IT Myths: Colombian drugs gang's mainframe-assisted assassinations?

Did drugs barons really use multi-million pound systems to see who was grassing to informants...?

Did drugs barons really use multi-million pound systems to see who was grassing to informants...?

Colombian drug running, police raids and the assassination of informants isn't something that has an obvious link to mainframe technology but in the first of our series investigating IT myths this was certainly the most intriguing. The story has it that Colombian drugs cartels in the 1990s were using massive mainframe computer systems to analyse telephone billing records they had 'borrowed' from phone companies to find out which people in their cartels were on the blower to Colombian police and US agents. Reader Chris Payne embellished the tale saying the machine was nicknamed 'Mother'. He wrote: "This is so vast and connected to so many other systems that when you use a telephone line in Colombia, you 'share' the line with Mother." So in the interests of investigative journalism, silicon.com brushed up by reading a copy of the Watergate expose All the President's Men and began digging. And, despite our initial scepticism, it seems there is actually some substance to this particular tall tale. Public records reveal that the head of the Cali cocaine cartel, which was at the time supposedly responsible for 80 per cent of the world's cocaine supply, was arrested in a raid in Colombia in 1995. Reports since then indicate that one of the raids on the cartel that year didn't throw up the drugs and weapons law enforcement agencies hoped to find. Instead police found a data centre manned by up to six IT staff running a $1.5m mainframe computer. According to a report in Business 2.0 a while back, the computer was then taken back to the US for examination by the Drugs Enforcement Administration (DEA). The DEA has never released the results of its computer forensics examination. Officials at the US Embassy in Colombia would not comment and the DEA in Washington said it could not confirm or deny the incident when quizzed by silicon.com. But the report cites claims by former and current DEA, military and US State Department officials that the Cali cartel had amassed a database containing the logs of every phone call made through the city's telco along with the phone numbers of US diplomats and agents based in Colombia. In an operation that would represent a technical challenge to any major corporate IT department the cartel then used custom-written data-mining software that cross-referenced the Cali phone exchange traffic with the phone numbers of US agents and Colombian police. The cartel was able to tell from the results which members of its organisation were lags and supposedly netted at least a dozen informants who were promptly sent swimming in concrete shoes or met some other equally nasty fate. Until such time that US DEA records are declassified the true details of the Santacruz' computer – named after the now dead Cali cartel's boss Jose Santacruz-Londono – will remain shrouded in mystery but further investigations show that the operation is technically feasible. Andrew Rodaway, director of marketing for telco billing software firm Intec, said it would be challenging and costly but possible. He said: "If you can tap into the operator's network you can find out who is calling who and could perform analysis. If you were a telco you would be talking tens of millions of pounds to do that and it would be technically challenging. Hackers would need to get access to raw data from the various switches and routers. That is processed into core record data which is used for billing purposes." The Colombian government denied any knowledge of the episode but admitted the cartels are increasingly using technology for communications and to stay one step ahead of the police. A spokeswoman at the Colombian embassy in London said: "They are getting technically savvy and use computers to do transactions. They have become much more sophisticated than they used to be because they are bringing in more young people who are technically savvy." This is backed up by the DEA, which has a dedicated Computer Forensics Program to fight back against the increasingly high-tech arsenal of drugs gangs using cutting edge encryption for communications, electronic money laundering over the internet, and computer-generated maps of surveillance plane routes. In 2001 alone the department received 214 computers, 22 electronic organisers and thousands of disks for examination. The jury is still out on this myth for now but as a footnote a man named Jorge Salecedo Cabrerra is allegedly the IT brains behind the Santacruz computer, having been a former army intelligence spy who crossed over to the drugs underworld and then turned informant. It is believed he now lives under the witness protection programme in the US.
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