Skip to main content
Order from Chaos

Drugs and drones: The crime empire strikes back

Editors’ Note: Organized crime actors have increasingly adopted advanced technologies, with law enforcement agencies adapting accordingly. However, the use of ever fancier-technology is only a part of the story. The future lies as much behind as ahead, writes Vanda Felbab-Brown, with criminal groups now using primitive technologies and methods to counter the advanced technologies used by law enforcement. This post was originally published by the Remote Control Project, a project hosted by the Oxford Research Group.

The history of drug trafficking and crime more broadly is a history of adaptation on the part of criminal groups in response to advances in methods and technology on the part of law enforcement agencies, and vice versa. Sometimes, technology trumps crime: The spread of anti-theft devices in cars radically reduced car theft. The adoption of citadels (essentially saferooms) aboard ships, combined with intense naval patrolling, radically reduced the incidence of piracy off Somalia. Often, however, certainly in the case of many transactional crimes such as drug trafficking, law enforcement efforts have tended to weed out the least competent traffickers, and to leave behind the toughest, meanest, leanest, and most adaptable organized crime groups. Increasingly, organized crime actors have adopted advanced technologies, such as semi-submersible and fully-submersible vehicles to carry drugs and other contraband, and cybercrime and virtual currencies for money-laundering. Adaptations in the technology of smuggling by criminal groups in turn lead to further evolution and improvement of methods by law enforcement agencies. However, the use of ever fancier-technology is only a part of the story. The future lies as much behind as ahead (to paraphrase J.P. Wodehouse), with the asymmetric use of primitive technologies and methods by criminal groups to counter the advanced technologies used by law enforcement.

The seduction of SIGINT and HVT

The improvements in signal intelligence (SIGINT) and big-data mining over the past two decades have dramatically increased tactical intelligence flows to law enforcement agencies and military actors, creating a more transparent anti-crime, anti-terrorism, and counterinsurgency battlefield than before. The bonanza of communications intercepts of targeted criminals and militants that SIGINT has come to provide over the past decades in Colombia, Mexico, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and other parts of the world has also strongly privileged high-value targeting (HVT) and decapitation policies-i.e., principally targeting the presumed leaders of criminal and militant organizations.

The proliferation of SIGINT and advances in big-data trawling, combined with some highly visible successes of HVT, has come with significant downsides. First, high-value targeting has proven effective only under certain circumstances. In many contexts, such as in Mexico, HVT has been counterproductive, fragmenting criminal groups without reducing their proclivity to violence; in fact, exacerbating violence in the market. Other interdiction patterns and postures, such as middle-level targeting and focused-deterrence, would be more effective policy choices. 

A large part of the problem is that the seductive bonanza of signal intelligence has lead to counterproductive discounting of the need to:

  1. develop a strategic understanding of criminal groups’ decisionmaking—knowledge crucial for anticipating the responses of targeted non-state actors to law enforcement actions; Mexico provides a disturbing example;
  2. cultivate intelligence human intelligence assets, sorely lacking in Somalia, for example;
  3. obtain a broad and comprehensive understanding of the motivations and interests of local populations that interact with criminal and insurgent groups, notably deficient in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan; and 
  4. establish good relationships with local populations to advance anti-crime and counterinsurgency policies, such as in Colombia where drug eradication policy antagonized local populations from national government and strengthened the bonds between them and rebel groups. 

In other words, the tactical tool, technology—in the form of signal intelligence and big-data mining—has trumped strategic analysis. The correction needed is to bring back strategic intelligence analysis to drive interdiction targeting patterns, instead of letting the seduction of signal data drive intelligence analysis and targeting action. The political effects, anticipated responses by criminal and militant groups, and other outcomes of targeting patterns need be incorporated into the strategic analysis. Questions to be assessed need to include: Can interdiction hope to incapacitate—arrest and kill—all of the enemy or should it seek to shape the enemy? What kind of criminals and militants, such as how fractured or unified, how radicalized or restrained in their ambitions, and how closely aligned with local populations against the state, does interdiction want to produce? 

Dogs fights or drone fights: Remote lethal action by criminals

Criminal groups have used technology not merely to foil law enforcement actions, but also to fight each other and dominate the criminal markets and control local populations. In response to the so-called Pacification (UPP) policy in Rio de Janeiro through which the Rio government has sought to wrestle control over slums from violent criminal gangs, the Comando Vermelho (one of such gangs), for example, claimed to deploy remote-sensor cameras in the Complexo do Alemão slum to identify police collaborators, defined as those who went into newly-established police stations. Whether this specific threat was credible or not, the UPP police units have struggled to establish a good working relationship with the locals in Alemão.

The new radical remote-warfare development on the horizon is for criminal groups to start using drones and other remote platforms not merely to smuggle and distribute contraband, as they are starting to do already, but to deliver lethal action against their enemies—whether government officials, law enforcement forces, or rival crime groups. Eventually, both law enforcement and rival groups will develop defenses against such remote lethal action, perhaps also employing remote platforms: drones to attack the drones. Even so, the proliferation of lethal remote warfare capabilities among criminal groups will undermine deterrence, including deterrence among criminal groups themselves over the division of the criminal market and its turfs. Remotely delivered hits will complicate the attribution problem— i.e., who authorized the lethal action—and hence the certainty of sufficiently painful retaliation against the source and thus a stable equilibrium. More than before, criminal groups will be tempted to instigate wars over the criminal market with the hope that they will emerge as the most powerful criminal actors and able to exercise even greater power over the criminal market—the way the Sinaloa Cartel has attempted to do in Mexico even without the use of fancy technology. Stabilizing a highly violent and contested—dysfunctional—criminal market will become all the more difficult the more remote lethal platforms have proliferated among criminal groups.

Back to the past: The Ewoks of crime and anti-crime

In addition to adopting ever-advancing technologies, criminal and militant groups also adapt to the technological superiority of law enforcement-military actors by the very opposite tactic—resorting asymmetrically to highly primitive deception and smuggling measures. Thus, both militant and criminal groups have adapted to signal intelligence not just by using better encryption, but also by not using cell phones and electronic communications at all, relying on personal couriers, for example, or by flooding the e-waves with a lot of white noise. Similarly, in addition to loading drugs on drones, airplanes, and submersibles, drug trafficking groups are going back to very old-methods such as smuggling by boats, including through the Gulf of Mexico, by human couriers, or through tunnels. 

Conversely, society sometimes adapts to the presence of criminal groups and intense, particularly highly violent, criminality by adopting its own back-to-the-past response—i.e., by standing up militias (which in a developed state should have been supplanted by state law enforcement forces). The rise of anti-crime militias in Mexico, in places such as Michoacán and Guerrero, provides a vivid and rich example of such populist responses and the profound collapse of official law enforcement. The inability of law enforcement there to stop violent criminality—and in fact, the inadvertent exacerbation of violence by criminal groups as a result of HVT—and the distrust of citizens toward highly corrupt law enforcement agencies and state administrations led to the emergence of citizens’ anti-crime militias. The militias originally sought to fight extortion, robberies, theft, kidnapping, and homicides by criminal groups and provide public safety to communities. Rapidly, however, most of the militias resorted to the very same criminal behavior they purported to fight—including extortion, kidnapping, robberies, and homicides. The militias were also appropriated by criminal groups themselves: the criminal groups stood up their own militias claiming to fight crime, where in fact, they were merely fighting the rival criminals. Just as when external or internal military forces resort to using extralegal militias, citizens’ militias fundamentally weaken the rule of law and the authority and legitimacy of the state. They may be the ewoks’ response to the crime empire, but they represent a dangerous and slippery slope to greater breakdown of order.

In short, technology, including remote warfare, and innovations in smuggling and enforcement methods are malleable and can be appropriated by both criminal and militant groups as well as law enforcement actors. Often, however, such adoption and adaptation produces outcomes that neither criminal groups nor law enforcement actors have anticipated and can fully control. The criminal landscape and military battlefields will resemble the Star Wars moon of Endor: drone and remote platforms battling it out with sticks, stones, and ropes.

A how-to guide for managing the end of the post-Cold War era. Read all the Order from Chaos content »


Get daily updates from Brookings