Business jets are on the radar of European authorities after the dismantling of a ring that used private aircraft to smuggle cocaine from Brazil to Portugal.
Eight planes held by companies operating illegally in Brazil were seized in an April 12 police operation to dismantle the smuggling ring, which came to light after seizures on two private aircraft, Brazilian news outlet O Globo reported.
Federal police agents in February seized half a ton of cocaine concealed on a jet at Brazil’s Salvador International Airport that was destined for Portugal. Mechanics discovered the cocaine -- marked with sports logos – after the pilot radioed the tower about technical issues. The jet belonged to a charter company, according to Portugal’s Correio da Manhã.
Earlier, in October 2020, authorities at Lisbon International Airport discovered 175 kilograms of cocaine on a private business jet that had departed from the Brazilian city of Belo Horizonte. Three people were arrested, according to the O Globo report.
A police source told news agency Lusa that both Portuguese and Brazilian authorities had been alerted to potential cocaine trafficking between the two countries via private jets amid the pandemic due to a decrease in commercial flights, Portugal news outlet Espresso reported.
InSight Crime Analysis
With European port agents on high alert for cocaine in maritime cargo and ongoing restrictions for commercial air travel, tried-and-true smuggling methods to Europe from Brazil have been disrupted since the start of the pandemic. But the private-plane cocaine smuggling scheme shows that traffickers have found alternative ways to reach Europe’s lucrative markets.
Over the past five years, Brazil has become a main transit point for South American cocaine destined for Europe. Portugal, meanwhile, has long been a key gateway for cocaine bound for other countries in the region.
Traditionally, drug smuggling between the two nations has been facilitated by their large port infrastructures. However, an increase in major seizures of cocaine concealed in maritime cargo coming into Europe’s main ports has led organized criminal groups to explore other methods.
Private planes, despite their costs, have become attractive in transatlantic drug smuggling. In January 2018, authorities at a London airport seized 15 cocaine-loaded suitcases and arrested five passengers from a private jet that had departed from Bogotá. In 2019, a member of the Brazilian air force smuggled nearly 40 kilograms of cocaine on a military plane traveling to Seville, Spain.
West Africa also has served as a transit point for jets carrying South American cocaine to Europe. In 2009, a Boeing 727, which could have been carrying as much as 10 tons of cocaine, crashed in the desert in Mali. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) went on to warn about transatlantic drug flights to the region.
Small jets have carried cocaine to the United States since the 1970s, and they remain popular smuggling vehicles across the region. The use of private jets in drug flights to Central America and Mexico has soared recently. Last year, Guatemalan police secured at least 15 jets, which travel faster than the light propeller planes typically used in drug flights and can carry more cocaine.
Private jets have also flown cocaine and drug cash across the United States, taking advantage of smaller airports with fewer security resources. A California businessman pleaded guilt in 2017 to using private jets to traffic billions of dollars’ worth of drugs on behalf of Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel.
Besides having less security in general, airports that service private jets also avoid interfering with their wealthy clientele, making them ideal for traffickers.
Jets, though, are costly smuggling vehicles, often requiring the complicity of pilots. In the recent scheme in Brazil, officials say that multiple partners and plane operators were likely involved.