As Davy Van De Moere steered his Subaru along a back road at the Port of Antwerp, he was sure he was being followed. It was a warm day in August 2012, and the city’s industrial skyline stretched into the distance, mile after mile of towering dockside cranes. Unable to find his tail amid the rail lines and mountains of shipping containers, Van De Moere continued to his target: a squat office building whose parking lot was half-filled with workers taking cigarette breaks and napping in their cars.
Van De Moere parked, popped the hood on his battered Impreza, and connected the battery to an antenna, a white plastic rod about 6 inches long. The device began searching for a secret network inside DP World, a Dubai-based port operator with offices on the third floor of the building.
A few days earlier, small USB drives had been inserted into the company’s computers. They were programmed to intercept the nine-digit PINs that controlled access to DP World’s shipping containers. Besides fruit, metals, and other legitimate cargo, some of these containers carried millions of euros in heroin and cocaine. To get their drugs out of the port, often traffickers use low-tech methods: They hire runners to jump fences, break open containers, and sprint away before guards can catch them, earning as much as €10,000 ($11,200) a trip. Stealing PIN codes is more elegant and less risky. Whoever has the codes can pull into the terminal, enter the PIN into a keypad, wait as robot-controlled loaders put the container on their truck, and drive off—sometimes minutes ahead of the cargo’s legitimate owner.
As the minutes ticked by, Van De Moere could hardly believe what he was doing. He didn’t think of himself as a criminal. A year ago, Van De Moere—short, ponytailed, perpetually cheery—had been an ordinary information technology consultant in his native Belgium, earning a comfortable salary setting up digital voice networks for corporations. Now he was working with a Dutch drug-trafficking gang, deep into an audacious hacking scheme that authorities say smuggled tons of cocaine and heroin through the port and into cities across the continent. If the antenna worked and he got the codes, he had a chance to get his normal life back. If he screwed up, he could end up in prison or in a coffin.
The Wi-Fi antenna failed. The traffickers would be angry. Van De Moere closed the Subaru’s hood and drove away. He had only himself to blame. Himself, and his best friend, Filip Maertens.