Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

The Specialist

January 18th, 2012 · 10 Comments

By now you may have heard of the landmark federal conviction of Alfred Anaya, who played a key role in a drug trafficking ring that moved product from Mexico to the Midwest. What makes Anaya’s downfall so interesting is that fact that, by the government’s own admission, he never touched any drugs himself; his role was that of a master engineer, in charge of building secret compartments in the vehicles the operation used to transport its contraband.

The Feds have long been keen to bust men like Anaya, an effort complicated by the fact that there is no specific statute that bans the building of secret compartments. Anaya was tripped up by a series of wiretaps which revealed his knowledge of how the compartments would be used. Those wiretaps also hint at just how valuable Anaya’s services were to the organization:

Using wiretaps issued in another investigation, authorities intercepted calls involving known drug traffickers in which they discussed having hidden automobile compartments or “traps” built for them by defendant. References to detection by customs officials and the use of x-ray-interfering carbon paper and mirror-like surfaces provide evidence that the traps were intended for illegal drug-trafficking purposes. Other intercepted calls related to the possibility of defendant’s traveling to Mexico to fix a compartment that would not open.

In other words, Anaya’s skillset was so respected by his paymasters that they were willing to get him down to Mexico to open a single compartment, rather than hiring local talent to solve the problem. That’s a testament to the sophistication of Anaya’s work, and a clue as to why federal prosecutors considered him such a grand prize.

I plan on drilling deeper into the court documents to get a better sense of Anaya’s precise methods for creating world-beating traps. Amazing to me that something as simple as carbon paper could be so essential to foiling the zillion-dollar detection systems employed by Border Patrol agents.


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10 Comments so far ↓

  • Jordan

    Unless there’s something more to it, a little poking around the internet makes it sounds like the carbon paper thing is just a myth. For instance:


  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Jordan: Interesting. Not nearly enough details in the BBC piece to determine whether the paper provides some modicum of protection, or is wholly ineffective. Cursory check of Google Scholar reveals no papers on the matter; may have to dig elsewhere to determine whether Mr. Anaya wasn’t quite as smart as the Feds made him out to be.

  • Jordan

    Just from a physics standpoint, it doesn’t make a lot of sense (though it’s not as if counterintuitive things never happen). The ability of an atom to deflect X-rays is proportional to its atomic number, hence why bones show up on X-ray scans, because they have lots of calcium, potassium, magnesium and other elements with higher atomic numbers than the standard CHON that most of the body is made up of. Very intense beams of X-rays are needed to image protein crystals, because you’re mostly trying to get diffraction off of small and thus weakly interacting carbon, oxygen and nitrogen nuclei.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Jordan: Thanks for the good explainer. Makes me wonder why they didn’t use lead instead of carbon paper. Surely millionaire drug dealers can get their hands on some lead, correct?

  • Jordan

    It’s actually even more complicated than that. Most metals like iron and aluminum are semi-transparant to higher frequency (and thus more energetic) X-rays. That’s why they can be used to image the insides of shipping containers and the like in very fine detail. So you would actually have to find a way to calibrate the X-ray transparency of the container/drugs combo to match the material around them, because a big lead-lined space would show up as a highly suspicious blank spot.

  • MystiqueGurl

    The truth is Mr. Anaya is nothing of what you’ve read or the so-called evidence they say have on him. He is a gentle, loving, man. If our own country can assasinate one of our Presidents and get away with it, who’s to say the so-called evidence is completely true about Mr. Anaya. He didn’t kill anyone, he made comparments. I’ve known him since I was young kid. If he is guilty of anything it’s of being a victim of society.

  • MystiqueGurl

    I understand your doing you’re job as a journalist.Mr Anaya was no master-mind. Mr. Anaya is no dead-line story; he is a man. A man that makes mistakes, since when is it a crime to make mistakes? Don’t you think he needs counseling, like other convicted felons? Rehabilitation goes a long way. I believe in rehabilitation, and so should the we all. He’s a non-violent, non-confrotational man. He has no record prior to this. What kind of message we sending, when we lock away people first time offenders, but release convicted rapist? Killer’s & Child Molester’s walk among us, and repeat the same crimes again.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @MystiqueGurl: Thank you for the comments. I’m currently working on a more deeply reported look at this story.

  • nick

    thats my dad.

  • How’d you find that secret-compartments story, Brendan Koerner? – Nieman Storyboard - A project of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard

    […] queue, as a reminder to investigate further at some undetermined future date. And I wrote a quickie post on my blog, which I’ve come to regard as a sort of public scratch […]