In July 2020, British drug trafficker Robert Dawes was sentenced to 22 years in prison for his role in one of the most emblematic European drug trafficking cases of the last decade: the attempt to smuggle almost 1.4 tons of cocaine on an Air France flight from Caracas to Paris.
There is only one way to import 1.4 tons of cocaine using a commercial airline – high-level and widespread corruption.
In Venezuela, it not only involved corrupt airport workers and National Guard but also top-ranking state officials. According to a US indictment, among them were President Nicolás Maduro, along with Hugo Carvajal and Diosdado Cabello, two of the most powerful members in the current administration.
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In France, it involved a French trafficker turned informant, whose police handler currently stands accused of helping him use his law enforcement cooperation as a front for trafficking drugs.
And at the center of it all was Dawes, a transnational, poly-drug trafficker with contacts in high places and corrupt port officials in his pocket all around the world, according to Rob Hickinbottom, who led the investigation by the UK National Crime Agency (NCA) into Dawes.
The case exposed how the key to cocaine trafficking today is less the extreme violence with which the trade has become synonymous but rather corruption. And it showed the cancerous effects of the cocaine trade, which corrupts states wherever it spreads, eroding capacity and in the more extreme cases — democracy.
With trafficking to Europe booming, the cocaine trade is now spreading the cancer of corruption farther, and quicker, than ever on before – on both sides of the Atlantic.
Plomo o Plata
Drug traffickers have two main weapons at their disposal, captured in Pablo Escobar’s infamous offer to those whose cooperation he sought: “plomo o plata” – silver or lead.
Since Escobar’s time, it is plomo that has been most connected to the cocaine trade: from the Medellin Cartel blowing up airliners to Mexican cartels hanging bodies from bridges or tossing severed heads onto dancefloors.
Europe has not had to endure the same levels of bloodshed as Latin America, but it too has seen extreme violence resulting from the cocaine trade.
The cocaine trade is to blame for rising gun crime in Britain, according to Hickinbottom, who now heads the UK’s National Firearms Targeting Centre. “Our firearms cases and firearms seizures are 99 percent linked to the drugs war,” he said. Police sources in Spain, paint a similar picture, blaming drug trade disputes for the bulk of the country’s murders.
Even the Netherlands, which has one of the lowest homicide rates in Europe, has seen a severed head left as a narco-message, and innocent bystanders gunned down in drug war disputes. A family member and lawyer of a witness in a major cocaine trafficking case were murdered. The latest discovery, in July 2020, was of an “underworld prison” with multiple cells and a torture room that was set up by a cocaine trafficking group.
However, while today’s drug traffickers remain more than willing to use extreme violence, they also understand that this is what led to the downfall of many of their predecessors. Violence, particularly extreme violence, creates headlines and draws the attention of authorities. Instead, plata is the weapon of choice today for transnational organized crime.
Corruption from drug trafficking penetrates the state at all levels, from police patrolmen to presidents. And it targets all branches of the state: the judicial, legislative, executive and the security forces. It has put justice up for sale in many Latin American countries, and seen police and military not only facilitate, but participate in, drug trafficking and even murder. And it has placed certain governments at the service of organized crime, at local and even national levels.
Air France and the Cocaine Cancer
The Air France case shines a light on perhaps the starkest example of the corrosive power of cocaine trade corruption – Venezuela. When Robert Dawes was planning a major cocaine shipment in 2013, he turned to a trafficking network formed from within the state itself: the Cartel of the Suns.
The Cartel of the Suns is a loose knit network of trafficking cells embedded in the upper reaches of the Venezuelan security forces and government.
The involvement of Venezuelan security forces in the cocaine trade dates back as far back as the early 1990s. But it was the convergence of Hugo Chávez coming to power with a boom in trafficking through Venezuela to Europe that would shape the fate of the country.
“This was a process that did not happen overnight, but gradually,” Mildred Camero, a former director of Venezuela’s National Commission Against Illicit Drug Use (CONACUID) in the Chávez administration told InSight Crime. “It developed more with the arrival of Chávez as he allowed the military to get involved in drug trafficking in exchange for its loyalty.”
For Chávez, “it was a strategic decision,” to turn a blind eye to cocaine trafficking, added Camero, who describes how she was removed from her position after reporting to Chávez that his generals were involved in trafficking cocaine.
Chávez’s tolerance of cocaine trafficking secured the loyalty of the corrupt security forces leadership, a priority for the president after the 2002 attempted coup against him. It also helped support another ally: the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC).
Chávez supported the FARC out of ideological sympathy and as a bulwark against his geo-political enemies, Colombia and the United States. And the FARC were heavily involved in the cocaine trade all along the Venezuela-Colombia border.
Chávez could not, or would not, contain the corruption he had permitted. The Guardia Nacional Bolivariana (Bolivarian National Guard – GNB) and other branches of Venezuela’s military went from allowing trafficking to purchasing, storing, transporting and selling cocaine, which they sourced directly from the FARC.
“They sold weapons for drugs, it was an exchange,” said Camero. “Many FARC weapons had the insignias of the Venezuelan Bolivarian Republic.”
By the time Chávez died in March 2013, the cocaine cancer had fully metastasized, eating away at the legitimacy of his “Bolivarian Revolution.” The cabal of Chavista leaders that replaced him included numerous military and political leaders now accused of drug trafficking. Among them is not only Chávez’s hand-picked successor, Nicolas Maduro, but also government ministers, regional governors, and senior security and intelligence officials.
It was shortly after Chávez’s death when Robert Dawes dispatched his emissaries to meet with a British national known as “Charlie Brown,” who was his upstream connection with the Cartel of the Suns network, according to NCA investigations. Together, they made the arrangements for the Air France shipment.
Months later, on September 10, over 30 suitcases filled with cocaine arrived at Caracas’ Simón Bolívar International Airport of Maiquetía. The suitcases were brought in through a worker’s entrance to avoid scanners and baggage checks. They had stickers with counterfeit barcodes that were accepted by the Air France luggage system despite not belonging to any travelers.
Reception of the cocaine in France was then to be handled by one of France’s biggest marijuana traffickers, the incarcerated Sofiane Hambli, according to the testimony of Hambli himself.
However, unknown to Dawes and his Venezuelan partners, the operation was compromised. British undercover operatives in Venezuela had warned the French of an impending shipment using an Air France flight, and the French had set up a controlled handover operation, according to sources familiar with the investigation. Hambli was a collaborator with a French police unit, the Central Office for the Suppression of Illicit Drug Trafficking (Office Central pour la Répression du Trafic Illicite des Stupéfiants – OCTRIS).
The seizure made international headlines, and Venezuela came under pressure to respond. Authorities initially made 27 arrests, including airport workers, low ranking members of the GNB, which is responsible for security at Venezuela’s airports, and Ernesto Mora Carvajal, the GNB lieutenant colonel – and Hugo Carvajal’s nephew – who headed the airport’s security. Seven airport workers and three GNB officials later received sentences of between 10 and 22 years in prison. Mora Carvajal, however, was quickly declared innocent and released.
There was little doubt that the true masterminds were to be found much higher up. And in 2020, the US Department of Justice accused President Maduro, Hugo Carvajal and Diosdado Cabello of involvement in the case. Among the evidence were communications intercepts in which Maduro told Carvajal and Cabello shortly after the seizure that “they should not have used Maiquetia Airport for drug trafficking,” and should stick to established trafficking routes.
European Cocaine Profits Corrupt Latin America States
Venezuela is not the only example of a nation suffering corruption due to cocaine trafficking routes to Europe. The former Dutch colony of Suriname, was long ruled by Desi Bouterse, first as a dictator and then as an elected president. He allegedly had contact with Pablo Escobar and did arms-for-drugs deals with the FARC in the 1990s. In 1999, Bouterse was convicted in absentia as the mastermind behind a shipment of cocaine to the Netherlands.
“It is clear that there are links between the state and the underworld in Suriname,” former Surinamese diplomat and political analyst Martin Schalkwijk told InSight Crime.
Since then, cocaine routes to Europe have expanded around the region and so has the corruption.
Ecuador, and especially the port of Guayaquil, is now one of the main dispatch points to Europe. Here, drug trafficking allegations have reached the highest levels of the state. In the previous administration of Rafael Correa, there were narco-scandals involving government ministers, presidential allies and even the president himself.
Underworld sources in Ecuador, who spoke on condition of anonymity, described to InSight Crime how police, armed forces, judges, prosecutors, public registrars, mayors, governors and even figures in the national government are all on the payroll of cocaine traffickers.
“If you’re not corrupt, then they will corrupt you,” said one, who has first-hand knowledge of drug trafficking in the Colombia border region.
Another major dispatch point to Europe to emerge over the last decade is the Dominican Republic, a long time transit route to the United States. Once again, the increase in trafficking through the country has deepened already high levels of corruption.
“In the Dominican Republic, decades of corruption have made politics a partner of drug trafficking, and today this has reached exorbitant levels,” said Carlos de Peña, an investigator with the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales – FLACSO) in the Dominican Republic.
Drug trafficking coopts politicians beginning at the local level, where sources say candidates for municipal elections are routinely bankrolled by traffickers. And their influence rises to the national level, where President Danilo Medina has faced scrutiny over his alleged links to the wife of one of the island’s most notorious cocaine traffickers, César Emilio Peralta, alias “el Abusador.”
Factions of the Dominican security forces, meanwhile, have crossed the line from corruption to criminal actors, participating in everything from murder-for-hire to international drug trafficking, according to Dominican prosecutors. The former director of the country’s anti-narcotics police was even convicted of stealing nearly a ton of cocaine.
Air France: The Twist in the Tale
Today, few Latin America and the Caribbean countries have escaped corruption associated with cocaine trafficking. But while such top level corruption seems unthinkable in Europe, further twists in the Air France case show how Europe is far from immune to the cocaine cancer.
The story of the seizure presented by the head of OCTRIS, Francois Thierry, was that a corrupted luggage handler at the airport in Paris was supposed to get the drugs through the airport but switched sides and told a police informant of the operation.
Sofiane Hambli, though, claimed in a court hearing he had organized the operation to remove the drugs from the airport from his prison cell in coordination with the police, as French magazine Libération reported in 2018.
Hambli’s claims to have organized the handover are also supported by a confidential letter from Thierry to the Attorney General signed on October 28, 2015, and seen by InSight Crime. In the letter, Thierry praises Hambli for his work, including for the seizure of 1.4 tons of cocaine.
Hambli’s cooperation with law enforcement earned him an early release from prison. However, there is evidence to suggest it may have also earned him and Thierry – at that time one of France’s top anti-narcotics police – a lot more.
In 2016, an investigation by Libération uncovered how Hambli and Thierry’s partnership was littered with examples of suspicious behavior. There were unauthorized operations and loads of drugs arriving then disappearing. A later Libération investigation recorded how Customs officials noted Thierry picking up 50-kilogram suitcases from the airport on a weekly basis for several months in 2010. Thierry claimed the suitcases were fake shipments from Bogotá that he was passing through to give credibility to an informant, but prosecutors could find no records of the operations in either France or Colombia. And Thierry’s then-girlfriend acted as Hambli’s lawyer even though her expertise is not in criminal but real estate law.
“The only certainty: Sofiane H. would go onto establish himself as the biggest trafficker in France thanks to the protection of François Thierry,” Libération concluded after reviewing case files and official documents and interviewing several key actors in the drama.
Thierry attempted to sue Libération for libel over the story but the case was thrown out. A year later, Thierry was indicted for criminal association. Two years after that he was indicted again for complicity in drug trafficking.
The cases remain under investigation, while Thierry remains an official of the Interior Ministry, Emmanual Fansten, the Libération journalist who broke the case, told InSight Crime. Hambli was rearrested in 2016 but then released after a two-year pretrial detention, according to Fansten.
The Corruption Cancer in Europe
Like the Cartel of the Suns, the story of Thierry – a top European anti-narcotics official accused of helping to traffic drugs – is an extreme case. But in Europe as in Latin America, it is still just one part of a much bigger picture.
Corruption in Europe might not be as widespread as in Latin America, but its core elements remain the same: structural and strategically planned. According to Europol, cocaine trafficking-related corruption is on the rise.
The first European mafias to capitalize on large scale cocaine trafficking – the Galicians and the Italian mafia – already worked in spaces where they were able to penetrate and coopt the State. But their participation in the cocaine trade took corruption to new levels.
Armed with cocaine money, the Galicians infiltrated government institutions, the legal economy and politics at an unprecedented level. In the 1990s, the region of Galicia was “in danger of becoming a Spanish Sicily,” Manuel Antonio Couceiro Cachaldora, president of the Galician Foundation against Drug Trafficking (Fundación Galega contra el Narcotrafico) told InSight Crime.
In Italy, cocaine riches have helped organized crime continue to penetrate the state even as anti-corruption measures have broken up old ways of working.
In December 2019, Italian military police arrested more than 300 people on suspicion of membership of the ‘Ndrangheta – the second biggest mafia bust in Italy’s history. Suspects included politicians, lawyers, accountants, a local police chief, and a former member of the Italian parliament within ex-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party.
“The level of infiltration and control [the ‘Ndrangheta] have is worrying and is going to next levels – we’re talking about people who are highly educated, white-collar,” said Alessia Cerantola, an investigative journalist at the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and co-founder of the Investigative Reporting Project Italy (IRPI).
When organized crime from the Balkans moved into the cocaine trade, the region’s already weak and corrupt institutions proved easily corrupted.
As Chief Commissioner Antonio Martínez Duarte, head of the Spanish police’s Central Anti-narcotics Brigade (Brigada Central de Estupefacientes) told InSight Crime, countries like Italy and Spain have more capacity to address corruption today, but similar efforts have yet to develop in Eastern Europe.
“In Eastern Europe there is less administrative control, and possibly less control on corruption,” he said.
There have been numerous cases linking Balkans politicians and police to drug trafficking, especially in Serbia. In 2009, the head of the Serbian police Ivica Dačić faced corruption accusations after he was twice captured on camera meeting with drug lord Rodoljub Radulovic. Dačić was never charged. He managed to survive the scandal, and he is now the Serbian Minister of Foreign Affairs.
Nonetheless, as the Hambli case shows, in most cases the biggest threat of corruption comes at the points where cocaine enters Europe. Here, people on the ground, such as port workers or customs officials, can make the difference between success and a seizure.
In the port of Rotterdam, for example, several customs officers have been arrested for participating in drug trafficking, including one officer who earned millions waving through contaminated containers before he was arrested and sentenced to 14 years in prison in 2017.
Europe’s cocaine corridors are currently evolving and expanding; all of its 20 busiest container ports have seen cocaine seizures of over 100 kilos in the past 3 years. Meanwhile cocaine routes are opening up all around Latin America, from the ports of the Southern Cone countries to the mouth of the Amazon river. Wherever these new routes go, the cancer of corruption follows. The future of the cocaine trade may well lie in the hands of these corruption networks.
*Investigation for this article was conducted by James Bargent, Maria Fernanda Ramírez and Owen Boed.