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The extraordinary lengths to which South American cartels will go to ensure their drugs reach the most profitable markets

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drugs reach the most profitable markets

Although cocaine production levels may have soared across South America in recent years, drug cartels based in the region face a constant battle when it comes to staying one step ahead of the global law enforcement agencies charged with making sure traffickers are unable to smuggle their product to markets in the west, where they are typically able to make the most money. In September of last year, a report published by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) revealed that cocaine production had hit record highs in Colombia in 2017, despite a peace deal being struck the previous year between the country’s government and rebel group Farc, and billions being spent on America’s decades-long war on drugs. But while rocketing production levels are certainly a potential boon for the organised criminal networks behind the distribution of South America’s most famous export, they count for littlie if the cartels are unable to ship their cocaine to wealthy nations in which the price they can charge per kilo rockets.

Last year’s Global Drug Survey revealed that while illicit substance enthusiasts could pay as little as €5.40 ($6.10) for a gram of cocaine in Colombia, those wishing to partake of a line of two in New Zealand would have typically needed to stump up €211.70. With such a huge disparity between what end users are willing and able to pay, it makes obvious business sense for drug cartels to get their cocaine to markets in which it can be sold for the highest price. To do so successfully, South American traffickers must consistently outwit customs investigators whose job it is to prevent them from shipping their drugs to the most profitable markets, and repeatedly come up with new ways of sneaking their product across borders to customers who have the means to pay the highest prices. As authorities become wise to each new smuggling method over time though, a steady stream pf ever more ingenious alternatives are required to take their place.

Fake stones

Earlier this month, police in Spain revealed they had arrested 11 suspected drug smugglers after customs officers discovered nearly a tonne of cocaine hidden inside specially-made bogus stones that had been imported into the country from South America.  The conspiracy was broken up after undercover investigators tracked members of the gang behind the trafficking operation, which is said to have had links to a domestic stone importation firm. Police raided a warehouse in Madrid after the stones were transferred there from the port of Barcelona following their arrival on a boat that had travelled from Ecuador. After breaking up the fake stones with hammers, detectives found 785 packages of cocaine, each of which was estimated to contain in excess of 1kg of the drug.

Impregnated plastic pellets

Separately, Spanish investigators last month detained 12 members of a South American drug trafficking network that imported cocaine-impregnated plastic pellets into the country, before extracting the drugs at three specialist labs in Madrid and Toledo. The gang had flown over three experts from Colombia who worked round the clock to separate the cocaine from the pellets, into which the drug had been injected so as it could be more easily taken thorough customs checks while being transported from its country of origin and into Spain. Investigators who raided the gang’s labs discovered 30kgs of cocaine paste, 1kg of cocaine powder, 600kgs of pellets impregnated with cocaine, and 3,000 litres of chemical products used during the extraction process.

Puppies’ stomachs

In an extraordinary cruel case, a crooked Venezuelan vet last September pleaded guilty in a US court to turning young puppies into drug mules by sewing containers filled with liquid heroin inside their bodies for a Colombian trafficking gang. Andres Lopez Elorza confessed to stitching the drugs into the stomachs of young Labrador retrievers, which would then be flown from Colombia on commercial jets to New York City. Having made it through customs, the canines would be killed when the heroin was ripped from their bellies. Elorez was jailed in six years in February after admitting a single charge of conspiracy to import a controlled substance to the US.

Bounty on sniffer dog’s head

Demonstrating further disregard for the wellbeing of animals, members of a Colombian drugs cartel were last July said to have placed a bounty of up to $70,000 on the head of a sniffer dog who had helped the country’s customs officers find 10 tonnes of cocaine concealed in suitcases, boats and large shipments of fruit. The notorious Gulf Clan, which has developed a reputation for using extreme violence and intimation to protect its trafficking routes, was reported to have offered the money to anybody who killed German shepherd Sombra, after the dog played a pivotal role in the discovery of five tonnes of the group’s cocaine that was hidden in crates of bananas.

Aging and middle class drugs mules

Conscious of the fact customs officials are typically suspicious of a certain profile of passenger when it comes to screening for drug mule activity, South American cartels appear to have sought to recruit a new type of narcotics courier less likely to attract unwanted attention. Back in December of last year, law enforcement authorities in Portugal cautioned that trafficking networks were recruiting elderly cruise ship passengers to act as mules on liners travelling from South America and the Caribbean to Europe. Official sources issued the warning after British couple Roger and Susan Clarke, then aged 72 and 70 respectively, were allegedly caught with cocaine worth an estimated $2.5 million after returning to Europe from the Caribbean on a cruise boat. Earlier in 2018, a court in Australia jailed a Canadian woman for eight years after she admitted helping to smuggle cocaine estimated to be worth more than $21 million into the country in similar circumstances. Melina Roberge was arrested in August 2016 when Australian customs officers raided the luxury Sea Princess cruise liner while it was docked in Sydney Harbour having previously stopped off in South America.

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The mystery of why people continue to fall for dark web hitmen-for-hire scams

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In the past, if you were looking to pay to have somebody murdered, you would typically need to have some serious underworld connections, or be willing to hire an amateur who might not have the requisite skill set necessary to successfully carry out the task at hand. In many people’s minds, this all changed with the advent of the dark web, and the emergence of a slew of hidden illicit online marketplaces on which sellers could anonymously offer illegal products ranging from drugs, to weapons, and seemingly murder-for-hire services.

While it is by no means unusual to be ripped off when buying goods or services from dark web vendors, multiple cases over recent years suggest that those seeking out paid assassins on hidden illicit marketplaces stand an inordinately high chance of getting their fingers burned, ending up being fleeced of their money, or winding up in jail for plotting murder. Despite this, there appears to be no shortage of people who are still willing to risk everything in order to secure the services of a dark web contract killer.

Unfortunately for those who seek to use them, murder-for-hire services on the dark web routinely prove themselves to be little more than elaborate scams. More often than not, prospective users of such services either find themselves losing a small fortune to the fraudsters behind them, or being charged with soliciting contract killings by law enforcement authorities that have caught wind of them seeking out the services of an assassin, which is in and of itself is a criminal offence in most countries regardless of whether a murder actually takes place.

In May 2016, a pair of UK hackers told British newspaper the Mirror how they had discovered that an assassination dark web marketplace called Besa Mafia, which offered the services of supposed Albanian hitmen, was in fact a cynical scam designed to con large sums of money out of those seeking the services of a hired killer. Chris Monteiro and his colleague, who wished to remain anonymous at the time, revealed that the site was in fact run by two eastern European men who had made tens of thousands of dollars by tricking people into handing over large upfront cryptocurrency payments for murders they had no intention of carrying out. The scam came to light a few years after questionable reports of supposed dark web murder-for-hire sites such as the Hitman Network and Unfriendly Solution began to emerge.

Yet despite this easily accessible information, and considering the fact that dark web hitmen-for-hire services are a fairly fanciful concept to begin with, plenty of vengeful individuals seem to have few qualms about seeking out their services, even when their very existence would seem to most to be pretty implausible. Only last week it was reported that a man from California had been sentenced to three years behind bars after being found guilty of attempting to hire a bogus assassin on the dark web to kill his stepmother. Beau Evan Brigham, whose plot was uncovered by Monteiro and CBS News, planned to target the woman after she was reportedly awarded a large part of his expected inheritance after his father died.

In August, CBS Chicago reported that Illinois nurse Tina Jones had been handed a 12-year jail term for paying $12,000 in cryptocurrency Bitcoin to a dark web assassin in exchange for the murder of the wife of  a co-worker with whom she was having an affair. Last July, a retired doctor from the county of Dorset in the UK avoided jail after admitting to entering the name of his accountant into a dark website that offered contract killers for hire. Earlier this month, prosecutors in Singapore asked a court to jail a man for five years after he admitted to asking fake dark web “Camorra Hitmen” to ensure that his former lover’s new boyfriend met a sticky end in a staged car accident. Allen Vincent Hui Kim Seng, 47, pleaded guilty to attempting to hire an assassin after local police received a tip-off about his plot from a US journalist.

The most astounding factor in all these cases is the fact that anybody would still take the idea of hiring an assassin online seriously, and having done so, convince themselves that going through with any such deal would work out well for them. Even if online hitmen were a reality, the likelihood of a prospective client requiring their services in the locality in which they were based would most likely be minuscule. Consequently, the logistics involved in arranging an assassination under such circumstances would in most cases be incredibly complicated, more often than not to the extent that carrying out any such murder would be far from profitable for those involved.

While it is of course not entirely out of the question that genuine murder-for-hire services could be offered on dark web illicit marketplaces, the majority of evidence to date appears to suggest that anybody seeking out a hitman on hidden websites will either find themselves being relieved of their money only to receive nothing in return, or facing a not inconsiderable amount of time behind bars, ultimately standing next to no chance of seeing the subject of their plot wiped out in the manner of their choosing.

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How the US opioid crisis could become a global phenomenon

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US opioid crisis could be on the brink of becoming a global phenomenon

For the best part of a decade, the world has looked on with horror as the US opioid crisis has spiralled out of control. Up until 2018, the number of drug overdose deaths had risen in America every year since 1999, driven in the most part by abuse of both prescription and illicit synthetic opioid-style drugs. Last year, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealed that drug overdoses were estimated to have resulted in the deaths of just over 72,280 people across America in 2017, which was up approximately 10% on the previous year.

The overwhelming majority of those deaths, nearly 49,000, were reported to have been linked to the use of opioids, highlighting the gravity of the threat these drugs pose to US public health. For its part, the Trump administration has sought to treat the problem as a law and order issue, and use it as a political weapon with which to target China, which is said to be a major supplier of illicit versions of synthetic opioids such as fentanyl sold on the streets of the US.

But while it is true that the opioid epidemic that has enveloped the US is a huge driver of crime across the country, and that many of the illegal drugs that have recently been fuelling the crisis originate from China, these are symptoms rather than causes of the problem. Many experts agree that the irresponsible over-prescribing of legitimate opioid medication, which peaked in the early part of this decade, is one pf the primary causes of the US opioid epidemic.

A propensity for US medics to hand out these types of drugs as though they were sweets resulted in many of their patients becoming addicted to the substances they were prescribed, a problem that was hugely exacerbated after the US government took steps in 2014 to crack down on the culture of over-prescribing, leaving those who had become hooked on legitimate medication with little alternative but to turn to illicit sources. Years later, major pharmaceutical firms including Johnson & Johnson and Purdue Pharma are now facing huge negligence lawsuits relating to the manner in which the drugs they sold contributed to the problem.

Yet despite the well-publicised and very grave consequences of the over-prescribing of these types of drugs in the US, evidence suggests the same mistakes are being repeated in other countries. Public Health England (PHE) has published a report that revealed around a quarter of all adults in England are taking prescription medication that they might find difficult to quit, including opioids, benzodiazepines and antidepressants.

The report found that in March of last year, half of those receiving a prescription for these types of medicines had been doing so continuously for at least 12 months, while up to 32% had being taking them for at least the past three years. The PHE study also revealed that opioids were more likely to be prescribed to patients living in the most deprived parts of the country than the least deprived.

Earlier this month, the Associated Press reported that Australia could be on track to witness a larger spike in opioid-related overdose deaths than the US as companies look to foreign markets outside of America to sell this type of medication. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, opioid overdose deaths across the country rose from 439 in 2006 to 1,119 in 2016.

Outside of the UK, alarm bells are also ringing across the rest of Europe, with a report from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) warning in June that 22% of addicts entering drug treatment programmes in EU member states for an opioid-related problems now cite a licit or illicit synthetic opioid as their main issue as opposed to heroin. The EMCDDA said this suggested that medicines containing opioids are becoming a growing problem for those seeking treatment for drug addiction in the 28-nation bloc.

While some doctors complain that they often have little alternative but to prescribe these types of drugs to patients, it seems astonishing that other wealthy western nations could be sleepwalking into the type of opioid crisis that has ravaged the US over the past 10 years. To make matters worse, evidence suggests that the availability and use of illicit synthetic opioids such as fentanyl is rising across Europe and Australia, meaning that if these countries’ governments leave it too late to take the necessary measures to tackle the over-prescribing of such medicines, an army of addicts will be left with a ready alternative once their legitimate supply had been reduced or completely cut off.

It is of course possible that the US opioid epidemic was caused by a set of problems that were unique to America, but the patterns being seen in other western nations are beginning to look depressingly familiar.

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Online games and apps aimed specifically at children and young people remain fertile hunting ground for paedophiles and predators

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fertile hunting ground for paedophiles and predators

Whether or not children spend too much time staring at smartphones, games console screens, laptops and tablets is one of biggest concerns modern parents face. Part and parcel of this for many is an almost constant worry about the type of material their children might access online. In an attempt to make sure their sons and daughters do not stumble across threats while using the internet, parents are now able to avail themselves of a number of tools that promise to reduce the chances of their children being exposed to online harms, including ISP content filters and tracking software that monitors which sites young people visit on their devices.

In many cases, these types of solutions can lull parents into a false sense of security, creating the illusion that children will be safe while online so long as they are unable to access websites that might carry questionable content. Sadly, predators and paedophiles who target children on the internet have been doing so using connected apps and games aimed exclusively at children and young people for years, many of which typically appear to be quite harmless to parents. Despite this, the tech industry appears to remain at best relaxed about the threat online child abusers pose to their younger users, seemingly content to be doing the bare minimum to address the issue.

Last week, UK child protection charity the NSPCC urged Facebook not to encrypt Messenger accounts belonging to children unless the company could prove that doing so would not expose young people to online predators. The charity argued that it seemed peculiar that the firm would choose to actively introduce new technology that would make it harder for its own staff members and law enforcement agencies to identify instances in which young people might be exposed to online grooming.

Facebook has faced criticism in the past for failing to provide access to messages sent by perpetrators of major terrorist attacks, and could in all likelihood press on with its plans to encrypt Messenger, even though doing so could potentially put children and young people at risk. If the company makes such a decision, it will provide further ammunition to those who argue that big technology firms care little for the fate of children and young people who are groomed on their platforms. It is an argument that is hard not to have some sympathy with, given the fact that these multi-billion-dollar companies appear to be making little progress in the fight against online child sexual exploitation. If anything, the problem appears to be worsening, with regular media reports suggesting that child abusers are able to take advantage of online tools, many of which are aimed exclusively at children, with near impunity.

Back in February, the US Federal Trade Commission slapped lip-sync video app TikTok with a $5.7 million fine after discovering that the company had illegally collected personal information from children, and had made children’s profiles public by default, resulting in some being contained by adults. This came after the Indian government in April ordered Apple and Google to remove the app, which is owned by Chinese technology giant ByteDance, from their app stores over fears it was being used to spread pornographic material. In the UK, an investigation conducted by Sun Online in February revealed that paedophiles were suing TikTok to send sexually explicit messages to children as young as eight. Just months later in May, the Sunday Times reported that police in Britain were investigating three cases of child exploitation a day linked to Snapchat, with investigators warning that paedophiles had been using the app to groom children into sending indecent images of themselves.

Elsewhere, police in both Canada and the UK last year cautioned that Epic Games’ wildly popular third-person multiplayer shooter Fortnite was being used by paedophiles and sextortion scammers to groom children into committing sex acts and sending explicit images of themselves via social media. Highlighting the manner in which predators are able to use these platforms to target victims, the BBC reported in July that a man from Wales had been jailed for 10 years after being convicted of using gaming accounts and nine Facebook profiles to groom boys as young as seven.

But despite the regularity with which these types of stories appear, little seems to change. The big tech firms, with their almost bottomless pockets, seem wholly unable to get to grips with the issue. In the majority of cases, they act only when forced to do so, investing in child protection initiatives solely when ordered to by governments, or when the issue poses a risk of damaging their bottom lines. To many, these companies’ failure to act is nothing short of a betrayal of the children and young people who are targeted by predators online. But while it is certainly the case that all technology firms could do more to address internet child abuse in all its forms, it is particularly egregious that businesses that own online apps and services aimed specifically at children and young people appear so indifferent to the wellbeing and safety of their users.

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