A foiled attempt to smuggle half a metric ton of cocaine in a private jet from Colombia’s main international airport to the United Kingdom suggests crime groups are becoming bolder in their efforts to offload the South American country’s booming cocaine production.
UK authorities announced last week that they had seized 15 cocaine-loaded suitcases and arrested five European passengers on January 29 at the Farnborough Airport near London. The private jet had departed the previous day from Bogotá’s El Dorado international airport, the largest in Colombia.
The United Kingdom’s Border Force described the shipment, worth around $70 million in the European country, as "one of the largest seizures of its kind" in UK history.
The private flight had raised suspicion due to the declared professions of the passengers, according to the Colombian magazine Semana. Among the five passengers who had supposedly paid for the $300,000 flight were two construction workers, an assistant chef, a hairdresser and an unemployed individual. Three of the suspects had entered Colombia with a tourist visa in November 2017 with the intention of buying cocaine for Italy's ‘Ndrangheta mafia, according to El Espectador.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the seizure sparked an investigation by Colombian authorities into the security failures that allowed the cocaine to take off from Bogotá. Colombian law enforcement is looking into the possibility that an individual disguised as a police officer may have helped load the drugs into the plane while it was in a hangar at El Dorado.
US and Colombian authorities suspect the shipment was overseen by a Colombian criminal structure that has revived the modus operandi of smuggling via private jets, according to Semana. This group is allegedly also behind the 1.2 metric tons of cocaine seized near the French border with Spain in November 2017, as well as the one metric ton aerial shipment seized a year earlier by French authorities in the southwestern city of Bayonne.
InSight Crime Analysis
As levels of cocaine production in Colombia have risen to new records in recent years, more of the drug has been flowing to Europe. And while most cocaine is shipped across the Atlantic via maritime cargo routes, the use of private planes appears to be a growing in popularity among traffickers.
In years past, traffickers preferred to fly drugs into West Africa, where they were shipped on to European markets via land and sea routes. However, recent seizures like the one in the United Kingdom indicate that trafficking groups are now taking greater risks by flying the cocaine straight into Europe, despite significantly stricter security and customs checks.
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The boom in Colombian cocaine production has increased trafficking groups' capacity to absorb losses from seizures, and has thus emboldened them to carry out smuggling schemes that carry high risks, such as sending larger loads of drugs in individual shipments and flying cocaine-filled suitcases on private jets into major European urban centers.
Moreover, the European market has grown in popularity for Colombian traffickers, in part due to the dominance of Mexican groups in supplying cocaine to the United States, the world's largest market for the drug.