Monday, October 24, 2011

Technology helps drug traffickers track loads

By DANE SCHILLER • Houston Chronicle

While pumping narcotics and cash through the nation's highway system, drug-trafficking organizations are wielding high-tech tools — secret GPS and cellular-phone-based trackers — to protect their illicit cargoes.

"There is no honor among thieves and even less trust," said Jeffrey Scott, a spokesman for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. "These kind of tracking devices are a way for bad guys who don't trust each other being able to work together."

Transponders have turned up stashed in loads in Texas, Alabama, Arkansas and elsewhere as traffickers exploit legal technology to remotely follow their valuable merchandise, which in the case of cocaine is worth more by weight than gold.

The hidden trackers can help criminal organizations determine whether a driver is lying about his or her whereabouts.

Law enforcement officers say they are seeing more and more of the tracking systems being used by criminals as they are Skype, tablets and other inventions being embraced by society.

They have ranged from high-tech battery-operated trackers that can provide nearly up-to-the-second information and exact locations on laptops, tablets or other devices, to common cellular phones, which permit tower triangulation to provide an approximate location, perhaps within a few blocks.

Also, most cellular phones emit signals that can be tracked even if they are not answered.

Some trackers pinpoint precisely where a load is, how fast it is being driven, and can trigger a text message should it deviate from a pre-determined route.

Under some conditions, GPS-based trackers could follow loads from remote stretches of Latin America all the way to their destinations in the United States, officials said.

In one, at least, scheme busted up by federal agents, devices were planted in several packages of marijuana shipped via an express-mail service.

"Everybody is using it, the whole cargo industry is using it," Tom Ruocco, assistant director of the Texas Department of Public Safety's criminal investigation's division, said of the tracker technology.

"People want to know where their loads are at any given time," he said. "People do it to their kids."

It makes good business sense in more ways than one: They no longer have to send out a second vehicle to shadow whoever is carrying their cargo or require drivers to regularly check in over the phone.
The trackers have been hidden in loads of marijuana, cocaine and cash.

In May, in Atascosa County, near San Antonio, authorities found a tracker hidden in the dashboard of a car that was transporting $72,680.

The use of trackers by criminals is noted in a 2011 classified report prepared by the Houston High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area.