CI Techiques of the Clandestine Street Drug Trader
by Captain Gordon J. Knowles, Ph.D., HI ARNG
Editors Note: The term counterintelligence often connotes a spy versus spy scenario where counterintelligence (CI) agents are actively pursuing foreign intelligence collectors. However, we forget that self-directed measures are sometimes the best counterintelligence methodsdenying collection is often more effective than pursuing the collector. In this article, Captain Knowles has identified several counterintelligence techniques that street drug traders employ to avoid detection and arrest. It is important to detect and neutralize these CI methods in order to execute Counterdrug operations more effectively.1
CI and the Drug War
The purpose of CI is to detect, identify, assess, counter, neutralize, and exploit hostile elements intelligence collection efforts.2 As a means of comparison, it is useful to study the CI methods and techniques used by those in the criminal subculture. Many of the specific strategies of drug traffickers empower them to undermine law enforcement interventions, avoid hostile drug intelligence collection, and evade the entire criminal justice system. Among the strategies employed are countermeasures such as liaisons, code words, foreign words and phrases, screening tactics, safe houses, cache sites, and deception. There is a tangible drug-dealer tradecraftspecifically the artistic skill, cunning, and ingenuity of the street drug trafficker.3
Intervention efforts attempt to restrict drug traffickers travel patterns, restrain their countermeasure techniques, and determine the location of drug cache sites or safe houses. These enforcement activities are subject to the CI efforts of drug dealers. The intent of this study4 was to extract tactical CI methods and techniques used by a covert community of drug traffickers within a major capital city. This information can promote drug intelligence collection activities, assist in drug interdiction efforts, and recommend possible future law-enforcement strategies in the war on drugs.
Historically, Honolulus vice district is in the center of Chinatown, tightly bound by River, Beretania, Nuuanu, Smith, and Hotel streets.5 By the 1990s, there has been considerable gentrification of shops on adjacent streets, but Chinatown after dark remains an area of rough bars, illegal gambling houses, pornographic theaters, prostitutes, and the focus of the present study: drug trafficking.6 The street corners in Honolulu have become the markets of choice for the drug dealers and buyers. Other studies have referred to this phenomenon as copping areasopen areas such as street corners where the dealers exchange small amounts of drugs for cash and multiple transactions typically occur in a short time span.7
Runners, Dealer Promoters, and Buyers
The research for this study involved observing drug traffickers conducting transactions on the street, in vehicles, and in pornographic video theaters. Although some sources reported trafficking in other commodities, such as heroin, marijuana, and sex, they all said they spent the majority of their time dealing and generating revenue from crack-cocaine sales. There is a clearly defined structure within the street-level drug trade in Honolulus Chinatown.8 The roles of the participants were the
Although all the roles faced similar criminal penalties, the runners appeared to be the most active and vulnerable to arrest, physical injury, mental illness, and malnutrition. For these reasons, the study focused on the runners with re- spect to their law enforcement avoidance skills.
The runners spend their time running to purchase crack-cocaine for a buyer. This procedure involves standing on a corner in Chinatown and seeking out the daily crack buyers by approaching people walking or driving by and asking, What you need? or merely glancing at people and awaiting nonverbal cues. In some cases, potential buyers drive by in a car and hold up two fingers to a runner. This recognition signal means that the person is a potential buyer who wants to purchase a twenty-dollar rock of crack-cocaine. The runner then approaches the buyer and receives the money. The runner quickly moves to one of the local bars located on North Hotel Street where the dealers were in a makeshift safe house.
If runners encounter any law enforcement officials on their return, they would quickly drop the small amount of crack onto the ground. This small amount of crack cocaine easily and quickly becomes lost on a busy street corner in a major city. This type of drug-- trafficking technique makes it extremely difficult for law enforcement personnel to get a convictionor even to make an arrest. Additionally, it appears the runners also serve as buffers for the dealers to avoid detection and to prevent arrest.
Covert Paraphernalia and Crack Distribution
The crack pipe is a small cylindrical glass tube roughly four inches in length and three-fourths of an inch in diameter. The procedure to obtain a crack pipe involves entering convenient stores known to sell drug-related paraphernalia and ask to purchase a glass straw. This code word signals the clerk that the perspective customer desires to purchase a crack pipe. The clerk states the price, then reaches under the counter and brings out the pipe. The use of the code word permits the store-owner to sell drug paraphernalia discreetly and acts as a screening tactic to avoid law enforcement efforts.
All the runners interviewed distributed an amount of crack cocaine called a dirty thirty; the name derives from the $30 needed to purchase this quantity of crack-cocaine. The dirty thirty is well under the one-eighth of an ounce amount required for a class B felony conviction in Hawaii. The runners all acknowledged that the reduction in criminal penalties for carrying the smaller amount of crack-cocaine was the main reason that they and their clients conducted all drug transactions in this amount. The sources explained that they could use the possession of this small amount, if arrested, to justify that they were only low-level users and not involved in actual drug distribution.
Later in the study, the runners switched from selling $30 to $20 amounts of cocaine since the speed of the transactions is a crucial element in avoiding detection. This shift in pricing to avoid making change was a countermeasure to avoid arrest.
Language, Deception, and Countermeasures
The use of a foreign language by drug dealers was the most striking aspect of an effective countermeasure against law enforcement. The runners and buyers refer to crack- cocaine as rock more often than crack. However, very rarely do drug dealers in Honolulu use the words cocaine, crack, or rock in a drug-trafficking context, but ra- ther they refer to it as maa. Maa is the Samoan word for rock or stone.
Additionally, when uniformed or potential undercover law enforcement personnel neared the locations of drug transactions, a short series of yells of leoleo echoed down the blockthe term leoleo is Samoan for police. Finally, those involved in drug dealing commonly referred to each other as sole, which is an indigenous Samoan term used in addressing or calling a boy or a man.
This information does not indicate that the drug dealers are Samoan, but rather shows how the drug dealers use foreign terms in relaying information to counter law-enforcement efforts. The use of Samoan words permits drug dealers to converse covertly regarding drug transactions, alerts others of a law enforcement presence, and serves as a screening tactic to separate real drug buyers from undercover law enforcement agents. In general, the use of Samoan words and phrases greatly enhances the drug dealers ability to avoid detection and arrest in the Chinatown district of Honolulu.
The dealers and runners identify types of clothing to determine or undermine law enforcement threats This was most evident when a 31 year-old male crack runner explained how he detected and avoided possible undercover law enforcement agents:
Well in the daytime...you can see those uniform guys hats from a mile away...its kinda like a beacon with that badge shining in the sun...undercovers [agents] arent that hard either.... I mean if the guy is wearing black tennis shoes, hes a cop I mean the police uni- forms are black...so if hes off duty or working undercover he is still using the same shoes... so I avoid him.
Dealers do not carry money and crack-cocaine at the same time, rather they have the runner pay a neutral party standing close by who did not hold any crack, but only the money related to crack-cocaine sales. The dealer would then hand the purchased amount of crack- cocaine to the runner. Some drug dealers would also require the runners to place the money on the ground before they handed over the crack-cocaine. These practices appear to be an attempt at a type of street-wise criminal prosecution countermeasure enabling dealers to deny plausibly that they directly received money during drug transactions.
The deployment of runners and the use of money-holders enable the dealers to insulate themselves from possible detection or arrest by law enforcement personnel. Consequently, this insulation enables them to evade the entire criminal justice system. The use of runners also enhances the projection radius of crack-cocaine distribution permitting the dealer to identify, target, and reach more potential buyers.
Unlike in other parts of the country, drug sellers in Honolulu District do not place crack in any type of packaging such as a glass vial or aluminum foil. Rather runners would just carry it in their handsor mouths if needed. This gives them the option of quickly discarding the drug by dropping it on the ground or swallowing it in order to prevent an arrest. The lack of packaging and related packaging waste removes a potential signature item that can pinpoint locations of drug trafficking activity. It also removes the possibility of using fingerprints from the packaging as evidence.
The absence of packaging also serves to dupe buyers when crack- cocaine supplies are low. Some dealers resorted to selling substances such as sugar, pineapple candy, or macadamia nuts that visually mimic the appearance of street crack-cocaine in order to trick unsuspecting drug buyers out of their money. They call this type of deception bunking.
The Pornographic Theater
All of the sources reported running crack all day and night (there was no best time), which made living on the streets advantageous. They handled the need for a place to get high by using several of the local 24-hour pornographic video theaters in Chinatown. All of them indicated that they had conducted drug transactions in the porn- ographic video theaters and estimated that about 70 percent of their drug transactions occurred in these theaters. They also reported that they themselves got high half of the time in the theaters. Finally, they claimed that 80 percent of the people went in the theaters to get high, and the remainder went there to purchase sexual favors from drug addicts who engaged in acts of prostitution. The runners added that they used the pornographic theaters because they provided con venience, security, and the privacy in which to sell, buy, or use crack-cocaine. In essence, the video theaters serve as safe houses or cache sites for crack-cocaine storage, distribution, and usage.9
The targeting and the elimination of the drug cache sites or the safe houses (such as pornographic theaters) appears to provide the most viable and promis ing avenue of approach in attacking the drug trade. Seizure of the businesses or residences used by the drug traffickers greatly undermines and disrupts drug distribution efforts. Loss of these locations requires drug traffickers to identify and reposition drug cache sites and safe houses, relocate displaced drug clientele, attempt to recruit new ones, and reestablish drug-supply sources and networks. This substantially increases the criminals risk of ex- posure to the drug intelligence collec tion by law enforcement agencies.
The rapid deciphering of code words or translation of the foreign words and phrases used by street drug traffickers should be a critical priority intelligence requirement (PIR) in overall drug-interdiction efforts. The deliberate intent and final purpose of this study was to provide the intelligence and law enforcement community with a deeper understanding of the counterintelligence activities used by the street crack-cocaine trafficker. Knowledge of the methods and techniques employed by drug traffickers assists intelligence and law enforcement officers in winning the drug war that has currently seized many of our cities, neighborhoods, and citizens throughout the United States.
1. An earlier version of this research received the first-place award of the Western Society of Criminologys 1997 Best Academic Paper Competition. I presented it at the annual meeting in Waikiki, Hawaii, on 1 March 1997.
2. U. S. Army, FM 34-60, Counterin- telligence (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 3 Oc tober 1995), page 1-2.
3. Jacobs, Bruce A., Crack Dealers Apprehension Avoidance Techniques: A Case of Restrictive Deterrence, Justice Quarterly, Volume 13, 1996, pages 359-381.
4. The study spotted, assessed, and recruited confidential sources actively involved in street drug trafficking and distribution in Honolulus Chinatown district. Each source received com- pensationfor the information they provided, which was similar to what they would make for a single drug transaction. Most of the sources, at the times of observation, were using and under the influence of crack-cocaine, as were some of the members of the surrounding populace.
5. Knowles, Gordon J., A Study on the Prostitutes of Hotel Street in Honolulu, Hawaii, Graduate Thesis, Department of Criminal Justice, Chaminade University, 1992.
6. Knowles, Gordon J., Sex, Crack, Ice, Heroin, and AIDS: An Ethno- graphic Study of Chinatown Street Addicts in Honolulu, Hawaii, Doctoral Dissertation, Department of Sociology, University of Hawaii, 1997.
7. Pettiway, Leon E., Copping Crack: The Travel Behavior of Crack Users. Justice Quarterly, Volume 12, 1995, pages 499-524.
8. Knowles, Gordon J., Dealing Crack Cocaine: A View from the Streets of Honolulu, FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, Volume 65, 1996, page 7.
9. Knowles, Gordon J., Gambling, Drugs and Sex: New Drug Trends and Addictions
in Honolulu Hawaii, Sociological Practice: A Journal of Clinical and Applied Sociology, Volume 1, 1999, page 59.
Captain Gordon Knowles, Ph.D HI ARNG, is a Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Hawaii Pacific University with teaching and research interests in the areas of sociology, criminology, criminal justice, and intelligence and counterintelligence. Additionally, he also serves as the S2 for the 29th Support Battalion, 29th Infantry Brigade (National Guard). Captain Knowles received his doctorate in Sociology with an emphasis in Criminology and Criminal Justice from the University of Hawaii. He also earned a Master of Science degree in Criminal Justice Administration with an emphasis in Law Enforcement and Corrections Management from Chaminade University of Honolulu and a Bachelor of Science degree in Criminal Justice from Wayland University. He is a graduate of the Military Intelligence Officer Basic Course, the MI Officer Advanced Course, and the Counterintelligence Officer Course. Interested readers may contact him via E-mail at Gordon [email protected] and by voice or facsimile at (808) 566-9933.