On August 18, 2017, four men travelling in a dual-engine speedboat carrying 1,590 pounds of cocaine were intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard northwest of the Galapagos Islands.
The federal agents manning the channel chose to launch a helicopter to hover over the boat. With this aggressive move, the men began to jettison the bales of coke, each with their own GPS tracker so they could be picked up at a later date, according to the government’s narrative. They attempted to flee, and when they ignored the warning shots from the helicopter, the chopper fired rounds directly at the boat, disabling it.
After the bales were collected, the government realized they had just stopped a huge amount of cocaine from entering the U.S. In total, it carried a street value of $25 million. The four men, all Ecuadorians, were swiftly arrested and charged.
Though the cartel had set up a sophisticated, multilayered operation that sought to slip coke into the country and up to Ohio via land, air and sea, they had made a crucial error: They used BlackBerry phones. As the drug barons chatted about shifting cocaine and how to avoid the narcs over BlackBerry Messenger, a wiretap on a server in Texas was quietly collecting all their communications.
In a case that’s Narcos meets The Wire, federal agents have, since June 2017, been listening in on that server. And beyond that interception, Forbes can exclusively reveal it is yielding results. On Friday, an Ohio court is unsealing charges against one of the crew’s top brass: Francisco Golon-Valenzuela, 40.
Known as El Toro, Spanish for The Bull, the Guatemalan was extradited from Panama earlier this week and is appearing before a magistrate judge today. (Forbes hasn’t yet made contact with his counsel for a response but will update if comment is forthcoming.)
Described as one of various organizers and leaders of the unnamed cartel, El Toro is charged with conspiring to distribute at least 5 kilograms or more of cocaine on the high seas. As a result, he’s facing between 10 years and life in prison.
A key to BlackBerry
For any organized crime operation, BlackBerry has always been a poor choice. No longer extant since being decommissioned in spring this year, BlackBerry Messenger did encrypt messages, but the Canadian manufacturer of the once-ubiquitous smartphone had the key. And all messages went through a BlackBerry-owned server. If law enforcement could legally compel BlackBerry to hand over that key, they would get all the plain-text messages previously garbled into gibberish with that key.
Compare this to genuine, end-to-end encrypted messaging apps like WhatsApp or Signal; they create keys on the phone itself and the device owner controls them. To spy on those messages, governments either have to hack a target device or have physical access to the phone. Both are tricky to do, especially for investigations of multinational criminal outfits. Police can put a kind of tap on a WhatsApp server, known as a pen register.
This will tell them what numbers have called or messaged one another, and at what date and time, but won’t provide any message content. This makes those apps considerably more attractive to privacy-conscious folk than those where the developer holds the keys, though sometimes to the chagrin of law enforcement.
It’s unclear how or when the DEA got access to the BlackBerry server. A so-called Title III order was issued, granting them court approval to carry out the wiretap, though that remains under seal.
It proved vital to the investigation. “There would be no case without the without the Title III on BlackBerry Messenger,” said Dave DeVillers, who was recently nominated as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio. “The defendants, the seizures, the conspiracy were all identified with the Title III.”
A spokesperson for BlackBerry said: “We do not speculate or comment upon individual matters of lawful access.” The company has, however, previously made its stance on encryption public: Unlike other major tech providers like Apple or Google, BlackBerry will hand over the keys if it’s served with a legitimate law enforcement request.
If the police did receive a key from BlackBerry, it wouldn’t be the first time. Back in 2016, it emerged that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) had decrypted more than one million BlackBerry messages as part of a homicide investigation dating back to 2010.
As per reports from that time, it’s possible to use one of BlackBerry’s keys to unlock not just one device’s messages, but those on other phones too. Forbes asked the DOJ whether investigators would’ve been able to access other, innocent people’s BlackBerry messages as part of this wiretap, but hadn’t received a response at the time of publication.
Fishermen and spies
However those BlackBerry messages were intercepted, they helped illuminate a dark criminal conspiracy constructed of myriad parts. As revealed in today’s indictment, made known to Forbes ahead of publication, the gang employed “load coordinators.” Think of them as project managers, helping locate drivers for trucks and boats while finding people to invest in the cocaine.
Fishermen and other maritime workers were also allegedly recruited. They would help both in refueling the drug baron’s ships, but also helping transport the powder, prosecutors said.
Other individuals became ad hoc spies, sharing information on the activities and locations of police and military personnel trying to intercept shipments, according to the government’s allegations. Other coconspirators sheltered individuals who were at risk of extradition—not that it saved El Toro.
Forbes first became aware of the investigation in 2017, when a search warrant detailed various BlackBerry intercepts. In one, a pair of cartel employees discussed having to put some cocaine transports on hold because of a multinational maritime exercise—the Unitas Pacifico 2017—taking place in their shipment lanes, according to the warrant. BlackBerry wasn’t the only major tech provider to help on the case; That search warrant was for a Google account linked to one of the suspects, which investigators believe was used for further logistics.
The investigation has revealed that the 2017 seizure wasn’t the only time the cops had disrupted what was evidently a criminal enterprise worth hundreds of millions. In May 2016, long before the BlackBerry wiretap went up and the investigation into the cartel had begun in earnest, U.S. authorities intercepted 1,940 pounds of coke near the Guatemalan-Mexico border, worth another $30 million.
Despite such successes, DeVillers told Forbes the American government will never interdict its way to ending the drug trade. “We can only disrupt it,” he added. “And if we turn the tools used by the cartels to run their organization against them, we do just that.”
-Thomas Brewster; Forbes
Published at Mon, 28 Oct 2019 08:18:46 +0000