Cocaine seizures have jumped at the Guarulhos International Airport near São Paulo, Brazil, showing that neither COVID-19 nor international law enforcement cooperation have pushed traffickers away from South America’s busiest air hub.
Brazil’s Federal Police seized 1,250 kilograms of cocaine in the airport between January and mid-May of 2022, according to O Globo, nearly double the amount seized during the same period of 2021. Nearly 350 kilograms were seized in the first half of May 2022 alone, including 250 kilograms in a single shipment, concealed inside a luggage container.
In March, Federal Police intercepted another 200-kilogram shipment headed for Lisbon, Portugal. A month earlier, São Paulo police seized 226 kilograms of cocaine seized from a vehicle heading to Guarulhos, and subsequently arrested several employees of outsourced companies at the airport. Another airport worker was detained while unloading 40 kilograms of cocaine from a truck near the cargo terminal in May.
Cocaine seizures in Guarulhos have increased dramatically over recent years, in a trajectory barely dented by the global COVID-19 pandemic. The airport seized less than 650 kilograms during 2019, then a record year. This dropped only slightly to 518 kilograms during 2020, before surging again in 2021 and 2022. The pattern has continued despite Guarulhos’ participation since 2016 in the International Programme for Police Cooperation in Airports (INTERCOPS) program, which aims to tackle drug trafficking through airports.
Over 95 people have been arrested for drug trafficking in the airport so far during 2022, O Globo reported, including 32 Brazilians, 39 Africans and 13 South Americans, among others.
InSight Crime Analysis
Cocaine seizures in Guarulhos show two main modus operandi for moving cocaine, broadly targeting two different routes.
The first, in which large cocaine shipments are concealed in air cargo with the complicity of airport workers, has often been used to target European cities directly.
The cargo seizures at Guarulhos in 2022 follow a similar pattern to those investigated during a Federal Police operation that culminated in May 2021, which resulted in at least 28 arrests. The targeted network was made up largely of employees of outsourced airport logistics companies, who conspired with traffickers to move cases containing 30 to 200 kilograms of cocaine through inspection areas without being scanned.
The Federal Police stated the network was responsible for moving up to 1.5 tons of cocaine over two years, primarily to European countries such as Portugal and the Netherlands, as well as to South Africa. The group was linked to Brazil’s First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC), according to media outlet UOL, which also controls a large portion of cocaine shipments to Europe through the nearby port of Santos.
A second modus operandi uses drug couriers to transport smaller quantities of cocaine, generally between two and 10 kilograms, in their luggage or on their person, often to destinations in Africa. Federal Police press releases show that most drug trafficking cases in the airport follow this model, which is also reflected in the high number of arrests of African drug couriers.
Cocaine traffickers have long used African countries as a springboard to reach Europe from Brazil, with key routes being Guarulhos’ direct connections to Johannesburg, South Africa and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
In particular, South Africa is growing both as a national cocaine market and as a transit point for cocaine to Europe, Asia and Australia, with an established presence of Brazil’s PCC and Balkan drug traffickers. Addis Ababa is a convenient target for traffickers, as a major air hub with relatively weak controls, but the route may have been affected by Ethiopia’s recent conflict.
Guarulhos' 2022 seizures suggest further diversification of non-European reception points, with numerous drug couriers detained on flights to the Gulf states of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, either as a final stop or in transit to other Asian and African countries. Destinations included Namibia, Kenya, Iraq, Tunisia, Tanzania, Mozambique and the Seychelles.
While Brazilian and European criminal networks likely dominate this traffic, recent cases show that Nigerian groups are also using drug couriers for air trafficking from Brazil.
An additional emerging trend may be the use of Guarulhos as a transport hub for Mexican methamphetamine. During May 2022, Federal Police detained two passengers on flights from Mexico that were carrying between two and five kilograms of methamphetamine. Several similar cases were reported throughout 2021 and early 2022.