IT and the New Fight Against Drug Trafficking & Gangs

As long as databases have been in existence, information technology (IT) has been used by law enforcement to fight the cartels, terrorist organizations, and criminal “gangs” that traffic in narcotics. Information on gang members involved in drug trafficking originally was entered into mainframe computers, which helped organize data – at a centralized location – that could be made accessible to multiple offices or agencies. The advent of localized client-server solutions in the 1990s revolutionized computing, providing public safety agencies the ability to invest in their own IT infrastructures and to document drug trafficking and gang activities at the local level. As databases grew in number, so did the volume of data captured.

This additional data becoming available directly supported local law enforcement agencies with drug- and gang-interdiction activities in their immediate areas of jurisdiction and facilitated better reporting and trend analyses. Not surprisingly, the primary challenge (and opportunity) quickly became data sharing across multiple systems in ways that are fully compliant with the legal requirements governing the sharing and use of intelligence information. Fortunately, the advent of robust commercial solutions, coupled with the development of more effective national data exchange standards, has created significant new opportunities for the wide-scale sharing of drug- and other gang-related data.

HIDTA & the New Data Aggregators 

Passage of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1998 authorized the High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA) program to assist local, tribal, state, and federal law enforcement agencies with combating drug trafficking in critical areas across the United States. Currently, 28 HIDTAs operate in 46 states, including the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. In October 2011, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) designated seven additional counties to be enrolled in the HIDTA program, enabling them to receive more than $10 million in financial assistance to target the networks of drug trafficking/gangs.

The growth of HIDTAs presented a unique opportunity to develop centralized gang and drug enforcement information. One example of this effort is the GangNet solution – run by SRA International – which started in California in the late 1990s and currently operates in 14 states and the District of Columbia. There are two main benefits for migrating to a regional solution that serves as an “aggregation point” for data from participating jurisdictions: (a) to access centralized data across a much wider geographic area; and (b) to reduce costs by not having to maintain as many individual systems.

In addition to the regional benefits, there is a need for exchange across these systems because both drug trafficking and gangs have proliferated on a national scale – not just locally or regionally. However, there are three main roadblocks for data sharing across systems:

  • The commercial systems on the market tend to be “nodal” in nature, and are not designed to interconnect with other out-of-the-box solutions;
  • The volume and types of data captured by and across individual installations can vary significantly from place to place; and
  • The use of such data to facilitate complementary analyses creates a number of both policy and technical challenges – for example, a search to determine the most violent drug trafficking gang in a state may require the merging of local/regional data with statewide arrest and booking information – an option that may not be possible because of policy, legal, and/or technological limitations.

Data Standards to the Rescue 

With funding support from the U.S. Department of Justice, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts successfully developed a National Information Exchange Model (NIEM/XML) gang data schema and Information Exchange Package Documentation (IEPD) that allow agencies in Massachusetts to both contribute to and access data from the statewide “MassGangs” database. This solution enables additional agencies in Massachusetts, including the Department of Corrections and the State Police – which previously were unable to do so – to exchange data. This new capability not only facilitates access but also contributes to a major increase in analyses through and across agency systems – a helpful bonus that in turn lays the groundwork for national data sharing with other states as well as with the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s National Crime Information Center.

New Technology, New Rules of Engagement 

The growth in “connected” drug and gang databases is only one of several tools that are helping toentify and interdict drug traffickers. Several other new and/or emerging technologies are now available to help law enforcement with the development of the legal cases against suspects. Obviously, the use of these tools must be done within the established boundaries of existing laws and policies.

In November 2011, Richard Schoeberl, a former FBI agent and a “subject-matter” expert in this field, wrote an article – “Reasonable Search – Or Another “Big Brother” Situation?” – for the 23 November issue of DomPrep Journal about the then-pending Supreme Court decision in the landmark case of Katz v. United States. The court was faced with determining whether the use of GPS technology for tracking the movements of a suspected drug dealer [Katz] was lawful, or a violation of the defendant’s constitutional rights. As Schoeberl pointed out, “the warrantless use of new GPS … technologies raises a serious concern for privacy in the 21st century.” Last month (on 23 January), the Supreme Court issued its decision, ruling unanimously that the relatively long-term GPS tracking of the suspect constituted a “search” under the Fourth Amendment and, therefore, required a judicial warrant.

The still controversial case received major coverage in the U.S. print and broadcast media. Some law enforcement authorities already have suggested, though, that the warrant requirement will probably lead to tighter procedural requirements but may not restrict law enforcement investigations as seriously as had been originally feared. Nonetheless, the Court’s unanimous decision sent a clear message to the nation’s law enforcement community in general – namely, that the use of new technologies must be undertaken, and carried out, with due consideration for the numerous legal problems that might be encountered.

Today and for the foreseeable future, therefore, it should be taken for granted that the precarious balance between technology and operational use must be constantly adjusted – as and when the proliferation of new information-sharing systems and new technologies tip the balance back and forth between law enforcement prosecutors and public defenders (and/or, more often, private-sector lawyers). For that reason alone, federal agencies and other jurisdictions will have to ensure that they not only have a firm substantive case against drug traffickers but also whether that case will stand up in court – which may be an added frustration for prosecutors, but would not necessarily be a total Mission Impossible for the nation as a whole.


For additional information on: High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas, visit

FBI Turns Off Thousands of GPS Devices After Supreme Court Ruling, visit

Rodrigo (Roddy) Moscoso

Rodrigo (Roddy) Moscoso is the executive director of the Capital Wireless Information Net (CapWIN) Program at the University of Maryland, which provides software and mission-critical data access services to first responders in and across dozens of jurisdictions, disciplines, and levels of government. Formerly with IBM Business Consulting Services, he has more than 20 years of experience supporting large-scale implementation projects for information technology, and extensive experience in several related fields such as change management, business process reengineering, human resources, and communications.



No tags to display


Translate »