Colombian anti-narcotics police with cocaine from a shipment destined for Europe, seized from drug cartel the Gulf Clan. Photo: Raul Arboleda Getty Images)
A massive investigation into modern-day organised crime and those who fight it has revealed the inner workings of transnational smuggling gangs and how easily they are winning the war on drugs.A collaboration of investigative journalists from 23 countries, led by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), analysed 5 terabytes of data including 7 million emails after the Colombian prosecutor’s office – a global hub of drug trafficking intelligence – was hacked last year.
The data breach, reminiscent of the 2016 ‘Panama Papers’ leak from an offshore law firm revealing how the global super-rich hide their money, was passed onto journalists by hacktivist group Guacamaya which said in a statement that it targeted the office because it was “one of the most corrupt bodies in the country”. The prosecutor’s office did not respond to questions from OCCRP but admitted a breach and said it has since tightened its cybersecurity.Reporters examined and corroborated the materials with hundreds of other documents, databases, and interviews. The result is the “NarcoFiles: The New Criminal Order”, a series of Panama Papers-style revelations which dropped this week exposing corruption, money laundering, and how criminal empires collude to outwit law enforcement. One investigation used the data to track a single shipment of cocaine around the world, from Colombia where it was produced, to Mexico, then Spain and finally the Netherlands where it was sold – showing how global gangs worked together to smuggle and reap the profits. The investigations, which have been dropping throughout this week, reveal the murky world of shipping ports, how gangs infiltrated governments, the financial professionals facilitating the flow of drug profits and how criminal organisations are innovating and evolving their business models.
VICE News spoke to OCCRP founder Paul Radu, who oversaw the NarcoFiles project, about what these investigations reveal about the true nature of organised crime. VICE News: How significant was this leak, in terms of the information that has come from it?Paul Radu: The leak was a great entry point into the world of organised crime, as Colombia sits at the crossroads of narco-trafficking and most countries in the world ask the Colombian law enforcement for help with many of their cocaine trafficking cases. However, the work done outside of the leak was more important in order to get a clearer view of the drug trafficking world.What is the main revelation about the drugs and crime world from the reporting into the leaked data?The leak confirmed what we already knew in bits and pieces from our previous reporting: that the law enforcement approach to organised crime was disjointed and that results were few and far between.What were the other key revelations and surprising things?Criminals don’t have much trouble connecting to ad-hoc and ever morphing networks, as they are always a step ahead of law enforcement and journalists. They are early-tech adopters and, although some high profile cases were solved with the help of technology, such as Encrochat, they have the upper hand there, too. People assume that crime comes and goes, but organised crime relies on permanent optimisation and growth so, in fact, a lot of the past crime stays with us and helps grow new crime. Imagine a never-obsolete operating system that keeps on expanding across the world.
There are a lot of myths about organised crime and the drug world. What are the main myths and misunderstandings this information cleared up?It doesn’t clear up that much. In fact, what is not in the data worries me, as it shows that even law enforcement agencies that are very used to investigating drug trafficking cases are no match for the narcos. One thing that the leak, and our work starting from the leak, points out to us is the decentralised, ‘Uber-ised’ nature of organised crime, where you still have central points of profit. There is a lot of opportunism in organised crime, but you also have what I call ‘criminal angel investors’. These are sometimes older criminals who amassed a lot of money and became financiers of younger criminals or even governments who weaponise organised crime to their own benefit.What does it reveal about the way the authorities are dealing with organised crime and the drug trade?The cooperation is missing, not only on particular drug trafficking cases but there is no strategy overall. Authorities are going with the flow inside national borders and this is pretty dumb as this is always a losing game. There’s no real thinking at the global level in tackling this problem. What do you mean by the 'the new criminal order'?We mean that the criminals have amassed a lot of money and power in the past four to five decades of poor law enforcement, and they are exercising that power with renewed strength, on larger territories. They have infiltrated politics at levels never seen before, and they innovated how they conduct business.
Our project is a snapshot of what can be perceived as organised crime at this point in time, but this is ever-changing, and without proper coordination and thinking on the side of academia, journalism, law enforcement and others, will keep on expanding.What does NarcoFiles tell us about the people at the top of the crime world?There are no masterminds, but a criminal continuum where old criminals built infrastructure that is used by the new arrivals. The more infrastructure, the more crime and the more victims. The infrastructure has many components: banks, crypto exchanges, accountants, hackers, lawyers, shipping, and other transportation industries, corrupt law enforcement, hackers, politicians and, of course, corrupt journalists. How is Europe's role in the global drugs and crime world changing?Western Europe has for decades benefitted from organised crime as an investment zone, which was mostly sheltered from harm. This is changing and Europeans are starting to feel the burn that comes with crime more and more. Europe cannot act in isolation and needs to push for reforms in tackling organised crime at the global level.What are the worst impacts of organised drug crime on the public?There are of course the direct toxic impacts on health and family, but there are also large scale impacts linked to the fact that drug money fuels a lot of corruption and helps criminals become political leaders. The corruption bred by drug trafficking manifests itself in many shapes and forms, from extremist movements that are financed with black money, to forests in the Amazon taken down because criminals invest in industries that are damaging the environment.How important is investigative journalism in revealing the truth about the drug crime world?I’m biased, but I believe collaborative investigative reporting is crucial and is one of the only tools at our disposal to piece together the global drug puzzle. This being said, journalism still has a long way to go to become more efficient, to employ new technologies. We need to develop our investigative large language models, basically AI, and fast, because I’m sure criminals are already thinking about theirs.