Cocaine Counter Intelligence (part 1)

Remarkable security work in 1980s import operations

Learn security from people that face real adversaries. Evolutionary pressure from real threats will drive more advanced and sophisticated security countermeasures. A remarkable set of counterintelligence security practices is documented in the documentary “Cocaine Cowboys,”[0] which I will pull out and list here. The operators of this import business were making remarkably effective use of cover, concealment and compartmentation.

[0] note: I am watching the version on Netflix, which appears to differ from the one on YouTube.


Over time the importers developed a number of different techniques for importing contraband. The majority of the security for these operations came from aggressive implementation of cover and concealment, creating the appearance of routine activity (e.g. north-south flight routes, family vehicles being towed, etc.) This documentary doesn’t reveal concern about penetrations by the opposition.

Disguised Airfields

The smugglers created private air strips with dirt run ways and hangars disguised as barns [21:00]. Once the plane landed, the cocaine was loaded into an old family car with modified shock absorbers so it didn’t appear to be stuff with hundreds of kilos of load, and then it was towed to a target location.

The smugglers set up a towing company, a gas station / garage, to handle this phase of the operation internally. Even the towing order was done with a legitimate bill and invoice so the driver had an innocent cover.

The landing field was setup north of Miami, and the flight carrying the drugs was from north to south, the opposite of the direction the police were generally concerned about (the contraband was smuggled in from the south, after all.)

Air Drops

Another method was to drop the contraband from a plane directly into the sea, where boats would collect it. This was an elaborate operation, requiring the contraband to be packaged in a particular way so that it was able to survive the impact from the fall. The packages had a radio transmitter attached so that the boats could locate them. Once they were located, the bales of cocaine were stuffed into a concealed compartment hollowed out of the middle of the boat.

One of the corridors that was used to bring the boat and its cargo back in was “the front door,” a code name for a particular route.

This is where some particularly elaborate security measures where put in place. There was surveillance on multiple levels to detect the opposition, along with prepared countermeasures to divert adversarial resources if they were detected.

Police counter surveillance

A policeman who cooperated with the smugglers took his police radio with him on a boat, along with his family and fishing gear. They spent the time fishing and relaxing (excellent cover), while he monitored for radio alerts about detected smuggler’s boats.

Active countermeasures

Another family was payed to be the “burner boat.” They would be stationed in a nearby area, fishing, swimming and having a good time. If there was an alert that the opposition was making a move to interfere with the smuggling operation, they would scuttle their boat and make a distress call “boat sinking, kids in the water!” This distress alert had the highest priority for police who would, in theory, divert all available resources in that area to go rescue the family.

High rise surveillance

A spotter was placed high in a building with a commanding view of the approach, along with powerful surveillance gear to monitor for the opposition.

The boat would be left overnight in a marina under watch from another boat. This would allow the operation to detect signs of interest from law enforcement.

The next day it would be loaded on a tow truck (with the requisite legal paperwork, i.e. fully backstopped cover) and hauled a short distance to a boat shop owned by the smugglers. The smugglers also owned all the surrounding properties, so they were shielded from observation.

They moved the contraband cargo into old nondescript “family type” cars (cover and concealment) to store it in stash houses distributed across Miami. Splitting the contraband between stash houses limited the risk of any single security failure (compartmentation.)

The stash houses were chosen for their ability to provide cover. “I would try to find normal people, in decent neighbourhoods, middle class, looking for extra money that really didn’t use the drug.”

Delivery Operations

The cocaine was loaded into cars that were driven to low end restaurants, and the driver would pass the keys to the buyer. The buyer would then have someone drive the car away, unload the contraband, replace it with money, and then return to the restaurant. To prevent the buyer from defecting or cheating, only half the delivery would be made before the payment, and then the remainder afterwards.

By using distributed stash houses, the same vehicle driven to and from random restaurants, and payments made via cash, there was no clear links between the import operators and the buyers. Each hop was a break in the chain ensuring every compartment had thick walls.

Red Teaming

A new business opportunity is a new risk. Are the new partners real, or a dangle by the opposition? The head of an import operation had to meet the business partners, but he was concerned about being recorded by a hidden audio bug. To counter this threat, he purchased the most sensitive recorder he could find and went to a number of potential meeting locations. After reviewing the results of the recordings, he determined that a bowling alley was the most secure place to have a conversation. The ambient noise level was loud enough to minimise the risk from audio recording.

Denial of Service attacks against K9 units

One of the most serious threats was from drug sniffing dogs. However, they have serious operational limitations. Firstly, they can’t detect the quantity of drug that they smell, only the scent itself. Secondly, they can’t operate for very long periods of time without rest. Thirdly, they are eager to detect drug scents as well as please their handlers, so they have a false positive problem (the police have been known to exploit this.)

The smugglers used a minute quantity of marijuana or cocaine, mixed with alcohol and kerosene in a solution. They then sprayed everything innocuous they could find with this mixture. As a result, the dogs would alert to the scent of drugs on tires, lamp posts, bushes, wheel wells, etc. This made the dogs ineffective at locating actual drug loads because they alerted on everything, particularly things which were not drug loads. Tactically, the dogs were made operationally useless by overwhelming them and misdirecting them.

Recipe for k9 DoS

  1. Small quantity of marijuana or cocaine
  2. Large quantity of alcohol
  3. Small quantity of kerosene

Place drugs and alcohol in a blender and blend for hours; until there is no sign of the drug in the solution. Mix with kerosene, place in spray bottle and liberally spray on everything.

To be continued…

This doesn’t even list every counterintelligence tactic in the first half hour of documentary. Some of the techniques discussed by the 1980s cocaine smugglers are still effective, and some have become obsolete. The fundamentals of strong security and good counterintelligence remain the same, even as the tools, techniques and procedures evolve.