Face to Face…With Technology

In the early years of drug trafficking in the United States, telephones were rarely used, in part because telephones themselves were less common than they are today, where everyone seems to have a cellphone glued to their hand, not to mention home and office lines. However, even as the years continued on, drug traffickers typically shunned the use of telephones to conduct business, preferring to discuss business face to face or via a third party messenger. The reasoning behind this was that even thirty, forty, fifty, years ago, it was easy to tap a phone and get incriminating details such as pickup locations, drop-off times and the names or voices of those who were involved in the illegal transactions.

Face-to-face drug transactions are typically the most secure and safe way for two parties to do continued business, whether it be two individuals, or through an intermediary who serves as a messenger. There are several reasons for this, the primary being that unless someone is wearing a wire, it is typically much more difficult to bug a face-to-face meeting than it is a landline or cellphone. In addition, unless the government goes to extreme lengths, it is nearly impossible to do a trap and trace on an individual person. There are of course exceptions to when this rule isn’t true:

-When one individual is cooperating with the government

-When meeting/exchange locations are consistently the same, and thus provide an area that could be bugged, placed under 24 hour surveillance, etc.

-When individuals talk with other parties about these transactions on phones or some form of electronic communication.

-When an individual uses the same mode of transportation and that transportation is fitted with a court sanctioned GPS tracking device.

In extreme cases, we have seen the government go to great lengths to attempt to capture individuals who have taken this care, but the desperate nature of their tactics are a reflection of their effectiveness. Some examples of how extreme the government was willing to go include: the surveillance of Frank Rosenthal via helicopter and multiple car surveillance teams, or the use of lip readers to attempt to decipher communications of Anthony Spilotro who would refuse to meet anywhere more than once and it was always in large open areas to see if he was being tailed. It was also Spilortro’s practice upon discovering this to only speak with his mouth covered by his hand. Vincent “The Chin” Gigante went so far as to make it a capital offense amongst those in his organization to even use his name in speech, instead having them point to their chin in conversation referencing to him, and leaving them no way to discuss his business over the phone. As a result, the government spent decades fruitlessly attempting to have him implicated in various illegal activities.

The Digital Age

The days of being able to live a connected or fast paced life without a telephone seem to be behind us. Yet there are many individuals who have found ways to circumvent electronic surveillance while they engage in various criminal actions from drug or human trafficking, and other ongoing criminal conspiracies, such as gambling, protecting and murder. These cases are much more difficult, and in some cases near impossible, for the government to listen in on, or use to formulate physical evidence against an individual or a group.

How Do They Do It?

There are several different ways that technologies weaknesses are used to criminal’s advantage, however, the one consistent, simple, and essential ingredient is often times the most difficult one: discipline. While these tactics work, they require a strict adherence to discipline, the lack of which typically results in exposure to criminal prosecution. This type of network is typical not necessarily of small scale drug traffickers, but those that are larger and typical who deal with cocaine, heroin, crack, MDMA, meth, and prescription drugs.

A typical network, often times referred to as “a closed circuit network”, is set up to isolate as many parts of the organization as possible, thus providing deniability, anonymity, and insolation to those involved. There are many variations of this system, using not only cell phones, but social media sites, computers, and others, however the most common is through the use of disposable cellphones, or “burners”. A burner is a phone that can be picked up almost anywhere, the grocery store, the pharmacy, Wal-Mart, or countless other places. The phones are inexpensive, as low as ten or fifteen dollars, depending on the model, and are set up either in store on on-line. The subscriber information that is provided is typical just an e-mail, a name and an area that the phone will be used (to generate an appropriate area code), however none of this information is verified. Minutes for these phones are purchased as gift cards that can be added to the phone, typically in hour blocks of time.

In a situation in which an organization is operating with as much caution as possible, it would look something like this: The start of a closed circuit network is with a supplier and the individual who meets is purchasing their drugs, cocaine, heroin, etc., from the supplier. To keep things easier to understand, we will refer to these people as the Supplier and the Dealer. The Dealer will have a burner phone which is specifically used only with an individual Supplier, or Suppliers. This phone is never used to contact any clients, or other workers inside the Dealer’s organization. In cases of extreme discipline, these phones may only be used once before being disposed of and another phone purchased, others may use the phone for short time durations. The single use, or use for a small time frame provides benefits in several ways. Because this number is not known to lower ranking members of the organization, or Customers, the government is not able to obtain it through confidential informants at a low level. The frequent changing of the phones makes it almost impossible to obtain a trap and trace, or phone tap, because there is not enough time to apply for a Title III before the phone is disposed of. Additionally, unless the phone is found on the Dealer, the phone is not traceable to the individual through normal means, such as the subscriber information, or phone contracts.

The second portion of the closed circuit distribution network is between the Dealer and his organization, or, Customers, and in some cases, both. Many high level Dealers will not actually have Customers in the traditional sense, but rather members of their organization who take care of different parts of the business, such as transportation, refining, or the actual small-scale distribution. In a larger drug trafficking network, the Dealer may never even touch the actual drugs, but rather have a financial investment and management position. The Dealer coordinates with the other members of their organization via a separate burner phone, or phones, depending on the size of the organization. These phones are likely to be changed often, although with slightly less frequency, as well. Lower members of the organization may also use burner phones, the numbers being given to customers, who are able to contact them for the product. The benefit of the burners at this level is several fold. Not only are there the benefits stated earlier, but each level provides a buffer for those who are higher up. The higher ranking the individual, the fewer individuals who communicate with them, each level operating on a separate phone, or circuit. This also limits the damage that an organization can sustain in the event that a member is arrested with a burner, or if they decide to cooperate with the government.

The Bigger, The More Complex

The closed circuit system is so effective in use, that we see larger, more complex versions being used on a giant scale by the Sonora cartel, as well as other large criminal organizations. However, these methods require a strict discipline, failure to adhere to it, opens one up to criminal prosecution. Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the head of the Sonora Cartel, was recently apprehended, in part due to tracking of burner phones that had been in use for months, allowing the Mexican government to obtain the numbers and begin to track him. The important thing to remember is those who use methods such as this typically can limit their exposure, and in some cases, evidence can be suppressed, or so minimal that an aggressive criminal defense attorney can help you to minimize, even beat, a criminal case, however, time is usually of the essence. If you are currently facing prosecution for drug trafficking, state or federal, call our office for a free consultation and let us show you what we can do for you.