How OPSEC Helped Catch the World’s Most Wanted Drug Kingpin – Forward Observer Shop

How OPSEC Helped Catch the World’s Most Wanted Drug Kingpin

Out of all the Mexican drug cartels in operation, the Sinaloa Cartel stands alone in both size and scope. Where other cartels like the Gulf, Juarez, and Los Zetas present only a regional threat along our southern border, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman has taken the Sinaloa Cartel brand-name international with breath-taking efficiency.  Taking in an estimated three billion dollars annually, Guzman is metastasizing the cartel’s power and influence at both the national and international level by seeking to expand into overseas markets previously thought unreachable until now.  By seeking control of more of the distribution routes into all 50 states, Guzman is slowly squeezing out the regional competition state by state, often leaving the remains and heads of his competitors behind as a calling card.  Couple this fact with the decision to not only branch out into mass international distribution to Europe, Asia and Australia, but also the “in-house” manufacturing of other drugs like methamphetamine and heroin in multiple covert “super” labs in Mexico and the U.S., and suddenly Law Enforcement is no longer facing just another well-armed group of “dope peddlers”, but one of the most complex, ruthless crime syndicates in the world.

The Sinaloa Cartel has grown from a small group of disorganized Mexican thugs to a sinister international crime syndicate that not only manufactures and traffics drugs, but also deals in kidnapping, arms smuggling, human trafficking and prostitution as well.  Add to all of this the cartel’s corrupting power through bribery , threats and extortion, and it appears that there is nothing that is beyond its reach or influence.  This includes having its boss, “El Chapo” to be able to miraculously escape from a Mexican prison not just once, but twice, and evade authorities as if he were a phantom.  This seemingly “mystical” power of escape from the authorities is something that adds to the mythical status that Guzman holds in almost all of Mexico.  “Narcocorridos” or “Drug Ballads” glorify the life of drug traffickers and are often thought of as “Mexican Gangster rap with tubas and accordions.”  Often characterizing the drug czar like he is a type of Zorro or Mexican Robin Hood, the lyrics from a recent narcocorrido by the band Rejegos entitled“La Segunda Fuga Del Chapo” glorify the cunning and skill of Guzman’s latest escape from prison: “You won’t believe how he did it / like a jailhouse gopher, he slipped through a tunnel”.

In the criminal underworld, as in the legitimate business world, it is often your first job where you both gain the experience and meet the people who will equip you for future success. This is exactly what happened to young El Chapo. Working for two drug kingpins who were known throughout Mexico as El Senor de los Cielos (The Lord of the Skies) and El Padrino (The Godfather), El Chapo learned the in’s and out’s of cocaine trafficking. Although early on his job mainly consisted of coordinating drug flights from Columbia, it did not take long for El Chapo to get promoted to that of sicario (or hitman) and in a very short span of time, the bodies of Guzman’s enemies started stacking up. El Chapo also exhibited early on his penchant for escape from “sticky situations”. During an assassination attempt on his life at Guadalajara Airport in 1993, Guzman was able to escape the ambush, crawling out of the vehicle to safety. Seven other people were not so lucky, including a Cardinal of the Catholic Church in Mexico,  Juan Posados Ocampo. It was this high-profile event that would lead to El Chapo’s arrest and a 20 year prison sentence. It would not be until 2001 that El Chapo would make the head lines again with another escape, this one from supposedly one of the most secure prisons in Mexico. Unfortunately for the Mexican Government, Guzman’s escape and long hiatus from law enforcement custody would only reinforce the world view that Mexican Law Enforcement was a corrupt joke. This of course would be a recurring theme in the long and sordid saga of Joaquin Guzman in years to come.

The DEA has often compared the organizational structure of the Sinaloa cartel to that of a terrorist organization more than a crime syndicate. That is because early on Guzman compartmentalized different areas of his organization, creating “cells” that operated completely independent of one another. Guzman also promoted strict OPSEC for all his lieutenants and inner-circle. Satellite phones were shunned because of their American manufacture and ease of being compromised. In their place, Guzman trusted Blackberries, surprisingly because the model he used was made in Canada. This of course was a misplaced trust and eventually, the DEA honed in on Guzman’s blackberry and in 2012 started monitoring and triangulating the signal. Guzman soon became aware his comm’s had been compromised after a failed attempt by Mexican Federal Police to capture him. El chapo then switched to a complex system of using BBM (Blackberry’s Instant Messaging) and Proxies. The way it worked was if you needed to contact The Boss, you would send a BBM text to an intermediary (who would spend his days at a public place with Wi-Fi) this intermediary (or “mirror”) would then transcribe the text to an I-Pad and then send that over a Wi-Fi network (not cellular networks which were monitored constantly by law enforcement).  This WiFi text was then sent to another cut-out who would finally transcribe the message into a Blackberry BBM text and transmit it to Guzman.  Although Guzman continued to use his Blackberry, it was almost impossible to analyze the traffic because it now only communicated with one other device.  This “mirror” system is  difficult to crack because the intermediaries or proxies, can constantly change their location by moving to new WiFi spots.

But despite El Chapo’s best efforts, it would be the cell phone of one of his assassins, who was arrested in the early phase of Operation Gargoyle, that would ultimately bring him down.  Narcos use burner phones not only because they’re provide a layer of anonymity, but also because switching burner phones frequently helps to break up patterns and reduce exposure to traffic and pattern of life analysis.  Unfortunately for El Chapo, his sicario had not changed phones in quite a while, so when after the hitman was arrested, authorities had access to a treasure trove of dialed contacts.  This enabled authorities to build a link chart of the hierarchy of the Sinaloa Cartel and focus in on a trafficker nicknamed “The Nose”  who happened to be Guzman’s personal assistant and dedicated errand boy.  It would be “The Nose,” who after extensive questioning and torture by Mexican authorities, would give up Guzman’s location.

Ironically, for Mexican law enforcement, it would take this same dedication to OPSEC that Guzman had to help eventually catch him in February of 2014.  The President of Mexico had decided that if any headway was to be made in capturing Guzman, the arresting agency spearheading the operation needed the ability to work independently of any other agency, and have the ability to work without any political interference.  In the past, with the Mexican Army in the lead, Guzman always seemed to get tipped off before a raid or operation.  This was thought to be because the Army was so bureaucratic in nature that they always had to get authorization from the higher echelons in Mexico City before initiating any type of operation.  Guzman had likely penetrated that chain.  To circumvent this from happening again, the president elected to put select special forces units from SEMAR (the Mexican Marines) in charge of capturing Guzman.  These units had a stellar reputation in counter-drug operations, plus they were extremely secretive and had compartmentalized all operations down to the smallest detail.  It was extremely common for the Marines to be asked to surrender their cell phones before an operation.  They would also hold “fake” team briefings where a false location of the raid would be given in the briefing but the real location would not be revealed until the team was on-board the helicopter.  This compartmentalization helped keep all of the unit’s operations “in-house” and all strangers out.

It is often said in law enforcement that the bad guys have to be right all the time but the good guys only have to be right once.  This statement is never more true than when talking about communications.  A good OPSEC plan is only as good as its practitioners’ discipline in executing it.


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