Equipped primarily with old US planes, drug traffickers in Bolivia and Peru have rebuilt the cocaine air bridge that was first popularized during the 1980s and 1990s. Authorities are scrambling to find ways to shut down the revamped air bridge.
During the last seconds of its last flight, a drug plane broke through the tree canopy and crashed in the middle of the forest. When a military helicopter crew was deployed last year on November 23 to look for the wrecked plane, it took them seven hours to reach the crash site trekking through the forest on foot.
Inside the plane’s main body, which had detached from the engine, the search team found the pilot’s body. According to the somewhat unclear reports from the police who conducted the forensic examination of the crash site, the pilot was found simultaneously seated at the controls of the plane and curled up in the fetal position.
Nearby, investigators found polyethylene sacks containing 356.6 kilos of cocaine. It was obvious that the accident had occurred during a return drug flight. Inside the plane and scattered around the crash site were the flight summary materials and the damaged equipment of aerial narcotics traffickers: a satellite telephone, two Garmin GPS devices, two radio transmitters, and two cell phones.
The aircraft was registered as a Bolivian plane under the identification number CP-2890. The destroyed plane was a Cessna U260G, owned by Martin Rapozo Villavicencio. The name might not have meant much to the search team who had to spend the night in the forest before being evacuated via helicopter the following day, but among the relatively small group of police who work on counter-narcotics intelligence operations, the name resonated.
Before being used to fly cocaine across the mountains and rain forests of Peru, the plane registered as CP-2890 hailed from Anchorage, Alaska. Nearing the end of its useful life, the plane was purchased by Rapozo in July 2013 and was subsequently exported to Bolivia. The plane was one of dozens of old American airplanes sold to Bolivian buyers instead of being sent to the scrap yard.
In the 1980s and 1990s, a group of audacious, astute, and radically unscrupulous narcotics traffickers began to produce and process cocaine in Peru, later transporting it to Colombia via an "air bridge" for further refinement and subsequent export to the United States.
Years later, at the beginning of the 21st century, with the big Colombian narcotics traffickers relegated to the scripts of soap operas, a new generation of drug traffickers began to re-establish the cocaine air bridge between the two countries. However, this time it wasn’t the Colombians but rather the Bolivians (for the most part), and they were no longer sending drugs north but rather to the south. The Bolivians put their fleet of patched-up planes into the air and, since at least the end of 2013, have been invading the skies of Peru and expanding the drug trafficking air bridge.
Identifying the Major Players in the Cocaine Air Bridge
Who are these drug traffickers? How did they rebuild the air bridge? How are authorities fighting them? We’ll find out here.
In 2014, the drug flights were concentrated in Peru’s tri-river valley known as the VRAEM, and the number of flights were increasing every day. Trapped by the traditional problems of political impotency, the Peruvian government wanted to tackle the problem but would not dare to do so in the face of US opposition to aerial interdiction. The government decided they would solve the problem on the ground and not in the skies. Authorities began to dynamite clandestine landing strips that were springing up daily and turning parts of the VRAEM -- like Mayapo and Santa Rosa -- into full-service airports for exporting narcotics.
Security forces in Peru were involved in more than 260 operations to destroy landing strips in 2014. Many of these operations failed because traffickers quickly rebuilt the airstrips.
In 2015, there have been between 300 and 400 operations to take out landing strips, according to sources close to anti-narcotics efforts in the VRAEM. Some individual landing strips have reportedly been destroyed as many as 7 or 8 times. These airstrips are dynamited, repaired, dynamited again, repaired again, and so on and so forth. Eventually, with enough resources invested by security forces, some of these runways have been abandoned.
While a significant number of the security forces both within and outside the VRAEM have seen only modest results from their efforts, a relatively small group of specialized police intelligence officials working with a few dedicated prosecutors have begun putting together the most comprehensive information possible on these drug flights, trying to answer some key questions: where are the planes purchased, who makes the purchases, how do they arrive in Bolivia, how do traffickers legally register them, and how do they take off and land in secret?
IDL-Reporteros and Caretas were able to interview prosecutors and members of security forces involved in these efforts, in addition to reviewing the documentation that has been collected so far.
The police work on these issues has been notably effective, most of all because of the organic way that cooperation and information sharing has taken place between agencies and units. While there is little emphasis placed on formal mechanisms of inter-agency coordination, investigators emphasize a form of horizontal exchange among colleagues. Key sources of information utilized in the effort have included: Brazil’s Federal Police, Bolivia's counter-narcotics police force known as the FELCN, the US Drug Enforcement Administration, Paraguay's Anti-Drug Secretariat (SENAD), and, of course, information available on the internet.
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As a result of these efforts, authorities have been able to develop a real-time map of the key protagonists, flights routes, and airplanes being used for aerial drug trafficking.
In 2014, 11 airplanes crashed and an additional seven were detained on the ground by Peruvian authorities. In all 18 instances, the recovered or captured planes revealed a great deal of information. During the first three months of 2015, authorities recovered 6 crashed planes and detained one other on the ground. Surveillance of small planes in the VRAEM has enabled authorities to identify almost 50 drug planes. By cross-referencing identified planes with Bolivian aviation registration data, authorities now know the names of the owners of these planes, the registration numbers they had in the United States, who their previous owners were, how much they were sold for, and to whom. This has lead to revealing and interesting information.
Martin Rapozo Villavicencio, the owner of the small plane CP-2890 that crashed in 2014, has purchased more than 30 planes in the United States, which he has subsequently exported to Bolivia. IDL-Reporteros and Caretas have viewed the registration numbers of Rapozo’s 33 planes, many of which have been spotted flying in the VRAEM and in the Pichis-Palcazu valley.
Many of the planes were registered under obvious shell companies, but some were also registered under his brother’s name, Fernando Rapozo. The Rapozo family name has appeared repeatedly when looking into the backgrounds of spotted, captured, or crashed planes in Peru.
On February 13 of this year, public security forces reportedly discovered the remains of a crashed plane in the forests of Pichari. The serial number on the plane’s engine was still identifiable, and it linked back to a plane purchased by a business in Opa-locka, Florida and exported to “Rapozo Export” in Santa Cruz, Bolivia.
Of the thirty-some planes purchased by Rapozo in the United States (where he has a residence in Tarpon Spring, Florida) and exported to Bolivia, records from security forces show that CP-2859 was captured in July 2014; CP-2721 was captured in 2012, while CP-2812 crashed just three days after CP-2890 in November 2014.
In terms of aerial security, Rapozo and other Bolivian narcotics transporters make the deadliest bus routes of Lima look safe. Almost all of these planes are purchased near the end of their capacity for flying. Every air bridge flight represents profit for the drug traffickers but contempt for the lives of the pilots.
The fact is that Rapozo and other aerial narcotics transporters like the Alvarez Suarez clan have imported full-fledged aerial fleets that have been used to reconstitute the air bridge and greatly intensify narcotics trafficking in the VRAEM during the last two-and-a-half years.
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Peru’s new drug plan shoot-down law could bring about fast results if it is applied intelligently and with the right operational criteria. Very few people who work in the daily fight against narcotics trafficking doubt the law’s necessity. According to Jorge Chavez Cotrina, a coordinating prosecutor for organized crime, “the law is adequate and necessary. It is no secret that small planes carrying drugs are entering the country every day. Neither the Attorney General’s Office nor the police could do anything because there was no mechanism for intercepting the flights. [Now] drug traffickers are going to stop entering our air space […] this has been needed for a long time.”
It is clear that aerial interdiction will be a complex operation that will require significant effort and cooperation between agencies in addition to reasonable and intelligent protocols. It is unlikely that the shoot-down law alone is the tool that will end drug trafficking. But it will allow authorities to better fight the dangers posed by aerial drug trafficking and to take on the mobsters who control it and who have so far gone unpunished.