Cerebros and the art of drug smuggling
She almost got away with it. No one thought anything suspicious of the 76-year-old Laredo woman with the seven-pound Jesus. Lots of people walk around with big Jesuses at Easter in the cultural limbo that straddles the southern US and northern Mexico. And elderly religious women don’t always raise flags.Somehow, something about this woman did—and for good reason. Her cocaine statue, a mix of plaster and dissolved cocaine, is a single snapshot of the surreptitious creativity that abounds in Mexico and is increasingly required to flow drugs across and into the United States. Like an underworld version of the savants who channel their ingenuity into pocket electronics in Silicon Valley or disease-busting in Atlanta, creativity is behind this. And behind that creativity are drug smugglers. Smuggling, by definition, demands staying a step ahead of those who are after the goods you should not have. And drug smuggling, more than any other underground industry, has embraced the absurd and ingenious in the attempt to move lucrative and illicit products. The days of tucking a kilo of blow under a sweater and catching the redeye from Bogota to LA are largely over, and the few who are caught are punished for their brash idiocy. More clever methods are needed. Many may argue that smuggling drugs is never intelligent. From one perspective, they are correct. Stupid though the decision may be to haul drugs, the methods of movement are anything but. Having reported on much of Mexico and Central America’s narco violence for the past two years and witnessed firsthand the destruction the industry causes, it’s hard to justify any kind of reporting that shines a favorable light on the cartels. That said, it is equally hard to read the narco news sites and blogs and not be impressed by the feats of design and technology emerging from the clandestine labs of their underworld. Gettin’ Down to Get Around Beneath a broken concrete slab in an inconspicuous house in Tijuana, a trap door opens, and a tunnel plunges 25 meters deep into the soft clay. The few who have entered the tunnel know it heads due north, and up through the cracked floor of an equally mundane warehouse in the industrial wastelands south of San Diego. In the increasingly vicious cat-and-mouse battle to infiltrate America’s heavily guarded southern border with various narcotics, “under” is just one of the many evasion techniques. The tunnels are not new, but their frequency and complexity are. Dozens of similar tunnels were discovered in 2011 alone, and more than 100 since 2006. This is not the work of a pickaxe army of drug war foot soldiers. These are multi-million-dollar underground networks, created covertly with professional machinery under the guidance of top-end engineers or architects who have been pulled—willing or not—to the dark side. Some stretch nearly a kilometer. A recently discovered tunnel in Tijuana came rigged with its own underground railroad lit up by LEDs, designed to move hundreds of kilos in a single day (according the to the UN 2011 Drug Report, each uncut kilo is worth USD 100,000 on American streets). Other tunnels include specially rigged hydraulic pumps. These pumps can rapidly displace thousands of liters of ground water just long enough for runners to pass a shipment northwards and cross back under the border themselves. Water then floods back in, making it seem to Border Patrol agents that no tunnel exists at all, as if it’s just an underground river. That, after all, is the goal of smuggling: make the grandiose seem innocuous, and make the visible appear to not be there at all. Wherever these tunnels punch through American soil, the package meets the world’s biggest drug market. The narcotic-hungry United States works like an economic magnet for all prohibited substances, pulling chemical concoctions toward it from the world over. Roughly USD 50 billion in annual revenue awaits enterprising traffickers able to dodge the international gauntlet between impoverished rural areas of Latin America and Central Asia and American streets. Failure can—and does—lead to kidnapping, torture, lengthy jail time, intimidation, lifelong debt, death, or—often—some mix of the above. Incentive to create around these risks is high. Outside of some high profile busts, the quantity of drugs on the streets of the United States has remained relatively constant despite a decades-long, multi-billion-dollar drug war. Much of this can be explained by the impunity with which drug trafficking groups push across the frontiers: bribing, intimidation, and extortion are tried and tested means of circumventing laws and convincing people to act illegally. Though loath to admit it, US officials continually find their hi-tech strategies outsmarted at the ground level: clever tinkering, scheming, disguising or hiding drugs on anything that comes near to the border keeps the drug war ticking. Whenever authorities catch on to one ingenious method of evading their increasingly advanced searches and seizures, they realize the dealers have already devised a new means to circumvent detection. Lo-tech, illegal, and under-the-table innovation routinely outpaces hi-tech investigation methods. And the high-stakes race goes on.Mexican traffickers—now the biggest players in international drug dealing—face some serious challenges. Predator drones now fly over Mexican soil; US Border Patrol efforts ramp continuously up with increasingly hi-tech approaches, Mexican Army patrols escalate, and intelligence about cartel operations seems to only grow. But cartels have used slices of the USD 50 billion pie to create their own surveillance methods, homemade tanks, and intelligence wings, all of which complement their regimen of brute force. El Cerebro One key ingredient in the intrepid fight for evasion is a little known caste of the drug underworld called the cerebros, or brains. Full-time “employees” of the cartels, they dedicate their talents to creating new methods of hiding, disguising, de-scenting, branding, camouflaging, or otherwise devising ways to make the drugs move without confiscation. Examples of their creativity pop up around the world. Suitcases have been found not full of cocaine, but made of cocaine, and fully functional. A man with a broken leg (which authorities suspect he or his colleagues deliberately fractured) fashioned a functional cast out of the same blow destined to be snorted off a flat surface near you. The discovery in Texas of a single Pringles can filled with 168 grams of coke—pressed and stacked to appear like individual chips and worth USD 150,000 on the streets—begs two central questions: how many more Pringles cans were or are out there, and how many similar schemes remain un-foiled? No one has accurate answers to either question. Ioan Grillo, author of El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency says this of the cerebro class: “In the corporate world they would be like the masterminds who sit around drinking lattes and think up a genius way to package toothpaste or a catchy slogan for the Big Mac.” Back in the narco world, these brainstorming sessions are more likely to go down in meetings at a dirty mechanic shop, clandestine lab, or warehouse, figuring out how to make Britney Spears statues that can dissolve into top-end cocaine, surgically implant drugs on animals, or better disguise compartments in cars or trucks. Grillo references a woman named Guadalupe hollowing out wax from a load of large candles, stuffing weed in, and deftly sealing the bottom. A whole industry of specialty car shops throughout Mexico’s north carves new cavities into all areas of vehicles meant to cross. Enterprising factory workers stuff pipes or fill other hollow objects with northbound narcotics. It’s likely a cerebro who came up the plan to replace the meat in a shipment of oysters with a similar-looking blob of drugs, or to line the innards of frozen sharks with small, packed bags. People have questioned how much cerebro was indeed behind last year’s discovery of a medieval-style catapult found chucking parcels across the massive border wall that divides the US from Mexico. But it’s easy to try and judge the intelligence in retrospect—likely, this had already been done successfully. And profitably. Smugglers today face encroaching technology advancements in their adversaries. High-powered X-rays, low-flying drones, and land robots now join forces with dogs, cameras, and seasoned agents who may now expect the absurd but can’t always see the smuggled goods for the trucks. Feds Catch Up, Narcos Go Under The past two years have seen authorities catching on to some of the emerging creative technologies. The Mexican army recently started trying to dismantle an extensive broadcast-quality radio network created over several years by the Zeta Cartel to communicate with operatives from along the US border down into Central America. Central American authorities also uncovered the largest “drug sub” found to date—a 100-foot submarine capable of hauling eight tons, or USD 200 million, worth of blow. A former operative for the Cali Cartel in Colombia, Dr. Miguel Angel Montoya, was at the forefront of this evolution. Though now an author, he played a part in selling the submarine idea to cartel bosses at the time and explains in his book El Espejismo del Diablo: Testimonio de un Narco (The Mirage of the Devil: Testimony of a Drug Dealer), innovation in seaward smuggling has come a long way. The first ones he saw around 2000 were called “semi-submersibles,” unable to go fully underwater but very hard to detect unless directly above them. Last year, naval experts marveled—albeit reluctantly—at the technological prowess of a fully submersible, Kevlar-coated submarine found at a clandestine workshop in the mangrove swamps of Colombia’s impoverished coast. Footage from Colombia’s army shows their units coming across the sub propped under a makeshift canopy on a mud floor—hardly the ideal location for naval construction. Experts again declared bafflement by the more recent discovery of re-purposed torpedoes equipped with radio transponders. These crude devices, filled usually with cocaine, can be launched underwater from a boat to a forward location, picked up by another boat, then relayed underwater again at the first sight of authorities. Drug relay by torpedo was never a predicted outcome of a firmer stance along the border. No one could have ever anticipated the cocaine-Pringles. And no one knows what limits can, or do, exist. As long as a massive market exists, the risks will be worth it for the region’s poor, and the cerebros will be braining out a new way to wave the wand, make the drugs disappear, and weave through the tightening gauntlet of law enforcers.