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The Cartel Supercomputer of 1994

Organized crime syndicates throughout Mexico and Central America have always loved their gadgets.
Image: Shutterstock.

Cartels are using firetruck-sized industrial drillers to literally drill drug pipelines under the Rio Grande. Their lookouts, posted along the US-Mexico borderlands, are using a hodgepodge of spy gear to stay ahead of border patrol. They're using encrypted radio networks to talk to one another, $1 million fully submersible narco subs to ship cocaine by sea, and they're even reportedly building DIY drones to airmail drugs over the border.

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Cartels sure love their gadgets. They always have.

As organized crime syndicates throughout Mexico and Central America continue to diversify their portfolios, branching into extortion and  oil theft, gangs face no other option but to innovate. But in the midst of breathless reporting on these innovations—did you hear about the secret codes cartel bosses are using to send handwritten orders from prisons?—it can be easy to lose sight of the fact that cartels have been deploying leading-edge technologies for decades.

Perhaps the most memorable case is the supercomputer of the now-defunct Cali Cartel. In 1994, authorities with the US Drug Enforcement Administration seized an IBM AS/400, one of the most sophisticated computers of its time, from a Cali nerve center in Veracruz.

Valued at $1 million, it was far and away the most sophisticated piece of technology seized from drug traffickers by the DEA at the time, as Paul Copperwaite explains in The Mammoth Book of Drug Barons. It took computer experts with the DEA months to crack the thing, Copperwaite reports:

When they finally did, they found computer files containing information on thousands of bribes the cartel paid to volombians from all sectors of society, as well as telephone and motor vehicle records of the cartel's real and potential enemies, including the US embassy and the DEA's offices in Colombia. Stunned DEA analysts found that the supercomputer contained Colombia's entire motor vehicle records.

The  entire motor vehicle records of Colombia. That's nothing to sneeze at, even by today's standards.

So say you were Colombian seeking an American visa. You'd maybe ring the embassy in Bogota a few times a month, requesting information. But what if you were an informant doing the same thing? wondered Steve Casto, an intelligence agent with the DEA who was tasked with analyzing the Cali supercomputer.

"The Cali cartel could find this pattern by analyzing the telephone records," Casto told Copperwaite. "Its computer analysts could go to the telephone records without leaving Santacruz's office and find out more information on the caller. Then the cartel could wiretap the calls the person was making to the US embassy."

It's just another blip in the unending saga of  El Narco, really. But a worthwhile reminder, nonetheless, that there is a storied, bloodied history to the cartels' toolkit. And let's not forget the elephant in the room: the engineering and computer scientist talent required to keep it all humming.