South American gangs buy jets for drug flights to Africa
NEW YORK — U.S. prosecutors in a series of court cases say they are beginning to unravel the latest innovation in drug smuggling: South American gangs buy old jets and other planes, fill them with cocaine and fly them more than 3,000 miles across the ocean to Africa.
At least three gangs have struck deals to fly drugs to West Africa and from there to Europe, according to U.S. indictments.
“The sky’s the limit,” one Sierra Leone trafficker boasted to a Drug Enforcement Administration informant, according to court documents.
Most of the cocaine flown to Africa is bound for Europe, where demand has been rising during the past decade. South American gangs are turning to airplanes because European navies have been intercepting more boat shipments along the African coast, trafficking experts say.
The U.N. agency began warning about trans-Atlantic drug planes after Nov. 2, 2009, when a burned Boeing 727 was found in the desert in Mali. Drug smugglers had flown the jet from Venezuela, unloaded it and then torched it, investigators said.
The cases are being prosecuted in a New York federal court because some of the cocaine was supposed to have been sent to the United States.
“The quantity of cocaine distributed and the means employed to distribute it were extraordinary,” prosecutors wrote in one case.
The traffickers are able to fly large planes across the ocean undetected because most of the Atlantic is out of the range of radar, said Scott Decker, a criminology professor at Arizona State University who studies smuggling methods. Even commercial airliners crossing the ocean must periodically update air traffic controllers about their positions because they do not appear on radar screens.
“Going that way, especially from South America, really gets you outside the majority of the security envelope for air traffic,” Decker said.