Scared Mexicans try under-the-skin tracking devices

August 21, 2011

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.


A radio frequency identification chip (RFID) is essentially a small antenna in a tiny glass tube. (Nick Miroff/The Washington Post)

“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.

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.

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.”

Nick Miroff is a Latin America correspondent for The Post, roaming from the U.S.-Mexico borderlands to South America’s southern cone. He has been a staff writer since 2006.
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