A heist of Brazilian planes that were later discovered in Bolivia has offered a unique look into how drug planes are procured in the region.
In early September, three planes were stolen from the Aquidauana Aeroclube in Mato Grasso do Sul, Brazil. Authorities currently investigating the aircraft theft believe the planes are now located in Bolivia.
The heist, led by Laudelino Ferreira Vieira, alias “Lino,” involved at least 15 individuals who were reported to have given up their lookout and thrown fuel at local guards during their escape. This is not the first involvement for Lino, as he was previously arrested with a plane in Bolivia in 2004 – but later released.
A pilot identified as a retired Brazilian policeman with ties to the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC) was also arrested and his helicopter seized in Beni, Bolivia. According to El Deber, he was said to be flying approximately six flights a month, loading between 450 and 300 kilograms of cocaine on each flight to the border with Brazil.
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Two more helicopters used to carry cocaine from Bolivia to Brazil were also confiscated and runways destroyed by security forces in Beni. According to the Bolivian Interior Minister, these helicopters were used by drug traffickers to transport cocaine that arrives in small planes from the Valle de los Ríos Apurímac, Ene y Mantaro (VRAEM) area in Peru to Brazil.
Yet, prior thefts suggest that these incidents are far from new.
InSight Crime Analysis
While the increase in drug flights across Latin America has been widely documented, less is known about how these aircraft are procured or the pilots who fly them.
Recent investigations have highlighted the increase in the theft of private airplanes across the region.
Colombia, Argentina and Bolivia are just some countries to have reported a high number of planes reported stolen every year. Last September, a business jet stolen from Mexico crashed into the jungle in Guatemala with a shipment of cocaine on board, killing two people. Paraguay has also been identified as a major supplier of drug planes as traffickers are able to purchase cheap planes which do not meet standard safety regulations.
This is likely just the tip of the iceberg. Guatemala alone seized over 50 aircraft for carrying drugs in 2019.
And in Brazil, one operation in April 2021 seized seven aircraft with a combined resale value of 50 million reais ($8.1 million).
As for the pilots, many are repeat offenders – such as a man arrested in Goiás, Brazil, over a year ago who was detained months later piloting another drug flight.
Others are provided with false documentation, allowing them to travel internationally without being flagged, as happened with two Bolivian pilots who traveled to Panama before being arrested in Mexico onboard a drug flight in February 2020.