Latin America security forces fight drug smuggling on commercial flights by ‘El Chapo’
By Dialogo January 21, 2014
Security forces in Peru and Mexico are battling an international drug trafficking ring that allegedly transported cocaine from Lima to Mexico City by secretly placing drugs inside the luggage of unsuspecting travelers, authorities said.
The drug trafficking ring has been smuggling cocaine from the airport in Lima, Peru to Benito Juarez International Airport in Mexico City, officials said.
Peruvian authorities are investigating how the drug traffickers are placing cocaine inside the luggage of unsuspecting passengers at the airport in Lima. The case is also being investigated by the Assistant Prosecutor’s Office for Organized Crime Investigations (SEIDO) within the Attorney General’s office (PGR), in cooperation with Peruvian authorities.
A longtime drug trafficking tactic
Organized crime groups in Latin America have hidden drugs in the luggage of unsuspecting travelers for years, said Eruviel Tirado, a security analyst at the Iberoamericana University (UIA) in Mexico City.
“This approach of transporting cocaine inside the luggage of innocent airline patrons is a recurring tactic for drug traffickers,” Tirado said. “It has been a while since we have seen this tactic used. If the drug traffickers are using this method to transport cocaine, it is obviously because the authorities have been successful in shutting down other drug trafficking methods.”
Latin American security forces must remain vigilant
Organized crime operatives pay off one or a handful of airport employees to sneak drugs into the luggage of unsuspecting travelers, Tirado said. Security forces at the airport must remain vigilant about checking the luggage of passengers, the security analyst said.
The discovery of packages of cocaine inside the luggage of an innocent traveler is not a big loss to a transnational criminal organization, such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) or the Sinaloa Cartel. But such a discovery can devastate the life of an innocent traveler who is suddenly under suspicion of drug trafficking. “The traveler can be accused of drug trafficking and face severe penalties,” Tirado said.
An innocent person may even spend time in jail while authorities investigate the source of the cocaine, Tirado said.
A trip to Argentina
That is what happened to Eduardo de la Torre Carbajal, an accountant who lives in Mexico City.
He is one of the alleged vi victims of the drug trafficking ring. Mexican security forces detained him at Benito Juarez International Airport on Nov. 2, 2013, after authorities allegedly found 27 kilos of cocaine base inside one of his suitcases.
The Mexican accountant did not anticipate any difficulties when he and his girlfriend flew to Argentina on Oct. 25, 2013, for a vacation.
A vacation turns into a nightmare
The couple returned to Mexico City on Nov. 2, on Chilean airline LAN. The flight had a layover in Lima before continuing to Mexico City.
The accountant and his girlfriend arrived at the Mexico City International Airport on Nov. 2, the day his nightmare began.
After disembarking from the plane, de la Torre Carbajal went to the luggage retrieval carousel, but his suitcases did not appear on the conveyer belt.
De la Torre Carbajal asked an airport official about his luggage. The official told him to go to the Customs section to claim his luggage. He went to the Customs office, and things went bad from there, he said.
“They took me to a prosecutor’s office, where I signed an authorization for them to open my suitcases. In one of the suitcases bearing a tag that appeared to be mine, the federal agents found more than 24 kilos of cocaine,” de la Torre Carbajal said.
Anger, fear, and an arrest
At first, he reacted angrily, de la Torre Carbajal said. Then he became afraid, because he was not sure what was happening, and he knew that drug trafficking carries strong penalties.
The accountant explained to security agents that someone must have placed the cocaine inside his suitcase, he said in an interview.
After Customs agents had completed their search of his suitcases, Federal Police (PF) agents arrested him, de la Torre Carbajal said. The PF agents were professional, he said.
“The Federal Police were the ones who told me (I was under arrest),” de la Torre Carbajal said. “They read me my rights and they turned me over to the federal prosecutor. They really did treat me very nicely and calmly.”
After spending 36 hours in detention and making a statement to a federal prosecutor, a judge released de la Torre on his own recognizance. The case remains under investigation.
Travelers should be wary about the possibility of organized crime operatives hidng drugs in their luggage, de la Torre Carbajal said.
Did drug traffickers hide cocaine inside the suitcase of a teacher?
In July 2013, three months before security agents found cocaine inside one of de la Torre Carbajal’s suitcase, authorities at the airport found drugs inside the luggage of a preschool teacher.
The teacher, Ángel de María Soto Zárate, from Veracruz state, traveled to Brazil to attend the World Youth Day celebrations from July 23-28, 2013.
Soto Zárate’s return flight, in late July had a layover in Lima. At the Mexico City airport, the schoolteacher went to the luggage carousel to claim her suitcases. But they did not appear.
A group of PF agents asked Soto Zárate, 23, to accompany them. The security agents took her to a room, where they opened one of the suitcases to show her that it contained 10 kilos of cocaine.
Authorities charged the young schoolteacher with drug trafficking and briefly incarcerated. Thanks to an investigation by the PF and the efforts of her defense attorneys, authorities cleared Soto Zárate of any involvement in drug trafficking. Prosecutors dropped the charges, and the schoolteacher was released from jail.
The Andean region is a major producer of cocaine
For decades, drug traffickers have devised ways to transport cocaine from the Andean region, which includes Peru, Colombia, and Bolivia, to Mexico and the United States.
Peru is the primary producer of coca leaf – the raw material needed to produce cocaine – in the region, according to Ricardo Soberón Garrido, director of the Drugs and Human Rights Research Center in Peru (CIDDH).
“We have identified 59,000 hectares where coca leaf is currently being produced. This could potentially translate to the production of up to 300 metric tons of cocaine hydrochloride,” Soberón Garrido said.
Cocaine shipment routes
Drug traffickers rely heavily on three major routes for transporting cocaine out of the Andes: By sea and air to Mexico, from where the drugs are transported to the United States; through Colombia and the Caribbean Sea, where the cocaine is usually transported by boat or airplane to the U.S.; and through Brazil, where the drugs are typically transported on boats and planes Europe and West Africa, according to Soberón.
Transnational criminal organizations, such as the Sinaloa Cartel, which is led by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, use maritime routes with fishing vessels more than air routes with planes, Soberón Garrido said.
“The maritime route remains the primary method of transporting large shipments of cocaine. The airports are more of a way for the criminal organizations to spread shipments out and cause distractions,” Soberón Garrido said. Julieta Pelcastre contributed to this article