|Juan Carlos Ramirez Abadia after his arrest.|
Words betray reputed druglord
Voice-recognition technology tools lead to an arrest
SAO PAULO -- A reputed leader of Colombia's biggest drug cartel radically altered his facial appearance with repeated plastic surgeries. But his own words gave him away, thanks to advanced voice recognition technology that has become a key tool in the war against drugs and terrorism.
US agents confirmed the identity of Juan Carlos Ramirez Abadia using the equivalent of a vocal fingerprint, his attorney said yesterday.
Brazilian police had closed in on Ramirez Abadia's properties in and around Sao Paulo, and were probing his alleged laundering of the Colombian cartel's drug profits. But because of his surgeries and multiple aliases, they lacked the positive identification needed for an arrest warrant.
They got their break by taping his telephone conversations, his lawyer, Sergio Alambert, told The Associated Press.
Colombian officials provided a recording they had of Ramirez Abadia and both sets of recordings were passed to the US Drug Enforcement Agency, which made the match, Alambert said.
Richard Mei, spokesman for the US Embassy in Brasilia, confirmed the DEA assisted in the Brazilian investigation of the drug lord, whose Norte de Valle cartel allegedly shipped 550 tons of cocaine to the United States from 1990 to 2003. Mei declined further comment.
With the positive ID in hand, police swooped in on 22 locations in six Brazilian states and caught Ramirez Abadia on Tuesday in a luxurious home with a gym, sauna, plasma TVs, a swimming pool, and nearly $1 million in stashed cash. Authorities found another $1 million buried in the garden of another home near Sao Paulo on Thursday, Alambert said.
US intelligence agencies have used voice recognition for decades, but the technology has become much more effective in recent years through improvements in software that rapidly analyzes vocal frequency patterns, said Jim Hunter, a partner in the Merlin Risks security firm in Sao Paulo.
"The way you use your voice is as individual as fingerprints," Hunter explained. "If they have a sample of a known voice and they get an unknown sample of sufficient length, they then test the unknown against the known."
The process is more complex than fingerprinting because peoples' voices are different when they speak normally, yell, or whisper -- but the software breaks down different frequencies and uses statistical analysis to make matches.
Alambert said Ramirez Abadia, 44, arrived illegally in Brazil four years ago and acknowledges using profits from cocaine shipments by his Norte del Valle cartel to buy businesses that police say included cattle ranches, industrial property, mansions, and hotels. A $1 million yacht, jet skis, and bulletproof cars were among the property seized.