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Scared Mexicans try under-the-skin tracking devices

Scared Mexicans try under-the-skin tracking devices

By Nick Miroff

QUERETARO, Mexico — Of all the strange circumstances surrounding the violent abduction last year of Diego Fernandez de Cevallos, the Mexican power broker and former presidential candidate known here as “Boss Diego,” perhaps nothing was weirder than the mysterious tracking chip that the kidnappers allegedly cut from his body.

Lurid Mexican media accounts reported that an armed gang invaded Fernandez’s home, sliced open his arm with a pair of scissors and extracted a satellite-enabled tracking device, leaving the chip and a streak of blood behind.

Fernandez was freed seven months later with little explanation, but the gruesome details of his crude surgery have not dissuaded thousands of worried Mexicans from seeking out similar satellite and radio-frequency tracking products — including scientifically dubious chip implants — as abductions in the country soar.

According to a recent Mexican congressional report, kidnappings have jumped 317 percent in the past five years. More alarming, perhaps, is the finding that police officers or soldiers were involved in more than one-fifth of the crimes, contributing to widespread perceptions that authorities can’t be trusted to solve the crimes or recover missing loved ones.

Under-the-skin devices such as the one allegedly carved out of Boss Diego are selling here for thousands of dollars on the promise that they can help rescuers track down kidnapping victims. Xega, the Mexican company that sells the chips and performs the implants, says its sales have increased 40 percent in the past two years.

“Unfortunately, it’s been good for business but bad for the country,”
said Xega executive Diego Kuri, referring to the kidnappings. “Thirty percent of our clients arrive after someone in their family has already experienced a kidnapping,” added Kuri,?interviewed at the company’s heavily fortified offices, opposite a tire shop in this industrial city 120 miles north of Mexico’s capital.

Xega calls it the VIP package. For $2,000 upfront and annual fees of $2,000, the company provides clients with a subdermal radio-frequency identification chip (RFID), essentially a small antenna in a tiny glass tube. The chip, inserted into the fatty tissue of the arm between the shoulder and elbow, is less than half an inch long and about as wide as a strand of boiled spaghetti.

The chip relays a signal to an external Global Positioning System unit the size of a cellphone, Kuri said, but if the owner is stripped of the GPS device in the event of an abduction, Xega can still track down its clients by sending radio signals to the implant. The company says it has helped rescue 178 clients in the past decade.

To learn more check out RFIDchip:Foundationoftheelectronicjail and RFID: Passively Active

Skepticism abounds

In recent years, all manner of Mexican media reports have featured the chips, with some estimating that as many as 10,000 people are walking around with the implants. Even former attorney general Rafael Macedo told reporters in 2004 that he had a chip embedded “so that I can be located at any moment wherever I am.”

That’s pure science fiction — a sham — say RIFD researchers and engineers in the United States. Any device that could communicate with satellites or even the local cellular network would need a battery and sizable antenna, like a cellphone, they say.

“It’s nonsense,
” said Mark Corner, an RFID researcher and computer science professor at the University of Massachusetts.

The development of an RFID human implant that could work as a tracking device remains far off, said Justin Patton, managing director of the University of Arkansas RFID Research Center, which specializes in product and merchandise tracking for retail companies such as Wal-Mart.

“There’s no way in the world something that size can communicate with a satellite,” Patton said. “I have expensive systems with batteries on board, and even they can’t be read from a distance greater than a couple hundred meters, with no interference in the way.” Water is a major barrier for radio frequency, he added, and because the human body is mostly made up of water, it would dull the signal, as would metal, concrete and other solid materials.

Xega executives declined to respond to questions about the technical specifications of their products, citing security protocols. When pressed, Kuri acknowledged that a Xega implant would be essentially useless unless the client carried the GPS-enabled transmitter — meaning the chip might bring psychological security but little practical benefit for a rescue operation.

Several other Mexican companies also sell GPS-enabled tracking units with panic buttons, relying on more-proven forms of technology. The transmitters,?smaller than a cellphone, can fit on a key chain, and they work by communicating with cellular networks.

“Demand is huge right now,”
said Guillermo Medina, director of Max4Systems, which sells the devices for $200, with a $20 basic monthly fee. “Our sales are increasing 20 to 25 percent every month.”

Limits to GPS devices

But researchers say the GPS devices also have limitations. Unlike a GPS-enabled cellphone, which sends a signal only when the user requests location coordinates, a GPS rescue device would have to emit a distress signal at regular intervals — every few minutes or so. That would quickly drain the battery.

illegal alien?

And if the device is in an area with no reception — whether a cabin in the woods or the basement of a safe house — its signal can’t be detected.

Then there is the likelihood that kidnappers will dispose of the victim’s belongings soon after the abduction, including any GPS device. Companies have responded by creating GPS-enabled watches or fashion bracelets, which emit a distress signal to a monitoring station, in the hopes of duping kidnappers. “The technology is evolving fast,” said David Roman, Mexico sales manager for the company Globalstar.

Clients often inquire about the chip implants and the GPS units, said Armand Gadoury, managing director of Reston-based Clayton Consultants, a division of the security contracting firm Triple Canopy that has seen its Mexico caseload double since the start of 2010. Gadoury tells clients not to bother.

The technology just isn’t there,” he said, adding that a fancy-looking tracking device can end up sending an unwanted signal to the criminals: that the person they have abducted has lots of money.

“If the expectation is that you’re going to hit a panic button and that law enforcement is going to mount a raid, then there will be zero planning,”
he said. “And that’s even more dangerous for the victim.”

SOURCE

OPIUM AND AFGHANISTAN: REASSESSING U.s. COUNTERNARCOTICS STRATEGY

Opium is grown legally is some countries for medical purposes, but huge demand
in the illicit market, coupled with saturation of the licit market, is driving Afghanistan
to supply illegal opium. In 2004, approximately 523 tons of morphine were produced
worldwide from opium for medical purposes.12 Opium is also refined for use in legal
prescription painkillers such as OxyContin and Vicodin.13 However, Australia and France
currently produce about half the world’s opium used for medical purposes, with India,
Turkey, Spain, and Hungary producing a majority of the rest, leaving little flexibility for
Afghanistan to enter this market. Despite its legitimate uses, most of the world’s opium
is illegally grown and processed in countries with limited governmental control. Hence,
virtually none of Afghanistan’s opium poppy harvest is used for licit opiates. Instead,
almost all of it ends up on the international market as heroin.

Heroin addiction is a global problem, and worldwide demand for heroin is increasingly
being met by Afghanistan’s farmers and drug traffickers. Heroin is a highly addictive drug,
and prolonged use can result in a variety of social and health-related problems. Sharing
of contaminated heroin needles is a major contributor to the spread of HIV/AIDS and
other infectious diseases such as Hepatitis C. According to the U.N. World Drug Report,
there are approximately 16 million illicit opiate users worldwide, including 11 million
heroin users. The primary opiate-using countries in the world include India (3 million
users), Russia and Eastern Europe (2.3 million), China (1.7 million), Western Europe (1.6
million), Iran (1.2 million), the United States (1.2 million), and Pakistan (0.7 million).14
Afghanistan has approximately 150,000 opium and 50,000 heroin users, but consumes
just 3.3 percent of its own harvest.15 Afghanistan is the source of nearly 90 percent of
heroin in Europe and Russia,16 while approximately 14 percent of heroin in the United
States comes from Afghanistan, up from 7 percent in 2001.17 According to the UNODC, as
many as 100,000 people die annually directly or indirectly from abuse of Afghan heroin.18
Furthermore, the UNODC predicts that increasing opium production in Afghanistan will
result in an increase in heroin overdoses worldwide because greater supply traditionally
leads to a higher level of heroin purity on the international market.19


AFGHANISTAN’S OPIUM ECONOMY
Cultivation and production of opium have significantly increased in Afghanistan
since 2001. Afghan farmers have grown opium poppy for generations; however, not until
the 1970s did they grow it in significant amounts for export. With the exception of 2001,
when the Taliban strictly enforced a moratorium on poppy cultivation with such harsh
tactics as beheadings, opium poppy cultivation has been steadily increasing for over the
past 2 decades as is shown in Figure 2.20 Today, poppy cultivation and opium production
are at all-time highs. According to the UNODC, opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan
covered an estimated 165,000 hectares during the 2005-06 growing season, a 59 percent
increase from the previous year. The UNODC also estimated that opium production in
2006 was 6,100 metric tons, up from 4,100 metric tons in 2005, which makes Afghanistan
by far the world’s largest producer.

Cultivating opium poppy makes powerful economic sense to the impoverished
farmers of Afghanistan. It is the easiest crop to grow and the most profitable. Even though
the Karzai government made opium poppy cultivation and trafficking illegal in 2002,
many farmers, driven by poverty, continue to cultivate opium poppy to provide for their
families. Indeed, poverty is the primary reason given by Afghan farmers for choosing to
cultivate opium poppy.22 With a farm gate price of approximately $125 per kilogram for
dry opium,23 an Afghan farmer can make 17 times more profit growing opium poppy—
$4,622 per hectare, compared to only $266 per hectare for wheat.24 Opium poppy is
also drought resistant, easy to transport and store, and, unlike many crops, requires no
refrigeration and does not spoil. With Afghanistan’s limited irrigation, electricity, roads,
and other infrastructure, growing traditional crops can be extremely difficult. In many
cases, farmers are simply unable to support their families growing traditional crops; and
because most rural farmers are uneducated and illiterate, they have few economically
viable alternatives to growing opium poppy.

Afghanistan’s economy has thus evolved to the point where it is now highly
dependent on opium. Although less than 4 percent of arable land in Afghanistan was
used for opium poppy cultivation in 2006, revenue from the harvest brought in over
$3 billion—more than 35 percent of the country’s total gross national product (GNP).25
According to Antonio Costa, “Opium poppy cultivation, processing, and transport have
become Afghanistan’s top employers, its main source of capital, and the principal base of
its economy.”26 Today, a record 2.9 million Afghanis from 28 of 34 provinces are involved
in opium cultivation in some way, which represents nearly 10 percent of the population.27
Although Afghanistan’s overall economy is being boosted by opium profits, less than 20
percent of the $3 billion in opium profits actually goes to impoverished farmers, while
more than 80 percent goes into the pockets of Afghan’s opium traffickers and kingpins
and their political connections.28 Even heftier profits are generated outside of Afghanistan
by international drug traffickers and dealers.

Traditionally, processing of Afghan’s opium into heroin has taken place outside of
Afghanistan; however, in an effort to reap more profits internally, Afghan drug kingpins
have stepped up heroin processing within their borders. Heroin processing labs have
proliferated in Afghanistan since the late 1990s, particularly in the unstable southern
region, further complicating stabilization efforts. With the reemergence of the Taliban and
the virtual absence of the rule of law in the countryside, opium production and heroin
processing have dramatically increased, especially in the southern province of Helmand.
In 2006, opium production in the province increased over 162 percent and now accounts
for 42 percent of Afghan’s total opium output.29 According to the UNODC, the opium
situation in the southern provinces is “out of control.”30
PROBLEMS WITH AFGHANISTAN’S OPIUM ECONOMY
While revenues from the opium trade are stimulating the economy, there are significant
negative consequences. Two major problems associated with the opium economy are
widespread corruption, which is eroding the rule of law; and the link between the opium
trade and the recoupment of the Taliban and the insurgency.
Corruption and the Erosion of the Rule of Law.
Corruption associated with the opium economy has spread to all levels of the Afghan
government from the police to the parliament, and is eroding the rule of law. Farmers
routinely bribe police and counternarcotics eradication personnel to turn a blind eye. Law
enforcement personnel are also paid off by drug traffickers to ignore or, in some cases,
protect their movements. Afghan government officials are now believed to be involved
in at least 70 percent of opium trafficking, and experts estimate that at least 13 former
or present provincial governors are directly involved in the drug trade.31 Furthermore,
up to 25 percent of the 249 elected members of parliament are also suspected of being
involved in the drug trade.32 When referring to Afghanistan’s Ministry of Interior, Syed
Ikramuddin, Afghan’s Minister of Labor, said: “Except for the Minister of Interior himself,
all the lower people from the heads of department down are involved in supporting
drug smuggling.”33 For example, in a single raid, nine tons of opium were recovered
from the offices of the Governor of Afghan’s Helmand Province. While the governor
was eventually replaced, no punitive action was taken against him, and he moved on
to a high-level position in parliament. 34 This case is not unusual, with corrupt officials
routinely being simply reassigned rather than removed from office.
For many of Afghanistan’s warlords, the opium trade brings money and power.
Therefore, several of Afghanistan’s powerful warlords are also top drug-lords. In some
cases, these warlords are the same individuals who cooperated with the United States
in ousting the Taliban in 2001. In some provinces, the warlords are now promoting the
opium industry by bribing government officials and providing protection to farmers
and traffickers. In sum, political corruption is so widespread in Afghanistan that it is
undermining public institutions, eroding the rule of law, and creating widespread
unstability and volatility. President Karzai himself has complained that “drugs in
Afghanistan are threatening the very existence of the Afghan State.”35

http://www.strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/pdffiles/pub804.pdf