Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel has been linked to a scheme that used unwitting airline passengers to transport drugs, highlighting the perennial challenge of preventing organized crime groups from using Latin America's airports.
The Sinaloa Cartel, headed by fugitive drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, has been implicated in a plot to smuggle cocaine into Mexico from Peru's Jorge Chavez International Airport -- located in the capital city Lima -- under the names of unsuspecting airline passengers, reported El Universal.
The so-called "Narcoviajes," or "Narco Flights," scheme involved corrupt Jorge Chavez airport personnel swapping passengers' legitimate luggage for baggage containing up to 25 kilos of cocaine. Once the drugs were en route, traffickers would alert their counterparts in Mexico, who would retrieve the packages upon the plane's arrival. (See graphic below) Authorities believe three to five pieces of luggage containing drugs left Jorge Chavez airport every week in 2014.
Narcoviajes: El Universal's step-by-step breakdown
The scandal came to light when authorities in Mexico apprehended a Mexican citizen returning from Peru with luggage containing 13 kilos of cocaine. Although registered in his name, the man claimed the bag was not his. Further investigation implicated three Peruvian customs officers with links to Sinaloa operatives, according to El Universal.
The scandal's aftermath has led to the suspension of the entire customs police force at Jorge Chavez airport. Peru's congress also plans to examine legislation allowing authorities regular access to the restricted area where baggage was allegedly swapped, reported El Comercio.
Mexico's Attorney General's Office (PGR) is now coordinating with authorities in Peru, Argentina, Colombia, and Brazil to investigate similar airport smuggling schemes.
InSight Crime Analysis
Despite their increased security, airports appeal to drug traffickers for several reasons. One is that they offer quick, direct routes to destinations, which cuts out the middlemen involved in land smuggling. Additionally, airport security itself serves as a layer of protection from overt attacks by competitors. Given such advantages, airports in Latin America have consistently been used by criminal group's for their smuggling purposes, and shoring up airport security in the region has proven difficult.
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Indeed, the "Narcoviajes" scandal is the latest in a series of airport scandals. In 2012, two Mexican Federal Police officers shot and killed three of their colleagues at Mexico City's International Airport (AICM) after they were confronted about possible drug smuggling. In Venezuela, members of the National Guard have been implicated in smuggling large quantities of cocaine to Europe on commercial flights. Criminals have also been known to use Central American airports to transport drugs, typically with the help of corrupt airport staff.
In this most recent scandal, the supposed involvement of the Sinaloa Cartel is unsurprising. The organization allegedly gained control of the AICM -- a lucrative smuggling and transportation hub -- following the demise of their rival the Beltran Leyva Organization, putting it in an excellent position to control smuggling through Mexico's airports.