Five years after a multimillion-dollar drug shipment was discovered in suitcases at the Russian Embassy in Argentina, a Russian court has convicted four men of trying to smuggle cocaine on a diplomatic aircraft.
On January 20, four years after a foiled plot to traffic 12 suitcases filled with close to 400 kilograms of cocaine out of the Russian Embassy school in Buenos Aires, a district court in Russia sentenced the alleged mastermind of the operation, Andréi Kovalchuk, also referred to as “Mr. K,” to 18 years in prison. Kovalchuk, a former technical worker at the Russian Embassy in Argentina, initially remained at large but was arrested in Germany in 2018 and extradited.
The other three men convicted, two businessmen and another former employee of the Russian Embassy in Argentina, were sentenced to between 13 and 17 years in prison. These men claim that Kovalchuk presented himself as an embassy employee and offered them money to work with him. However, Russia’s Foreign Ministry has clarified that neither Kovalchuk nor the other defendants were diplomats.
The Kremlin has also denied the involvement of its fleet in the smuggling operation, despite Argentine authorities releasing images of the Russian aircraft used in the sting operation, which bore the number of Security Council Chief Nikolai Patrushev's plane.
The investigation began in December 2016, when Russia’s then-ambassador to Argentina, Viktor Koronelli, informed Argentina’s former security minister, Patricia Bullrich, of twelve suspicious suitcases at the diplomatic headquarters.
Argentine authorities arrived and discovered the drugs in the suitcases, however, in a ploy to take down the operation, they exchanged the 400 kilograms of cocaine, valued at around $62 million, for the same weight in white flour. The authorities then set up wiretaps and embedded satellite trackers within the suitcases.
In 2018, after several failed attempts, the traffickers finally loaded the suitcases on a diplomatic courier belonging to the Russian Federal Security Service. Two men were arrested in Argentina, including a liaison officer from Buenos Aires' police academy, and three in Moscow, two while attempting to retrieve the suitcases at the airport.
InSight Crime Analysis
The convictions in the white powder ploy case highlight the growing presence of Russian criminals in Latin America and the importance of international cooperation in combating organized crime.
From the onset, the Argentine-Russian cocaine ring appeared to be a rare large-scale plot to move drugs into Europe from Latin America via Russia, which is the reverse of the usual route where drugs land in Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands and make their way east. Russian traffickers have been said to purchase drugs from an Italian mafia that deals with the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC) in Brazil. The case suggested that Russian groups could take on a more active role in the region's criminal landscape.
The case also showcased how coordinated efforts between Russia and Argentina, which spanned five years from the tip-off to conviction, thwarted a criminal plot. International cooperation was critical to dismantling the smuggling ring from the moment the Russian Ambassador contacted Argentina’s Security Minister to inform her of the suspicious suitcases, throughout the two years the authorities monitored the smuggling ring, to the extradition of Kovalchuk, and the final convictions.
Nevertheless, a closer look at the case raises a lot of questions. It remains unclear how Kovalchuk obtained the 400 kilograms of pure cocaine in Argentina and whether he was a Russian spy. There is also room to doubt whether the six individuals involved were able to hide over $60 million worth of cocaine at the Russian Embassy and load it on a diplomatic aircraft without the collusion of senior officials.
Leaked case files obtained by the Daily Beast and the Dossier Center, reportedly evidenced investigative holes and discrepancies, and, at best, a "staggering level of incompetence." The Daily Beast and Dossier Center report cites US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and Argentine Federal Intelligence Agency (Agencia Federal de Inteligencia ) officials who suggest the arrests were intended to deflect suspicion and protect higher-ranking co-conspirators within the Russian government. This would not come as a total surprise, as in Russia, widespread corruption has facilitated organized crime in recent years, both within the country and abroad.