It’s not real leather. We look at the stitching. We look at the symmetry of the logos by the manufacturer, the zippers. This one here is a Coach bag with a Michael Kors zipper. This coat has “Burbelly” on the buttons instead of Burberry, so these are the comical things that we find when you look at it up close, and you could pick it right out.

Narrator: Counterfeit goods make up an estimated trillion-dollar industry that’s even been linked to terrorist groups around the world. In 2018, CBP had over 1,800 IPR seizures. And if all those counterfeit goods had gone on to sell at their suggested retail price, they’d total an estimated $54 million. So, where do all these seized goods end up anyway?

Well, most of the narcotics and counterfeit goods will be sent to a top-secret incinerator to be destroyed. Some of the drugs will go under further testing, while some of the counterfeit goods may be donated if the offended company allows it. But, in some cases, if the illegal goods are part of a greater investigation, CBP officers will actually put that package back in the mail. Then, they’ll track it all the way to the person it was sent to. This is known as a “controlled shipment.”

Lodvil: I’m the one who opened that package, and now I’m involved in this controlled delivery. Now I get to finish the story. All right, now we go out. We knocked on your door, you open. Hello, we noticed that you’ve ordered, you know, this particular package. It’s MDMA. What’s the story behind it? So then, we listen.

Narrator: But whether they’re up against fake Guccis or dangerous amounts of fentanyl, CBP stands guard at the country’s busiest mail facility.

Lake: This is where it comes. You don’t see it all the time coming across the border in trucks and big bundles, like the TV will have you see. This is where it’s all coming from, and it hits the street and it destroys lives. So, in our way, if we can stop it here, it’s one less tragic story, probably, that we’re gonna have to hear about.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This video was originally published in September 2019.

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Amazon is reportedly eyeing a $100 million investment in the Apollo Pharmacy chain, further expanding its healthcare plans

Amazon Pharmacy
Amazon considers $100 million investment in India’s pharmacy chain

  • Amazon is looking to invest nearly $100 million in Apollo Pharmacy, the Indian pharmacy chain, two people familiar with the plans told the Economic Times Wednesday.
  • Amazon’s plans to expand in India come after the launch of its own Amazon Pharmacy service in the US November 17, allowing people to buy prescription drugs through its website.
  • The potential investment would come amid competition in India from Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance, which recently bought a majority stake in online pharmacy Netmeds.
  • Indian trader groups say online drugstores can contribute to medicine sales without proper verification.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Amazon is reportedly considering a nearly $100 million investment in India’s pharmacy chain Apollo Pharmacy, close on the heels of its launch of an online pharmacy to deliver prescription drugs in the US.

The company is looking to face up to Reliance Industries Ltd and Tata Group in India’s fast-growing drug market, the Economic Times reported Wednesday, citing two people aware of the plans. 

Amazon already delivers medicines in India and the potential investment would come amid rising competition from Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance, which bought a majority stake in online pharmacy Netmeds.

Both Amazon and Apollo Hospitals, which owns Apollo Pharmacy, declined to comment to Reuters.

The growth of e-pharmacies has left many Indian trader groups feeling threatened. They say online drugstores can contribute to medicine sales without proper verification and the entry of large players can cause unemployment in the sector.

Amazon’s plan to further expand in India comes after it launched its US Amazon Pharmacy service November 17, increasing its competition with drug retailers such as Walgreens, CVS Health and Walmart.

US customers can now buy drugs through Amazon’s main website.

Amazon Prime members would get benefits from the service including two-day delivery and big price cuts on generic and brand-name drugs, the company said.

Read more: Read the leaked talking points that Amazon Web Services employees are using to explain its recent massive cloud outage: ‘There is no compression algorithm for experience’

Since 2018, when the company bought a small drug-delivery startup called PillPack, industry watchers have been expecting Amazon to move into delivering drugs.

In June 2019, Amazon launched a brand of over-the-counter medication, and in August 2020, the company launched a health-monitoring wristband called Halo.

Business Insider reported in November that as the retail firm expands into healthcare, it would need to be careful not to scare consumers who may be concerned about their data privacy.

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