Millions In Assets Seized as Brazil’s Federal Police Turn Their Attention To Taking Down Drug-Smuggling Kingpins
Brazil is the largest country in South America encompassing a land area of 3,287,956 square miles. It also has the third-longest land border in the world at 10,492 miles (16,885 kilometers), which touches nearly every country in South America. Add in another 7000 kilometers of maritime border and it’s easy to see that safeguarding Brazil’s borders is an all-but-impossible job, which is why it is among the most profitable drug smuggling hubs in the world, a value that Statista pegs at around $20 billion per year.
In the past, The Federal Police of Brazil (Polícia Federal) concentrated on seizing large shipments of drugs that move regularly across Brazil’s borders. This certainly helped keep massive quantities of cocaine and other illicit narcotics out of the supply chain, but these seizures never lead to those at the top of the pyramid—the drug kingpins who controlled the operations, not just in Brazil but worldwide.
That all changed in 2015, however, when Commissioner Elvis Secco, a 24-year veteran investigator and former agent for the Polícia Federal, was asked to head up GISE (Grupo Especial de Investigações Sensíveis) a special team devoted to investigating large crime organizations.
In taking charge of GISE, Secco almost single-handedly transformed the way Polícia Federal handles drug-smuggling investigations by concentrating his teams’ efforts on the kingpin’s assets rather than the drug shipments themselves—using digital technology to trace (and seize) their bank accounts and physical assets.
“Without technology, this fight is impossible.”
When Secco and his team began looking into money-laundering operations connected to these large organizations, it quickly became apparent that stopping Brazil’s drug-trafficking problem would not be achieved by picking off shipments here and there (mere rounding-error losses to large criminal organizations).
“I needed to arrive at the top of the pyramid,” Secco said in a recent interview, “but how? …Seizure of drugs led me to the drivers and the pilots, but the real kingpins were very, very far.” Tracking the leaders down through their money-laundering paths then attacking their personal assets was the answer, but it wouldn’t be easy.
Secco knew that Digital Intelligence (DI)—the data that is accessed and collected from digital sources and data types (smartphones, computers, and the Cloud) and the process by which agencies access, manage, and leverage data to more efficiently run their operations—would be key. Transforming his organization to meet this new mission, however, was going to take time, technology, training, and a complete overhaul of the way investigations against drug traffickers were carried out, but Elvis Secco was a man on a mission.
“Through technology and through [cross referencing] information, we can get to the financial cores. All the big organizations have cores…the most important thing is to identify the core responsible for financial movements.”
Transforming The Organization
When Secco came to the headquarters of the federal police in 2019 to assume the directorship of the CGPRE (General Coordination for Drugs and Organized Crime Repression), he developed a three-step strategy to get to the kingpins. Changing the mindset of the officers involved in drug-trafficking operations was step one.
Working together: For decades the war against drugs worldwide had concentrated solely on getting the goods. In fact, Secco recalled there was practically a competition as countries bragged about how many tons of drugs they seized each year. As Secco explained, losing a shipment of drugs means nothing to drug kingpins, because the other shipments that get to market (and there are lots of them) pay them millions. Given the size and permeability of Brazil’s borders, trying to intercept shipments was far too complicated and an inefficient use of resources.
Secco’s new plan would require the 13 officers under his command to pivot. They would now focus solely on money laundering, using technology to lead them back to the bank accounts, real estate, aircraft, and yachts of those at the top, which could then be seized.
“I saw, during more than 20 years in my career, the big kingpins becoming richer, more powerful,” he explained. “The seizure of drugs is not the way. The only way [to get to the kingpins] is through money laundering, decapitalization, and international cooperation. This allows you to arrest the kingpins and break the structure of the organization.
“Through technology and through [cross referencing] information, we can get to the financial cores. All the big organizations have cores. One core, for example, might be responsible for logistics. One core is responsible, for example, to buy the drugs in Bolivia, Colombia, or Peru. But the most important thing is to identify the core responsible for financial movements.”
And, for the first time, his team members would be required to do this together, sharing information and working as a unified team to move investigations along more quickly.
“The seizure of drugs is not the way. The only way [to get to the kingpins] is through money laundering, decapitalization, and international cooperation. This allows you to arrest the kingpins and break the structure of the organization.”
Tooling up: In order to find the kingpins and trace their assets, Secco’s teams would need the right DI solutions. He began by equipping all of his units with a suite of tools including Cellebrite UFED to handle data collection from cellphones, computers, and other digital devices. UFED Cloud was added to access and collect valuable insights (public- and private-domain, social-media data, instant messaging, file storage, web pages, and other content) from the Cloud. Connecting the dots between individuals and transactions would take a powerful analytics solution, so CGPRE invested in Cellebrite Pathfinder.
Working across borders: The next step in Secco’s strategy was securing international cooperation for investigations. Even in the early stages of exploring the money laundering schemes attached to drug traffickers, it was obvious that the organizations involved were operating on a global scale. Those at the top had accounts and physical assets scattered all over the world. Without the cooperation of law enforcement agencies like Europol, seizing assets, and individuals beyond Brazil’s borders would be impossible.
Once his teams began to dig in, cooperation was quick in coming and today, many of the big operations that Secco and his teams are involved with are investigated in collaboration with law enforcement agencies in many other countries. A recent case is a good example of the cooperation Secco received from multiple nations in bringing Operation Enterprise to fruition.
Following The Money Pays Off
Enterprise was the culmination of two years of investigative work that started with a seizure of 776 kgs. of cocaine en route to Antwerp, Belgium. Working with teams from nine different countries using Cellebrite DI solutions, the CGPRE teams began to slowly peel back the layers of the money onion.
As the investigation unfolded they were able to identify the players and key bank accounts. Cloud analysis enabled the teams to track down other assets including real estate holdings, cars, aircraft, and yachts. Pathfinder allowed them to begin piecing disparate pieces of evidence together, which led to a host of other criminals involved.
When the take-down finally took place, 45 individuals were arrested, and the assets seized were valued in the tens of millions of dollars. “In the trunk of one van in Portugal, the guys discovered about 12 million Euros in baggage,” Secco said. “And in Malaga, Spain, the kingpin had a luxury house, [worth] about 2.5 million Euros… The guy had an aircraft [valued at] $20 million. So, Operation Enterprise was very, very important for us.”
The kingpin fled to a European country where he is presently protected from extradition, but all of his lieutenants were apprehended along with many others.
“All of the 45 guys were very important to the organization,” Secco explained, “because they were responsible for money laundering, they were responsible for the logistics to send drugs, they were responsible for putting their names on the assets. The identification of these guys was very important to break the organization.
“We imagine these organizations as a pyramid. If we arrest the guys at the base of the pyramid, it’s not very important. But when you arrest the people at the top of the pyramid, it’s broken. So the kingpin ran away, but the structure is broken.”
Secco also explained that cases are never really closed because they continue to collect and analyze information from digital devices in their possession, which leads to other criminals and organizations his team can follow.
In a recent follow-up to Operation Enterprise, the Middle East Monitor reports that Assad Khalil Kiwan, a naturalized Brazilian citizen from Lebanon, suspected of being a major player in organized crime operations that were using Brazilian ports to export large quantities of cocaine to Europe, was arrested by Brazilian Federal Police. Some 149 search-and-seizure orders were filed in Brazil with eight arrest warrants issued in Spain, Colombia, Portugal, and the UAE.
In total, law enforcement personnel seized $400 million worth of assets, including 50 tons of cocaine.
Other investigations carried out by Secco’s team members and the federal police have yielded equally stunning results:
Operation Caixa Forte II, which started with the confiscation of a single cell phone, led to 422 arrest warrants, 201 search-and-seizure warrants, and the seizure of assets totaling 252 million BRL ($46 million). This operation struck the heart of the organization’s financial core that Secco is always seeking. Using Cellebrite solutions to collect and analyze data from the seized phone, investigators were able to trace communications between leaders, payers, and operators to see the transfers of money and assets. Bank account numbers, payment orders from the organization’s leader, and the names of those being paid and who was paying them were all correlated through Cellebrite Pathfinder.
As is typical in these cases, assets are rarely ever registered in the name of the organization leaders. However, armed with the account information collected from phones, investigators can go straight to the financing authorities to solicit the financial data for the accounts listed and simply follow the money trail to those at the top.
Operation King of Crime, prohibited more than 70 companies and blocked bank accounts whose values exceeded BRL 730 million. Other assets that had been hijacked by the criminal organization included 9 motorcycles, 2 helicopters, a yacht, 3 watercrafts, 58 trucks, and 42 trailers and semi-trailers, exceeded BRL 32 million in value.
Operation Status which involved seizing assets from drug dealers in Brazil and Paraguay, totaling BRL 230 million ($43.44 million) included 42 properties, two farms, and 75 vehicles, vessels, and aircraft, whose combined value was estimated at $15 million.
Operation Alem mar led to the seizure of 42 trucks, 35 properties, 7 planes, 5 helicopters, and 1.5 tons of cocaine valued at BRL 62M (USD 11.3M). Brazilian Police also froze bank accounts valued at BRL 100 million ($18.3 million).
Operation Cavok included the seizure of BRL 40 million in assets (23 small aircrafts, 4 rural properties, a luxury apartment, 5 vehicles, eight firearms, and 25 cell phones.) During the operation, police also confiscated about $30,000 in cash and 36 pieces of jewelry.
“If the Federal Police follow this path and the three main themes—decapitalization, arresting the kingpins, and seeking international cooperation—I think the Federal Police [can] weaken the organizations, not only in Brazil, but all around the world.”
Where The Money Goes
Under Brazilian law, monies generated by the liquidation of assets seized are plowed right back into anti-trafficking efforts. As Secco explained, 40% of the seized money comes back to the federal police to be used to further their efforts in fighting large criminal organizations involved in drug trafficking.
The other 60% goes back to SENAD (Secretaria Nacional de Políticas sobre Drogas) where it is reserved for projects relating to stopping the drug trade. SENAD is the National Secretariat for Policies against Drugs and is linked directly with the Ministry of Justice.
Federal police units like CGPRE can request funds from SENAD for any project relating to stopping drug trafficking so long as they can prove a need. Recently, Secco was granted $30 million from SENAD to purchase armored boats to seek out traffickers using Brazilian waterways to transport drugs.
This process allows teams to self-fund anti-drug trafficking efforts at the highest level. The more assets are seized, the more federal police can seek funding to aid anti-trafficking efforts and the weaker those at the top of the drug smuggling pyramid become.
“We imagine these organizations as a pyramid. If we arrest the guys at the base of the pyramid, it’s not very important. But when you arrest the people at the top of the pyramid, it’s broken.”
Will the drug trade ever be stopped? Probably not. But Secco is optimistic about the future.
When asked what he’d like CGPRE to look like in five years, Secco responded by saying that he wants to plant the seeds now so that the Brazilian Police are better able to trace money laundering schemes going forward. That vision includes efforts to continually ramp up “capitalization,” the seizure of assets, arresting more kingpins and seeking international cooperation to hit those at the top of the drug smuggling pyramid whose operations outside of Brazil’s borders are continuing to plague his country and its people.
And while he realizes his human resources may continue to be limited, Secco sees digital technology as the force multiplier that can help him do a lot more while optimizing his team members’ time and talent.
To that end, he acquired Cellebrite Premium, to access and collect crucial mobile phone evidence from iOS and high-end Android devices and Cellebrite Commander to manage equipment deployments and optimize how those digital intelligence tools are used.
Communication is another area Secco plans on attacking in 2021. Until now, CGPRE team members have been gathering regularly to compare and prioritize cases. Next year, Secco plans to connect everyone through Cellebrite Pathfinder. This will allow his agents to share information and collaborate in real-time. It will also provide a better way for Secco to manage his team members. If he sees investigators are duplicating efforts by following the same leads to the same bank accounts, he can direct one to continue the chase and redeploy the other so that more cases can be solved.
“I have a hope [that] after I leave one day, the seeds I have planted here will make the Federal Police stronger. Money laundering against drug trafficking needs to continue. So I think, after five years, if the Federal Police follow this path and the three main themes—decapitalization, arresting the kingpins, and seeking international cooperation—I think the Federal Police [can] weaken the organizations, not only in Brazil, but all around the world”
Technology will also play a key role.
“Without technology, this fight is impossible,” Secco said. “The Federal Police have few human resources, so we need technology…to start the investigation. We need technology to follow the investigation. You need technology after you arrest the kingpins and after you get the databases from criminals, because you may need to follow [up] more.”
Training will also be critical to ensure his team members can hit the ground running with the latest technology and stay ahead of crime kingpins who are becoming increasingly more sophisticated in hiding illicit transactions and funds.
When asked what motivates him to come to work each day, Secco smiled and looked far off for a moment. “I had a dream,” he began, “and I realized that dream because my motivation is to do my best—to do my best for me, to do my best for my country. And when I see a big organization, a big kingpin is arrested, and you see the one thing you were doing become a reality, this is my motivation.”