Fake bomb detectors in the Mexican war on drugs: a plea to skeptics everywhere

Note: Hi, fellow skeptics and critical thinkers! Although this little blog is usually written in Spanish, I wrote this post in English in an attempt to reach a wider audience. While I tried hard to at least make it intelligible, odds are there are quite a few grammar mistakes. I apologize in advance.

As you probably know, our country, Mexico, is in the midst of a violent struggle between the government and the drug cartels. Over the last few years violence has escalated, and innocent civilians have become a common target of it. Three years ago, during the Independence Day celebrations in the city of Morelia, eight people died and dozens were injured after cartel thugs threw two hand grenades at the crowd. A few days ago, in the northern city of Monterrey, criminals threw at least a hand grenade at a casino full of people, before setting it on fire. Fifty two people died.

And in the three years between those incidents, reports of car bombs, shootings and other atrocities have become a common, terrifying sight in the news.

But, what has this to do with skepticism? After you see the following image, you might know where this is going.

Yes, that’s a Mexican Federal policeman. And yes, the device in his hands is one of those infamous and fraudulent bomb detectors you may be familiar with. This one, specifically, is a GT200, manufactured by  Global Technical, a UK based company, and distributed in Mexico by Segtec.

The bad news is that the Mexican Army, the Navy, and many local police forces across the country have wasted millions over the last few years, purchasing hundreds of these useless and expensive devices, Most of them GT200’s, but also some ADE651’s.

The real bad news is not that the authorities keep using them to this day, but that they seem to have developed a blind faith in their supposed efficacy, keeping count of the random hits while ignoring the misses (and not even realizing there are such things as false positives and false negatives). While these devices are routinely used to search for drugs, weapons and explosives, some other more creative uses have been devised: locating landslide victims and kidnap victims are two of them.

Not even last year’s official warning from the British government helped to undermine our authorities’ zealous confidence in these devices.

But the worst news is that Mexican media has remained, for the most part, oblivious. Most news outlets just repeat the official claims about x amount of y drug, or a cache of weapons and ammunition, being located and seized thanks to a wonderful high-tech device that runs with the body static electricity. No questions are ever asked, no further research is ever made about those claims, and the few bloggers and journalists that have written about these so-called detectors have failed to raise awareness about the very real and very dangerous implications of the authorities’ reliance on these glorified divination rods.

On the other hand, international media has actually helped to expose the scam, put the manufacturers of these devices under scrutiny, and even have their export to certain nations banned. Unfortunately, those reports focused almost exclusively on the Thai and Iraqi cases, and the controversy failed to reach Mexico.

The fact is, Mexican authorities have purchased a great number of these devices and use them to conduct searches to this day. This puts lives at risk , specially now when the drug cartels have started launching attacks against civilians.

And of course, there is also a great risk of human rights violations, as readings from these devices are being used to justify house and vehicle searches.

For all we know, people may have already been jailed, hurt or killed because of the authorities’ misplaced trust on these fraudulent devices.

There’s a lot of debate these days on how weapons are illegally trafficked into our country to reach the criminals’ hands. It’s baffling that no one in the media or the government seems to realize that our own security forces are relying on fraudulent, useless devices to detect those weapons.

The title of this post says this is a plea to the worldwide skeptical community, but I’ll be honest: I only have the vaguest idea of what can I ask you to do: help us spread the word. Trying to raise awareness inside our own country has been extremely difficult, but perhaps we can make the rest of the world know.

And if you can do more, please do. If you have contacts in the media, let them know. If you’re in the UK, maybe you could write to your embassy in Mexico: perhaps a second official warning could be taken more seriously than the first. And if you have a better idea (and I’m sure some of you will), please share it.

In other words, please help us put a stop to this inhuman, cruel scam against the Mexican people.