Tech makes drug smuggling easier to do, harder to stop

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Tech makes drug smuggling easier to do, harder to stop

Methamphetamine  [U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration]

Methamphetamine [U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration]

Korea's illegal drug industry has gone from the back alley to the Deep Web.
And that has made it a playground for the young generation, the digital natives.
Kim Dae-gyu, head of the drug investigation unit of the South Gyeongsang Police, explained the new tools used by today's drug dealers: the Deep Web, the Telegram messaging service and cryptocurrencies.
Drug dealers have built an illicit drug market on the Deep Web, a part of the World Wide Web whose contents are not indexed by search engines, with no trackable IP addresses. In that secret place, drug purchases are made from large international drug rings, which are shipped into Korea.
Communications on Telegram are encrypted, are not kept on Telegram's servers and remain completely confidential.  
Contact among overseas manufacturers, buyers and the foreign cargo ships that transport the drugs only occurs on these two platforms.  
Since the 2000s, domestic manufacturing of drugs has plummeted. Only a few Koreans grow opium and hemp in rural areas. There is no reason to take the risk of domestically manufacturing drugs, the Supreme Prosecutor’s Office explains, since smuggling drugs from overseas is easy.    
Most drugs distributed in Korea come from Southeast Asia, China, South America and the United States.  
Professionals stow drugs on foreign cargo ships using creative ways to get by customs — mixing them into liquids, with salt, grains, and even packed with machine parts — and then deliver them across Korea using express freight services.  
After online purchases, drugs are shipped directly to a buyer’s home and payment is made in cryptocurrency. Absolutely no communication records are created or in-person arrangements needed.
Ecstacy  [U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration]

Ecstacy [U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration]

“Drug dealers in their 50s and 60s joke around, saying, 'We need to learn how to use technology quickly,'” said Kim. “Buyers refuse to meet in person. Without knowing how to utilize technology, drug dealers can’t operate anymore.
In November 2021, the Telegram Drug Room, a drug-trading social media chat room was busted and a shocking discovery was made: the guy controlling the site was a junior in high school.  
The 18-year-old created the Telegram Drug Room to connect with cargo ships to smuggle methamphetamines, ecstasy and cannabis into Korea.  
Because Telegram guaranteed anonymity, no other members of the group were aware that a teen was operating it. The 18-year-old recruited men in their 20s and 30s as his “employees.”  
The fact that drug dealing is done online is the main reason for the rising number of young drug offenders. Online is their natural habitat.
Compared to a decade ago, the proportion of people in their 20s arrested for drug offenses increased by seven times, according to the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office.  
With e-commerce and non-face-to-face communications, drug dealers are much harder to catch.  
“Since smugglers have become more intelligent, we’ve only been able to arrest one out of ten drug offenders,” said Choi Byung-chan, an investigator in the Violent Crimes Detective Department of the Incheon District Prosecutor’s Office.  
Drug smuggling by illegal immigrants has also been increasing.  
Some have been caught attempting to bring in mass amounts of drugs from their home countries.  
In July 2020, a Malaysian man was caught smuggling 513 grams of methamphetamines, 90 grams of marijuana, 978 tablets of yaba (a combination and methamphetamine and caffeine), 48 ecstasy tablets and 26.34 grams of powdered ecstasy into Korea from his country.
In May 2021, a Thai man was caught bringing 4 kilograms of methamphetamines into Korea using express air freight, and in September, another Thai person was caught smuggling 940 grams of methamphetamine and 4,444 tablets of yaba into Korea.  
“There are about 150,000 illegal Thai immigrants residing in Korea, constantly smuggling methamphetamines and yaba into Korea,” said an official from the Prosecutor’s Office.  
“Even with CIQ (Immigration Control, Customs Inspection, Quarantine) crackdowns, we can only detect the tip of the iceberg,” said investigator Choi.  
The Korea Customs Service says it needs more resources and manpower.
“These people are professionals,” said Hyun Sam-gong, an official from the International Investigation Division at the Korea Customs Service. "They dissolve cocaine into wine. They mix it into cosmetics and coffee grounds and pack it inside machine parts.
“We have fewer than 70 people dedicated to detecting drugs. Against these pros with all their techniques, it’s impossible to thoroughly check every single one.  
“I do my best in the current given situation, but I can’t open up all suspicious cargo. There are 1,150 police and 290 prosecutors in the drug investigation unit, but only 70 are assigned to customs surveillance — for all airports and ports across the nation.”  
Especially with international drug organizations choosing Korea as a transfer center for drug distribution, drug-carrying cargo coming into the nation has increased.  
“International drug organizations are exploiting the fact that Korea is classified as a relatively 'drug-free' nation,” Shin Jun-ho, head of the Violent Crimes Division of the Incheon District Prosecutors' Office, said.  
“When cargo from Thailand, China, the Philippines and Vietnam passes through Korea and reaches its final destination, crackdowns are much more moderate, which is why Korea has become an international drug laundering station, with final destinations being Australia and Japan.”  
In a 2021 White Paper on Narcotics Crimes, the Supreme Prosecutor's Office listed cases of arrested drug offenders who tried using Korea as a way station for drugs.  
In July 2021, an Australian man of Korean descent in his 30s smuggled 1,134 kilograms of methamphetamines from Mexico to Korea by hiding it in an airplane gearbox.  
Only after successfully shipping it to Australia was the man arrested and sentenced to 15 years.
The Prosecutor’s Office called for an establishment of an immigration office to systematically monitor and manage illegal immigrant criminal activities. To keep teenagers away from drugs, drugs must be blocked at the smuggling stage.  
“Right now, it’s like trying to catch a bunch of mosquitos with your bare hands,” said Shin.

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