Authorities in Buenos Aires arrested 10 members of a binational criminal group that used planes to smuggle marijuana from Paraguay to Argentina, showing the enduring popularity of this method for moving large quantities of drugs.
Buenos Aires police arrested five Paraguayans and five Argentines and seized 500 kilos of marijuana on March 27, reported La Nación. The operation, dubbed "The Lord of the Skies," also resulted in the confiscation of three planes that authorities say were used to smuggle marijuana from the Paraguayan capital of Asunción to a hangar 100 kilometers southeast of Buenos Aires.
The investigation, which lasted almost 18 months and included 6,000 hours of wiretapped surveillance, revealed that one of the group's planes made at least 30 cross-border trips last year. The modus operandi was to first send fumigation planes into the air to check whether it was safe for the drug planes to land, according to authorities.
A judicial source close to the case told La Nación there is no evidence that any of the arrested members of the group had political connections in Argentina. The drug flights didn't arouse suspicion because fumigation planes frequently circled the area where the planes landed, reported ABC Color.
InSight Crime Analysis
The operation's name harkens back to the powerful Mexican narco Amado Carrillo Fuentes, whose "Lord of the Skies" alias referred to his fleet of drug-laden aircraft. The former head of the Juárez Cartel died on the operating table while having plastic surgery in 1997, but his preferred method for trafficking cocaine remains popular across Latin America. Traffickers then and now prefer smuggling large amounts of drugs via plane because the shipments pass through fewer hands than if they were sent by land or sea. This not only cuts out the middleman, it makes the smuggling operation less risky, as it lowers the potential for betrayal.
Efforts to contain drug flights do appear to be working in some countries. Authorities in Honduras and Colombia say they have almost totally eradicated the use of drug planes thanks to increased aerial surveillance.
Not all countries have had this type of success, however. Argentina enacted a controversial policy in January 2016 that authorizes the military to shoot down suspected drug planes, but it doesn't seem to have had much impact. In addition to the recent marijuana smuggling operation, officials said last November that an average of 40 drug planes coming from Bolivia land in Argentina every month.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Argentina
The drug bust in Buenos Aires could also indicate that Paraguay's marijuana trade is becoming increasingly lucrative. An InSight Crime interview with the country's drug czar in 2014 revealed that the trafficking of Paraguayan marijuana could be a billion-dollar a year industry.