Jose Ramon Miguelez-Botas
The multi-billion dollar drugs industry is growing rapidly, with traffickers constantly looking for new ways to move their products. Everyone in business aviation needs to be aware of the risks.
IT WAS A cold morning at Farnborough airport when the five businessmen stepped down from the large business jet. At the same time, their heavy suitcases were being unloaded and taken to the FBO. It was an unremarkable, everyday scene.
Except on January 29, 2018, it was not. This was the start of one of the largest aviation drugs busts in the UK.
When UK Border Force officials examined the 15 suitcases, they found a few dirty clothes and 513 brown-paper packages each stamped with a Superman logo. These were full of cocaine. In total, the men were carrying 500 kilograms of cocaine, with a street value of £41 million ($50 million).
All five – two Spaniards, two Brits and an Italian - claimed they were unaware that drugs were in their cases. Most could not even pick out which bags were theirs. When one man’s case was opened, he exclaimed: "Oh! Cocaina.” He was then handcuffed and arrested.
The two British people had claimed that they worked in cryptocurrency and the music industry. They said that they had flown to Bogota to see Bruno Mars. However, their real jobs were less exciting.
“These men deviated from their seemingly normal lives as bricklayers and waiters to play high-flying businessmen, using luxury cars, hotels and even a private jet to try and pull off a plot they thought would make them millions,” said Ian Truby from the National Crime Agency in the UK.
In addition to the drugs, officers also seized mobile phones — including a self-wiping one — which provided evidence of the conspiracy and also led to the arrest of another suspect outside the UK.
A woman had booked the return trip for them with Farnborough broker Diamonte Jets. She had paid the £138,500 charter fee in cash and requested that a specific company, Central Charter, handled the flight on arrival in Bogota.
One man — the brother of another passenger — was later found not guilty. Four of the men were sentenced in August 2018 to a total of 92 years in jail.
Statistically, business aviation rarely crosses paths with the international drug industry. But when it does, the problems are potentially huge — and the numbers of incidents are increasing.
"The United Nations says that 99.5% of coca is grown in Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia."
A growing problem
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) ‘World Drugs Report 2018’ shows record levels of cocaine and opium growing — the highest level since it started tracking drugs in 2000.
The United Nations says that 99.5% of coca is grown in Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia, while, the largest demand comes from users in North America and Europe (although usage in other parts of the world is also growing). But getting cocaine to these key markets directly is not easy.
“The United States can expect continuing increases in domestic supply levels and cocaine abuse, through at least 2019,” said the US Drug Enforcement Administration in October 2018. “With surging coca cultivation and cocaine production in Colombia, northbound cocaine flows are expected to continue at current levels. Due to the ongoing proliferation of fentanyl and other synthetic opioids into the expanded domestic cocaine supply, cocaine-related deaths will continue to rise through 2018, potentially reaching epidemic levels in the next few years.”
The good news is that seizures of opium and cocaine are at record levels too. Smugglers will use every mode of transport available to them. So long as they’re able to move large amounts as quickly as possible — making aircraft and ships popular.
The UNODC, Interpol and the World Customs Organization see aviation (particularly commercial and freight) as an especially high-risk area. In 2010, they got together to create a project called AIRCOP to strengthen detection and interception of drugs, illicit growth and high-risk passengers at airports in Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean and the Middle East.
Exclusive CCTV footage of the Farnborough drug bust. Credits: National Crime Agency
Flying direct to the US — from farm to table
If you have seen American Made, the 2017 film starring Tom Cruise, you may think that the most popular drug route is from Latin America to the US. But this route is largely historic. In a 1984 New York Times article titled ‘US is seen as losing war on cocaine smuggling as planes get through,’ analysts said that there may have been 18,000 drug flights into the US in 1983 — with US customs officials estimating that they managed to intercept just 1%.
Now, interception rates are much higher. The US Customs and Border Protection's Air and Marine Operations division, alone, has 235 aircraft operating in the US and Puerto Rico. “We use customs checks at airports or ports of entry, registering flight paths, and routine investigative methods, including surveillance, informants, technology and financial reports to combat drug trafficking via aircraft,” said a spokeswoman for the US DEA.
In 2017, two Canadians tried to fly 132 kilograms of cocaine from the Bahamas to Ontario. When their aircraft had technical problems, they decided to land at Gordon K. Bush Airport at Ohio University. Within minutes of this re-routing, a US Customs and Border Protection Air and Marine Operations official sitting in California saw that the aircraft had diverted. He arranged for the aircraft to be searched when it landed and the would-be smugglers were each jailed for eight years.
The high risks of crossing the border interfere with most traffickers who use trucks, tunnels, cars and, increasingly, drones to move the cocaine into the US. However, operators should be aware of risks of charter passengers moving drugs on domestic US flights.
The spokeswoman said: “DEA has investigated and provided evidence to the US Attorney’s Office on drug traffickers that chartered jets to transport illegal drugs across the country." South of the US border, the use of business aircraft — particularly smaller aircraft and turboprops — is much more widespread.
One of the suitcases holding cocaine, from the Farnborough drug bust. Credits: National Crime Agency
The Latin American drugs fleet
The trial of Joaquin Archivaldo Guzman Loera, also known as El Chapo, which started at the end of 2018, was one of the most watched criminal cases of 2019. Guzman is accused of running the Sinaloa Cartel, an international criminal organization that was founded in the Mexican state of Sinaloa, and made billions smuggling drugs into the US.
The DEA says that the Sinaloa cartel has the biggest footprint in the US out of all the Mexican Transnational Crime Organizations. It also owns a lot of aircraft. The Sinaloa Cartel does not publish figures for its flight department, but in a 2017 Rolling Stone interview, with actor Sean Penn, Guzman boasted about having a fleet of submarines, airplanes, trucks and boats.
Arrested pilots have talked about there being as many as 500 aircraft in the fleet. Most of them are small piston aircraft capable of landing on desert strips, but there are also long range business jets and converted airliners.
El Universal, the Mexican newspaper, has used freedom of information requests to discover that the Mexican government seized 599 aircraft from the Sinaloa cartel alone, between 2006 and 2015.
During Guzman’s trial, Miguel “Gordo” Angel Martinez, a key witness and former cartel pilot - testified that business jets were used every month to transport cash between Tijuana and Mexico City. He said they typically carried $8-10 million. Cartels use small aircraft all over the northern part of South America and the Caribbean:
“Increasingly, traffickers utilize private airplanes and secondary airports to augment commercial smuggling, particularly in the wake of the devastation of Hurricanes Irma and Maria,” said the DEA in its 2018 National Drug Threat Assessment, which was published in October 2018. “In much of the Caribbean, private airports have little to no security and limited law-enforcement supervision due to limited resources, creating smuggling opportunities with little risk of exposure.”
The DEA says that during the first 10 months of 2017 alone, there were 44 suspected aerial trafficking events in Guatemala and that Peruvian authorities destroyed 78 unauthorised runways. It says that the movement of cocaine by small aircraft from Peru remains a threat; and that Bolivia confiscated 17 aircraft involved in drug trafficking in 2017. Most Peruvian cocaine is moved through Bolivia, in what traffickers call the 'airbridge.'
It also says that Honduras remains a prime destination in Central America for cocaine-laden aircraft departing from South America — however, the number of drug flights fell in 2017 and 2018.
In recent years, there has been a flurry of business aircraft landing into Belize, on the southern border of Mexico. In late 2018, a single-engine Cessna carrying 555 kilograms of cocaine was confiscated by the Belize Police Department. Five men — including two Belizean police officials — were detained after an hour-long shootout with security forces and the army.
The risks to pilots landing heavily-laden, poorly maintained aircraft at unrecognised airports are clear. Martinez admitted crash landing twice – including once with Guzman as passenger. And then there is the risk of arrest. But things can get worse. Six countries – Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Peru and Venezuela – have laws where a civil aircraft that refuses to land can be shot-down if it is deemed hostile. Paraguay and Ecuador are looking at enacting similar laws.
With regular crashes and seizures, the cartels regularly need new aircraft. And they do not care about ADS-B compliance.
"This sentence is a reminder that people who launder money for drug traffickers are committing a serious crime."
Selling aircraft to drug runners
Over a beer, some US brokers — especially ones specialising in smaller aircraft — will privately admit that they may have sold aircraft that later ended up at cartels. It is not unusual to sell an aircraft to an honest buyer who sells it on. The next they hear of the aircraft is when it ends up being seized a few years later.
But a rare few see selling to traffickers as a business. In 2017, two Californian brokers were sentenced to jail for doing just this.
Hector Hernandez, 49, the owner of Pacific Coast Aero which specialised in Cessna 206s and 210s, admitted that he helped with the sale of seven aircraft to smugglers. His colleague Vicente Contreras-Amezquita, a co-defendant, was sentenced to five years in jail for helping with the purchase of more than 35 aircraft.
"This sentence is a reminder that people who launder money for drug traffickers are committing a serious crime," said William Sherman, DEA San Diego Special Agent-in-Charge. “Living the high life on drug proceeds will lead to a crash and burn."
Both Hernandez and Contreras-Amezquita knew what they were doing. In fact, Contreras-Amezquita used 46 business and personal bank accounts to launder money and regularly received cash payments for aircraft.
He would meet people at various locations, including strip malls, parking lots, aircraft hangars, and fast-food restaurants. When Federal Agents stopped him the first time, he was carrying $104,000 in cash.
As well as sellers, the US government has successfully prosecuted buyers of US-registered aircraft for drug trafficking. In 2016, Fernando Josue Chang-Monroy, a Guatemalan citizen, was sentenced to more than 20 years in jail for buying two US-registered King Airs.
He sold one King Air C90 to a Honduran drug trafficking organization and an E90 to Colombian traffickers. Chang-Monroy hired pilots for the E90 and repainted it. The E90 was seized in March 2014 when it was carrying 1,000 kilograms of cocaine.
Drug busts involving private jets
Getting to Europe
Like their US counterparts, European law enforcement officials are aware of how business aircraft can be used — and the risk of interception is high. All Western European countries track flights arriving from Latin America and have a permanent presence at most significant business jet airports.
“At other smaller airfields where there is not a permanent presence, Border Force works with domestic and international partners to gather intelligence and target suspicious activity,” said a spokesman for the UK Home Office. “We carry out detailed risk assessments and our officers physically meet any flight considered to be high risk. We constantly review our approach so that we are keeping up with the ever-changing methods used by criminals looking to bring harm to communities in the UK.”
Despite this, the high returns mean that drug organisations are still prepared to gamble — as with the Farnborough case in January 2018 — at least once a year. In 2013, a Falcon 50 was seized in the Dominican Republic with 700 kilograms of cocaine. The owner, Alain Afflelou, owner of a chain of French opticians, had made it available for charter and was shocked to discover that it was full of suitcases filling both the hold and the cabin.
Rawson Watson, a UK citizen, was sentenced to 17 years in US prison in 2014 for a similar attempt. He pleaded guilty to attempting to smuggle more than one tonne of cocaine — worth more than $30 million, from the Dominican Republic to Belgium. Watson was dressed as a flight attendant when he was arrested.
It is also a mistake to look at these, or the 2018 Farnborough bust as amateurish. The drugs were transported to the airport in an armoured vehicle and fake policeman used a dog — which they pretended was a sniffer dog — to inspect the luggage before it was loaded onto the aircraft.
“Although this was not a particularly sophisticated smuggling attempt, it clearly had significant financial backing,” said Truby from the UK's NCA. “The loss of profit that would have been made from this seizure will be a huge hit to the wider criminal networks involved.”
The Africa Route
Smugglers looking to move aircraft to Europe often fly drugs via Africa. Business aircraft, as well as old commercial aircraft are flown between Latin America or the Caribbean and west Africa. There has even been one case of drug smugglers trying to hijack a business jet and force the pilots to fly to west Africa (see next story).
The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction highlights this route as a key one for general and corporate aircraft.
Once in west Africa, the traffickers use an elaborate network of convoys which move the cocaine overland or by air into Europe. It also says that general aviation aircraft are used to fly cocaine from South Africa to north Africa.
Preparing for problems
Drug cartels are evil and nasty, but also increasingly sophisticated organisations.
Law enforcement agencies realise that many innocent people can inadvertently be caught up in operations.
“To be convicted of a crime, there has to be intent. If owners have no knowledge of or intent to provide their charters for drug smuggling purposes, they will not face legal action,” says a spokeswoman for the DEA.
“However, agents frequently encounter people who are purposely 'turning a blind eye' to drug trafficking and claiming to be innocent, when the evidence shows there is knowledge and intent, and most of all, profit. Law enforcement will thoroughly investigate any drug smuggling operation.”
There is always the risk that an unsuspecting owner could lose the use of their plane temporarily while investigations are underway.
“In the US, it’s a two-step process. The Marshall who seizes the aircraft has to put it on the Customs auction, to be sold. There is a hearing, where you can try and prove that you’re innocent. But the owners have to do their due diligence in order to be proven innocent. You have to fight. And in those cases, you get your aircraft back,” says David Hernandez, a shareholder at Vedder Price in Washington DC.
Charter operators and brokers are advised to check identities and be suspicious of people paying in cash. “Traffickers will often attempt to avoid or evade providing authentic identification, and will insist on paying for the charter in cash,” says the DEA spokeswoman. “A common trend is the use of fake identification to avoid leaving a paper trail that reveals their true identity.”
The same is true if you are selling aircraft. If you are receiving cardboard boxes full of cash in the local McDonalds, something is not right.